Anonymous [bilingual edition translated into modern French from the old French by Jean Dufournet]
France, ca. 1100
Since I think I'm finally up to the challenge of waging some sort of a longue durée survey of French and Francophone literature over the course of the year, I decided a reread of La Chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland] was really the only way to kick things off reading project-wise w/anything like the requisite amount of style demanded by our programming. My geekly instincts, as it turns out, aren't always bad. A few quick hits on matters of language, content and style. 1) Given the # of times I've suffered through various stilted English translations of the poem in the past, it was a real rush to read Jean Dufournet's modern French translation w/the original old French on the facing text. Perhaps vivid battle poetry having to do with combatants' vows to render their swords "bright red with hot blood" [Dufournet: "nous les rendrons vermeilles de sang chaud"; original text: "Nus les feruns vermeilles de chald sanc"] (laisse 76) and descriptions of meadows full of flowers turned "bright red with the blood of our barons!" [Dufournet: "les fleurs/sont vermeilles du sang de nos barons !"; original: "les flors,/Ki sunt vermeilz del sanc de noz baronz !"] (laisse 205) to cite just two variations on a vermilion theme would convey a sense of urgency in any language even sans that exclamation point at the end of the latter verse; however, I'd maintain that Dufournet's rousing Roland has an unmistakable energy and flow to it even in its less blood-spattered moments. 2) As many of you no doubt know, La Chanson de Roland was at least partly inspired by a real life battle in the year 778 in which the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was ambushed by Basques at Ronceveaux Pass in the Pyrenees. However, somewhere along the line Muslims from Spain replaced the Basques as the villains of the pro-French pseudo-historical epic that has come down to us. In his introduction to the work, Dufournet speculates that the Roland poet was a learned cleric "tout imprégné de l'atmosphère de la croisade" ["imbued with the crusading spirit"] (19) whose authorship of the poem likely consisted in reshaping extant traditional material associated with Roland and converting it into something artistically unique and of its time--what the medievalist elsewhere hails as "le texte fondateur de notre histoire et de notre culture, en même temps que la première manifestation créatrice de notre langue" ["the foundational text of our history and culture and, at the same time, the first creative manifestation of our language"] (10). Without getting into the nitty gritty of Dufournet's case for this, which would deserve a post or twelve of its own given the thorny literary and historical contexts under consideration, suffice it to say that one of the most convincing manifestations of a crusading ideology in the poem is its retrospective equation of the enemies of Charlemagne with the enemies of Christendom. The Saracens, for example, are commonly referred to as félons ["traitors" or, in feudal terminology, "vassals disloyal to one's lord"], pagans, and as members of a "criminal race" [Dufournet: "la race criminelle"; original: "la gent criminel"] (laisse 179). Beyond this, the figure of the Archbishop Turpin sends the Franks out to battle under the Urban II-like promise that "Si vous mourez, vous serez de saints martyrs" [original: "Se vos murez, esterez seinz martirs"; "If you die, you will become holy martyrs"] (laisse 89) and in a later scene on the sacking of Zaragoza we learn that both synagogues and mosques are destroyed at the hands of the revenge-minded Christians. In fact, lest there be any doubt about whose side God is on in the holy war portrayed in the poem, the poet sings of miracles like the day God stopped the sun in the sky so that Charlemagne could pursue the vanquished pagans who had left the battlefield in flight and of one disgraced Muslim leader who literally surrenders his soul to demons at the moment of his death [Dufournet: "il rend son âme aux diables en personne"; original: "L'anme de lui as vifs diables dunet"] (laisse 264)--a colorful moment that! Poetic matters aside, this demonization of the enemy and the exaltation of the Christian hordes from douce France will no doubt sound very familiar to anybody who's ever chanced to dip into the contemporary crusade chronicles. 3) On that note, one of the most interesting things about La Chanson de Roland to me from a style standpoint this time around and one in which I had either totally forgotten about or somehow not really noticed before was the evident tension between the Chanson as a consciously poetic product and the written documents that had supposedly preceded its gestation. That is, La Chanson de Roland deliberately positions itself both as a type of metafictional song--the "mauvaise chanson" [bad song] that Roland tells Olivier won't be sung about their trusty swords so long as Durendal and Hauteclaire are allowed to perform their usual handiwork [Dufournet: "L'on ne doit pas sur elles chanter de mauvaise chanson"; original: "Male chançune n'en deit estre cantee"] (laisse 112)--and as an assonant chanson informed by prose precedents in lines like "Il est écrit dans l'ancienne chronique/que Charles convoqua des vassaux de nombreuses terres" [original: "Il est escrit en l'anciene geste/Que Carles mandet humes de plusurs teres"; "It is written in the old chronicle/that Charles summoned vassals from numerous lands"] (laisse 271). Whether this appeal to written authority is real--i.e. if the poem is occasionally premised on historical sources that are now mostly lost to us--or just imagined for literary sakes hardly matters in the end; for when Roland encourages Olivier to strike their adversaries dead with great blows "pour qu'on ne chante pas sur nous de funeste chanson !" [original: "Que malvaise cançun de nus chantet ne seit !"; "so that a distressing song not be sung about us!"] (laisse 79), the impact is such that it's an impressive feat even to those who already know the heroes are doomed. AOI.
First page of the Oxford manuscript of La Chanson de Roland