“And Roland, fearless as a lion or leopard brought / To bay at last, called to the men of France / With words inspiriting. Then once more replied / To Oliver: “Friend, of this no more! for here / In Ronceval are twenty thousand Franks, / But not one coward. It is Frankish law / That every man must suffer for liege lord / Or good or ill, or fire or wintry blast, / Ay, truly, must not reck of life or limb. / Bestir you, comrade! Grasp your lance, and I / My Durendal, bestowed by the King’s hand. / Whoever wears it after me shall say: / ‘This was the sword of one who fought till death.’”
I have good memories of the first time I read this. My sister, who loves epic poetry, had pulled The Song of Roland off our bookshelf one day out of curiosity and found herself hooked. She kept telling me that I ought to read it. So I took it with me on a housesitting job, and devoting only fifteen minutes a day to it, I finished easily in a handful of days.
She was quite right.
The Song of Roland tells the story of a battle by the Christian Franks against the heathen Spanish, who, desperate to shake off the Franks’ mighty power, have secured an arrangement with a Frankish traitor to attack the rearguard held by the greatest of the Frankish knights, Sir Roland.
It is a brave story of sacrifice, friendship, and perseverance. Roland is a dynamic leader with enough panache, gut, and strength for the entire Frankish army. His friend Oliver is a faithful fellow who can hold his own against Roland’s overpowering personality. And the Archbishop is just plain awesome. That man can really handle a sword.
I used Frederick Bliss Luquiens’s translation and I love it. I don’t know how it measures up to Dorothy Sayers’ version, since I have not read hers, but I found it very readable. Luquiens was a teacher of early French, among other languages, at Yale, and after his death a number of students were given his personal translation of The Song of Roland, which he had never tried to publish. At first they thought they would just print a few copies to distribute among his former students for their enjoymen, but upon reading it and not being able to put it down, they decided it was far too good not to publish. It flows beautifully, being written in unrhymed pentameter, and while the voice of the poem is decidedly antiquated (think Rosemary Sutcliff’s dialogue), there was never a passage where I could not understand what was being said.
It is a short, easy read (especially for epic poetry), and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good starter in the genre.