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The Song of Roland (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 25 Jan 1990

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; First Thus edition (25 Jan. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140445323
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140445329
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.3 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 174,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

About the Author

Glyn Burgess teaches at the University of Liverpool. He is an expert on early medieval French literature, and has translated and written widely on this area.

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Customer Reviews

2.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 4 Oct. 2000
Format: Paperback
I am studying the famous French King Charlemagne, and was directed to this poem which I enjoyed a great deal. It requires quite a lot of concentration, but once you are into it it is quite absorbing and has enough gory battle scenes, political wranglings and double-crossings to keep you quite happy throughout. The only downside is that the real event which inspired this poem did not happen at all like the book tells us it did. Still, that doesn't really matter - it's still an enjoyable glimpse at those famous knights in shining armour.
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5 of 11 people found the following review helpful By ravenswood on 15 Feb. 2012
Format: Paperback
I came across the first lines of this translation in Norman Davies's 'Vanished KIngdoms' (2011), p.162. To my amazement there were three serious errors of translation in the first stanza alone. I'm familiar with Old French from my studies at UCL and have checked out the errors against a dual-language French/Old French version published by the great French medievalist Joseph Bedier. I am shocked that Penguin have let this through.
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11 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Higgs Boson on 31 July 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This review is from: The Song of Roland (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Absolutely no flies on the translators, the writing flows smoothly and is very readable, but one can't help feeling pretty quickly that the story itself is a genre of literature that one can still find expressed in the most gaudily coloured books on the shelf in the airport book shop, often with pictures of guns and voluptuous scantily clad women. Simple characters perpetuate dreadful deeds, thoughtless of all save their own prowess and reputation. Cities are sacked, the people put to the sword, but for no expressed purpose other than 'for the sake of it'. Frankly one feels that Roland in particular should be given an ASBO.

He comes across as violent, stupid and thoughtless with little more in his head than the kind of mindless aggression that gives some football fans a bad name, but the consequences are a little worse. And his juvenile pride is such that he refuses to call for help, when finally trapped in the eponymous ravine, even though this entails the entire destruction of the other 20,000 troops with him - because to call for help would dishonour his name! Any concern for his soldiers does not appear to enter his head. He finally relents when only he and a handful of knights are left standing, and is dully chastised for this but, unlike more thoughtful literature, this does not lead to a moment of catharsis on his part. There is just pride and anger! In other words a silly tale about a rampagingly egotistic knight with no self reflection and little understanding of honour beyond victory and defeat. Mixed in is a laughably absurd and racist caricature of the Saracen enemy that demonises and belittles in such a way as to justify their destruction by all well muscled Christans!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 28 reviews
86 of 86 people found the following review helpful
The slaughter and glory of battle 17 April 2004
By Boris Bangemann - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Song of Roland is the most famous of the "chansons de geste" (songs of deeds) of the Middle Ages. It provides a fascinating view into the spirit of warriors of that time and their motivation. The Song of Roland gives an idealized picture, of course, and if we can believe the historians, the medieval knights never lived up to their chivalric ideal.
The Song of Roland is not commonly included in the canon of must-read classics. Except in France, maybe. I assume the reason is that people in our time do not trace back their roots to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, and that they consider the chapter of chivalry closed after Cervantes's satirical portrait of knighthood in "Don Quixote". In one respect, however, this gory tale of slaughter, martyrdom and revenge is very contemporary. It illustrates the mindset of crusaders who see the world in terms of Good and Evil, and the language they use to incite contempt of the other party.
Apart from its historical value, the Song of Roland is also worth reading as literature - as an outstanding example for the heroic epic and as a piece of art whose "simple yet elevated style and tone of high moral purpose" (R. Harrison) is reminiscent of the Old Testament.
The three most easily available translations of the Song of Roland in the market are:
W.S. Merwin's 1963 prose translation with introduction, re-published in paperback by Random House's "Modern Library" in 2001 (ISBN 0375757112). His nine-page introduction is a succinct but sufficient overview of the historical events of AD 778 that became the basis of the Song of Roland. The translation stands out for its readability, and Merwin's choice of modern English makes the descriptions of violence even more direct and graphic: "And Oliver rides through the battle, with his spear shattered to a stump, charges against Malun, a pagan, breaks his gilded shield with the flowers painted on it, knocks the eyes out of his head and brings his brains tumbling down to his feet." (page 43).
Robert Harrison's 1970 translation for Penguin Book's budget line "Mentor Books" (ISBN 0451528573) captures the throbbing, urgent rhythm of the verse form best: "Olivier now gallops through the fray - / his lance has snapped, he only has a stump - / and goes to strike a pagan, Malsaron. / He breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, / bursting both his eyeball from his head - / his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet - " (page 93). "Fleuron-emblazoned" is quite enigmatic compared to Merwin's clear "with the flowers painted on it", but Harrison redeems himself by choosing "bursting" to emphasize the violence of the attack. The big plus of Harrison's book is his 42-page introduction. He explains the logic of medieval chivalry, why cruelty coexisted with sensitivity, and butchery with prayer. One interesting concept is the medieval "ethos of success," or in other words the idea that the outcome justifies the means: When a knight killed another knight it was the will of God that this had happened, no matter by what means. Make the opponent trip and chop off his head - see, God is on your side. Harrison goes to quite some length to introduce the instruments of war, the armor and weapons, which is very helpful since the main body of the Song of Roland is about the glory and slaughter of battle.
Glyn Burgess's 1990 translation for Penguin Classics (ISBN 0140445323) is the most recent translation of the three. He stays closest to the form of the original, which gives his translation a certain wooden inflexibility but also a not entirely unbecoming pathos. His translation of Olivier's attack on Malun is quite telling: "Oliver rides through the thick of the fray; / His lance shaft is broken, only a stump remains. / He goes to strike a pagan, Malun; / He breaks his shield, wrought with gold and flowers, / and smites both his eyes out of his head. / His brains come spilling out over his feet;" (page 72) While the use of "wrought" and "smite" sounds a bit old-fashioned, "spilling" is an excellent choice. Burgess added a 19-page introduction to his translation. It focuses mostly on the literary qualities of the Song of Roland; for the first-time reader of the Song of Roland, Harrison's introduction is more helpful. The additional value of the Penguin Classics edition lies in an Appendix with about one third of the original version of the "Chanson de Roland" - the key passages of the work in Old French.
While all three translations have their pros and cons, I tend to recommend Harrison's book over the two others. It strikes a good balance between the clarity of Merwin's prose translation and the wooden feel of Burgess's more literal verse translation. In addition, it impresses with its useful introduction and its unbeatable value for money.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
By K. Jump - Published on
Format: Paperback
The time: 778 A.D.
The place: Roncesvalles, Spain
Charlemagne's rearguard, commanded by his nephew, the Count Roland, is attacked from all sides by a pagan horde without number. A single note from Oliphant, Roland's horn, will bring Charlemagne's army to the rearguard's rescue. But Roland is a true knight, and will not suffer himself to be rescued. He puts Oliphant away and draws forth the gleaming blade Durendal, and with his own sword-arm leads his soldiers into mortal combat against a foe he cannot hope to conquer. So begins the greatest battle royal in literary history. Roland and his comrades-at-arms fight bravely, enduring blows that would dispatch lesser men while giving their heathen enemies even greater wounds. Swords flail, lances strike, armor splinters, and good and evil play our their eternal game of life & death in strokes of blood and steel. Perhaps politically incorrect by today's standards, "The Song of Roland" nontheless remains immune to criticism, in part because of the crystal clarity with which its author perceived the powers of darkness and light. A poem of unsurpassed heroic grandeur, featuring the most powerful battle scenes ever put to paper, "The Song of Roland" is an immortal monument to chivalry. In the end, Roland dies as only a hero can; his sword-arm fails and Durendal slays its last pagan. Yet Roland lives on in the poet's dream, and heroism will not fade away.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
A horrible defeat becomes a legendary victory 14 Dec. 1999
By Robert - Published on
Format: Paperback
Song of Roland is an epic masterpiece that details the crusading spirit of the 11th and 12th century. Based on the massacre of Charlemagne's rearguard in 778 by Christian Basques in Northern Spain, this Old French poems turns that bloody defeat into a bloody battle of Christianity agains Islam. Although this is propaganda of the highest sort, it is still a piece of art, as Roland embodies the spirit of the Crusades, striking out against impossible odds with his sword Durendal. This is an excellent translation from the Old French, as one will be on the battlefield with Roland and the other paladins of Charlemagne.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Roland, toot that horn! 23 Feb. 2006
By John M. Lemon - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Song of Roland is an epic "song of deeds" from Medieval France. As epic poems go, this is a quick, easy read. It's also lively and pretty fun. The battle scenes are terrific, with lots of shining armor, clashing of steel, spouting blood, cleaved heads, and strewn corpses. On the other hand, it is historically inaccurate and it is nowhere near the towering quality of Homer, Virgil, or Ovid.

