Tuesday, April 28, 2009
French literature project officially begun!
So, I have finally begun my French literature project, having slowly made my way through The Song of Roland - which required 3 copies of it from the library. The first copy was too marked up to be readable and the second was too completely unfootnoted and insufficiently introduced to make sense to a complete medieval French literature novice like me.
In the end, it was the Penguin Classics edition that satisfied, and I think this ordeal and abuse of library resources was a valuable lesson: until I get into the 19th century, it'll be nothing but Penguin or Oxford Classics for this French lit project.
The Song of Roland was likely penned around 1098-1100, but is based on a relatively minor incident in August of 778 (if you consider death and destruction minor). Charlemagne was making incursions into Spain at this time with various success; at the particular time of the incident in question, he was leading the Franks out of Spain when the rearguard was ambushed by Basques and slaughtered to a man.
Roland was apparently the (failed) hero of this battle, although the various editions of the poem I've looked at have differed on whether or not Roland was a real person, or if he was, if he lived at the same time as Charlemagne.
In any case, the tale as it is manifested in this epic poem is being mobilized quite strenuously to justify the Crusades and Christian antipathy towards Muslims, and therefore France's militaristic/imperialistic adventuring in foreign lands. I'm sure scholars have been all over the imperialist rhetoric in this one, for it's like most of the epics I've read (Paradise Lost notwithstanding, although even that has weird imperialist stuff going on) insofar as it's about vilifying/grudgingly admiring the Other (for if they're not at least somewhat admirable, kicking their asses doesn't look as good on Us) and seeking the glory of Our nation.
The Song of Roland, however, is also about the terrible choices individuals make in battle, and the far-reaching consequences thereof. In a sequence positively Shakespearean in its pathos, Roland refuses to blow the horn that would summon help to defeat their attackers, everyone's killed, and he's left to wander - entirely alone - amongst a field piled high with thousands and thousands of bodies, to confront directly the results of his hubris in imagining his small Frankish train could win against such superior numbers. A poignant moment, even if the power of the language (that I imagine is present in abundance in the medieval French original) is pretty much entirely lacking in the drab modern English of the Penguin Classics edition.
On the other hand, there were moments when I laughed a little at Roland and I honestly don't know if he was meant to be understood as somewhat foolish or entirely tragic (if the latter, I'm not convinced, but then this poem wasn't written for me, given as I am not up for a little Crusading, thank you). He faints a lot in the face of great grief, which to me doesn't seem like an appropriate response when in battle; when he realizes he's going to die, he arranges himself so that when his body is found he'll look extra heroic for being ahead of his troops in relation to the enemy; and he dies, not from battle wounds, but from bursting his temples due to strenuously blowing the horn (much too late) that would have brought help. He died of a bad headache? Are you sure that this wasn't a satire?
The editors three of this poem have said nothing of the possibility of this being a send-up and in fairness, it was never treated as one; indeed, it's well-known that at the Battle of Hastings, someone went on the attack singing parts of The Song of Roland. But then again, Ronald Reagan wanted to use "Born in the USA" as his campaign song, so it's not like people don't sometimes miss the point when they're on the hunt for some musical propaganda.
In the end, I enjoyed this more in an anthropological than a literary way, but I suspected this might happen with translations of the very early stuff. But I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian Romances will be a rollicking good read.
PS-Please let me know what you think of this stretchy new layout - is it easier to read? Harder to read? The same? Prettier? More charming, but less sincere? Any feedback will be helpful!