Charlemagne & the Paladins is another in the generally excellent MYTHS AND LEGENDS series from Osprey Publishing, this one written by Julia Cresswell and illustrated by Miguel Coimbra. Charlemagne displays the usual strengths of the series: a nicely condensed version of the story, informative sidebars, an easy to read style, and a good collection of complementary artwork.
The introduction begins by describing the wide geographic and cultural reach of stories about Charlemagne and his paladins, gives a bit of historical detail about the real-life emperor and his heirs, describes the process of “mythistory,” “where fact and fiction feed into each other,” and final explains how most of the text will be made up of the French tales.
More detail on both the historical and fictional Charlemagne follows, listing some important texts, summarizing a few key tales, and describing his interactions (fictional and real) with the Muslim world. A cast list of the paladins and their companions follows, each with a brief description.
The bulk of the book is, as one would expect, a retelling of the Song of Roland. The original is a lengthy work, to say the least, and so we aren’t going to get, nor should we expect, every detail, but as is typical of this series, Cresswell does a nice job of condensing the original, for the most part managing to avoid the sort of “then he killed then he killed then he killed” summary that can bedevil condensations of big battle epics. Nor does she shy from some of the more unsavory aspects of the tale (rumored incest, rape, etc.). Here is a brief excerpt toward the end of the battle:
Then Oliver returned to the fray, striking out wherever he could. As he did this, he called for Roland to come to his aid. Roland rode up and saw his friend pale from loss of blood. In fact, Oliver had lost so much blood that he could no longer see clearly, and in his battle fury, he struck out at Roland. Humbly and gently, Roland asked if he meant to attack him. Oliver begged forgiveness. He knew who he was now that he could hear him . . . the two friends, reconciled, embraced. The Oliver, now blind and deaf, dismounted, knelt, and prayed for God’s blessing on Charlemagne, France, and most of all, Roland. Then his heart broke and his helmeted head bowed in death. Roland slumped in the saddle, mourning his dear friend’s death.
After the “Song of Roland,” the next few short chapters summarize or retell some of the paladin tales, including how Roland and Oliver met, battles against giants, sieges, and conversions of fair Saracen maidens who fall for goodly Western knights. These tales are followed by a shift to the Italian versions of the stories, which involved a lot more romance and fantasy, and a necessarily brief outline of several well-known tales: Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso. From there, Cresswell moves on to a summary, with several well-selected excerpts, of Browning’s long poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came and its influence on later storytellers, including Stephen King. Finally, the main part of the text closes with a return to “mythhistory”, explaining what is known about Charlemagne’s death and burial as well as what stories are later told about each, including that like King Arthur, he merely sleeps to rise again.
As is always the case with MYTHS AND LEGENDS titles, a series of sidebars are dotted throughout the text to fill in some context, though I’d say there are fewer in Charlemagne than in some of the other texts. In this case, some of what is covered includes the historical basis of some of the tales and/or characters, an explanation of the term “Saracen,” and a look at the name of Roland’s sword. The artwork, a mix of historical works and original illustrations, is excellent throughout, with Coimbra lending his drawings a strong mix of color and vibrant action.
I think I’ve only come across one weak entry in this entire series, with all the other titles ranging from good to very good to excellent. I’d place Charlemagne & the Paladins in the upper tier, somewhere between very good and excellent.