The poem comes from a long oral tradition, and it seems that the author tried to capture all of the different variations on the same verse. While reading, this is kind of weird. It's a lot like hearing variations on a popular joke told back-to-back (the same punch line, but slightly different setups). As a result, many verses are highly repetitive. But overall, the poem has some great lines and some very memorable scenes.

As epics go, this is a lesser work. So don't expect a life-changing read. But you can expect to be entertained. So if you enjoy epic poems, I recommend it.

I read the Glyn Burgess translation, which is smooth and very readable. His introduction is informative, too. For an excellent comparison of the different translations that are available, be sure to read the customer review by Boris Bangemann.
Historically important if not great reading 7 April 2014
By Steven Davis - Published on
Format: Paperback
The Song of Roland is an epic poem celebrating the heroic death of Roland, a Frankish knight and nephew of Charlemagne, in a battle against Saracen forces in Spain in 778. The poem is loosely based on historical events, with the scale and importance of the battle being enlarged many-fold until it becomes a titanic and conclusive engagement between the forces of Christianity and Islam.

The poem begins with Charlemagne having campaigned for seven years in Spain, subduing all the country except the city of Saragossa and its king Marsile. Knowing that his forces cannot stand against the Franks, but that his enemy is eager to end the war and return home, Marsile pretends to submit to Charlemagne, giving him gifts and hostages. But Marsile finds an uexpected ally in Charlemagne's camp, the emperor's brother-in-law Ganelon who nurtures a deep hatred for his own stepson, Roland, who is the greatest and most feared of the Frankish knights. Ganelon helps Marsile plan an ambush of the Frankish army's rear guard as it marches back to France, then arranges for Roland to be in command of the rear guard detachment.

The Song of Roland is contemporary with the development of the Arthurian legends, and there are some obvious similarity in the themes of chivalry and the stylized descriptions of knightly combat. The Roland epic, however, bears more resemblance to The Iliad, with its prolonged and gory battle scenes, than the more personal Arthurian Romances. Unfortunately, there are no characters in The Song of Roland who even approach the depth of an Yvain, a Lancelot, or a Gawain, to say nothing of an Achilles or Odysseus. Roland, his compatriots, and his enemies are all simply straightforward fighting machines, purely good or purely evil depending on the side for which they are fighting.

The translation by Glyn S. Burgess into modern English is very smooth and easy to read. This is an important work of literature for historical reasons, even if it isn't exceptional by aesthetic standards, and it's short enough to read in an afternoon.
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