The Song of Roland Paperback – 27 Jan 2013
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Translated and with an Introduction by Dorothy L. Sayers,
Penguin Classics, 1957 (first translation, 1937). 206 pp.
There seems little point in giving a work of world literature
a rating of stars as to whether it is better or lesser than
some other work of world literature, even of the same genre.
The rating for this review is based on this particular
edition and translation.
The excellent qualities of this Penguin edition include
the "Introduction." Sayers discusses this "earliest,
the most famous, and the greatest of those Old French
epics which are called Songs of Deeds." Her "Introduction"
is divided into the highly enlightening subsections titled:
The Poem; The Feudal Picture; Vassalage; Tokens; Chivalry;
The Rules of Battle; Nurture and Companionage; Horses and
Swords; and The Verse and the Translation. She says the
poem as we have it "would appear to have achieved its
final shape towards the end of the eleventh century." But
the events described in the epic took place in 778, and
"the anonymous poet describes in detail the betrayal and
slaughter by Saracens of the rearguard of Charlemagne's
army under Roland -- at Rencevaux -- and Charlemagne's
Perhaps most interesting in the "Introduction" are Ms.
Sayers' character studies. She sees that in Charlemagne,
"beneath this larger-than-life-size figure, we discern
another: the portrait of the ideal earthly sovereign --
just, prudent, magnanimous, and devout." She goes
further and posits that in the way he is described
in this epic he even seems like an early medieval version
of a "constitutional" monarch. "Beneath all this again
is the personal character of Charlemagne -- his stately
bearing, his courtesy, his valour and strength, his deep
religious feeling, his friendship for Naimon, his warm
affection for his nephew and the Peers.... He rides
and fights among his barons as the greatest baron of
Roland, on the other hand, in Ms. Sayers' view, has a
character which is "simplicity itself." "Rash, arrogant,
generous, outspoken to a fault, loyal, affectionate,
and single-minded, he has all the qualities that endear
a captain to his men and a romantic hero to his audience.
He has no subtlety at all; other men's minds are a closed
book to him." This particular view of Roland makes him
sound a little like a faithful pooch rather than a
chivalrous knight; and perhaps strains a bit of invective
at Romantics in believing that they prefer no subtlety
in their heroes.
The final aspect which Ms. Sayers stresses is the "essential
Christianity of the poem." "It is not merely Christian in
subject; it is Christian to its very bones." *** "And it
is a Christianity as naive and uncomplicated as might be
found at any time in the simplest village church." However,
it is a Christianity which has already made the concession
to the idea of "just wars" -- and killing for "the right
reasons." Augustine and Constantine take precedence over
This is a very readable translation and Ms. Sayers, who
received a degree in medieval literature from the
Somerville College, University of Oxford, in 1915, does
it great credit with a readable, engrossing translation.
Here is the section on the death of Roland himself (actually
it takes him 3 full stanzas to die; 174, 175, and 176,
even though it seems he has fully expired in the first --):
Now Roland feels death press upon him hard;
It is creeping down from his head to his heart.
Under a pine-tree he hastens him apart,
There stretches him face down on the green grass,
And lays beneath him his sword and Oliphant [his horn].
He's turned his head to where the Paynims are,
And this he doth for the French and for Charles,
Since fain is he that they should say, brave heart,
That he has died a conqueror at the last.
He beats his breast full many a time and fast,
Gives, with his glove, his sins into God's charge.
-- Robert Kilgore.
This book, written around the end of the eleventh century, and recalling an actual disaster in 778 A.D., the anonymous poet describes in detail the betrayal and slaughter by Saracens the rearguard of Charlemagne's army under ROLAND at Rencevaux and Charlemagne's bitter revenge. Nowhere in literature is the medievel Code of Chivalry more perfectly expressed than in this masterly and exciting poem.
This text includes an extensive introduction to the Eurpoean Medieval world and provides explanations on civil and military costume.
"When Thierry feels the blade bite through his flesh,
And sees the blood upon the grass run red,
Then he lets drive a blow at Pinabel.
Down to the nasal he cleaves the bright steel helm,
Shears through the brain and spills it from his head,
Wrenches the blade out and shakes it from it dead.
With that great stroke he wins and makes an end.
The Franks all cry: "God's might is manifest!"
Yes!!!! Buy this book! You will not be disappointed.
Five stars. Without equal.
Yes, I know the surviving Old French manuscripts come complete with caesuras--Ms. Sayers told me so. But a good translator can take what is useful to their audience and leave the rest. That's exactly what Sayers does here. Rendering lines written a thousand years ago in accordance with an aesthetic long since forgotten in an idiom no one speaks is no mean feat. And Sayers does it with few wobbles or missteps.
But what really makes this book purchase-worthy is Sayers' basic empathy with the material. Rather than do the obvious thing and roll her eyes at the irony of two deeply religious peoples hacking and hewing away at each other, Sayers takes you into that world and helps you understand it. Her introduction combines scholarship with a real enthusiasm for the subject. Her verse is fluid and conveys more than a little of what I imagine to be the poem's original drama. Like her contemporary C. S. Lewis, Sayers is known only for her fiction these days. But like Lewis, her academic work (including her version of the Divine Comedy, in terza rima no less) more than rewards inspection.
Somewhere along the line a legend sprang up, and it gradually evolved and developed into what is now this poem. The poem is entertaining to read, and is a great example of Frank thought and prejudice (in making the villains Saracens). In fact, the opposing sides in the battle are Christians and Pagans, typical enemies from the period in which this was written.
This poem is epic in many respects, and is also tragic. Certainly Roland's flaw is his excessive overconfidence and pride (hubris), which prevent him from blowing his horn and petitioning aid for himself and his army. The battle sequences, which are very graphic, are reminiscent of The Iliad and the Aeneid, though this work does not measure up to either in greatness or epic grandeur. I have given the poem four stars in relation to similar works (such as The Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey). The poem is well-written and is an enjoyable read, but the poet was by no means as talented as the likes of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, or the Beowulf poet. Still, this is one of history's great epic poems, and should be treated as such. Study of this poem is essential for anyone interested in the epic as a form of poetry.