Review: The Song of Roland, Translated by Dorothy Sayers

The Song of Roland (Penguin Classics)The Song of Roland by Anonymous

Before people wrote novels – before people even wrote at all, really – stories were passed down by oral tradition; they existed as people told them on and on. The works of Homer, for instance, survived this way for centuries before they were saved on paper.

Not too far removed from that kind of epic poetry is The Song of Roland, a short, entertaining and deeply religious poem. It’s intent is somewhere between a religious parable and a call to arms, but it’s still accessible to the modern reader: it deals with betrayal, revenge and honor.

The story of The Song isn’t one I’m exactly clear on. It was composed at some unknown date, but most likely around the eleventh century, by some unknown poet. It was certainly handed down to us through an oral tradition before being committed to paper and it’s purpose wasn’t exactly the same as it is now. The Song, as Dorothy Sayers explains in her introduction, was not new to those hearing it: “Like Homer, he is telling a tale which is already in men’s hearts and memories.” 

Surely, this comes from it’s time: after all, there’s a very strong tone of how Christianity needs to be defended here. On this level, The Song can seem like an uncompromising work from the crusades: it pits the noble and goodly Roland, his squire Oliver and King Charlemagne – Christians all – against what it calls Pagan hordes, a group that’s mostly Islamic, with traces of the Roman god Apollo and another, more obscure, god. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward tale. A call of arms for Good versus Evil.

But there’s more to the story here. While, as Sayers wrote, this may be Christian to it’s bones, it also functions as a good story about betrayal and revenge. The double-cross of Roland, who is himself headstrong enough to bit off more than he can chew, and how Charlemagne leads an assault in his honor is timeless; the same kind of plot is still used today. This, and how the poem revels in violence, reminds me of the Iliad, another story about honor and reckless pride and it’s consequences.

I’m far from an expert on poetry, but I kind of liked Sayers’ translation, although it was a little hard to get into; I’m not really used to this kind of poetry. For instance, these lines describing Roland and company at battle:

Fierce is the battle and wondrous grim the right.
Both Oliver and Roland boldly smite,
Thousands of strokes the stout Archbishop strikes,
The whole Twelve Peers are not a whit behind
And the French ranks lay on with all their might. (Pg 106)

The Song isn’t a book I’d recommend to everybody. The translation can be a little hard to read and I can see people being turned off by it’s themes or violence. Still, it’s an interesting piece of literature and one worth checking out if you’re interested in this period of time. I may not exactly agree with what it’s arguing, but with it so far removed from it’s time, that hardly seems like the point.

My rating: 6.5/10

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