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Moslems are slain by the Franks; but a fresh army, held in reserve, advances against them. This army they put to flight, though at great cost to themselves. Only sixty of their force survive the contest. Roland, seeing his men lie in slaughtered heaps around him, at length sounds his horn.
Charlemagne turns back at once. In the meantime, fresh troops continue to pour in upon Roland and his few remaining followers. Olivier receives his death wound, and the parting between him and Roland is very touching. Blinded by blood flowing from a wound in the forehead, he deals Roland, unknowingly, a fierce blow on the helmet, when the latter presses in anxiety and grief to his side. “Hast thou done it, my comrade, wittingly ?" asks Roland; “I am Roland, who loves thee so dearly.” Olivier answers: “I hear thee speak, but I see thee not. God seeth thee. Have I struck thee, brother? Forgive it me.” “I am not hurt, Olivier; and, in the sight of God, I forgive thee.” Then they lay their heads together, and in great love is their parting made.
Finally, the heathen hear the distant sound of Charlemagne's army returning, and fly from the field, leaving Roland and Archbishop Turpin the sole survivors of the Frankish rear-guard. Turpin, who, after Roland and Charlemagne, is the most important character in the poem, lies on the green sward, bleeding to death from many wounds-he had fought valiantly with spear and sword in the fight; and at his request, Roland, though weak from loss of blood, places the bodies of Olivier and the ten peers at his feet. The Archbishop, joining his hands in benediction, “assoiled them all and blessed.” Then, asking God's blessing for himself, he dies. Roland breaks forth in lament over the body and swoons away. A Saracen, who “ had feigned him dead,” springs to his feet, and seizes upon Roland's famous sword, Durindana. As he grasps it, Roland returns to consciousness, and with his horn smites the Moslem's crest, shattering steel and bone and skull, and casting him lifeless at his
feet. Lest the sword should fall into heathen hands, he strives in vain to break it on a marble rock. His death is thus described :
On the grass beneath the pine-tree's shade,
On his memory rose full many a thought-
Then drooped his head upon his breast
And with clasped hands he went to rest. The third part of the “Song” narrates the Reprisals. Charlemagne, filled with grief and fury, pursues the Moslems, defeats them, and takes the city of Saragossa. King Marsil dies of his wounds,* and his queen, Bramimonde, is led captive to Aix, where after some time, having lost faith in Mahomet through the excess of her misfortunes, she is converted to the Christian faith and baptised. The news of Roland's death kills the fair and gentle Alda, his betrothed. The traitor Ganelon is put upon his trial. A kinsman appears as his defender in the lists, but Karl's champion conquers. Ganelon, , finally, is bound to "four stallions fleet," and torn limb from limb.
The last stanza of the poem describes how St. Gabriel appears by night to Charlemagne, and bids him go to the relief of“ Impha city,” whose Christian King is harassed by a besieging army of heathens. On hearing the command, Charlemagne weeps and tears his beard, exclaming “God! what a life of toil is mine!"
Such is the lay which Turoldus, or Theroulde, wrote, as the last line of the poem informs us. Nothing save the name is known with
* He is, of course, the Marsilio, mentioned in the Orlando Furioso, whom Charlemagne determined to punish.
D'aver spinta la Spagna in ante
certainty regarding the author. The most probable opinion declares that the Theroulde in question was either Theroulde, the preceptor of William the Conqueror, or his son, an abbot of Peterborough, who bore the same name. The first mention, indeed, we have of it in history is in connection with the battle of Hastings. The old chroniclers tell how the jongleur, Taillefer, leaped from the ships of the Norman William as they touched the English shore, and mounting on his rapid steed, went before the army, singing of Charlemagne, and of Roland, and Olivier, and the vassals who died at Roncesvalles.
In mediæval times, the poem must have excited intense interest in the audiences before whom it was recited. Wherever it was chanted-on the battle-field, in the camp, in the hostel, on the market-place, in the hamlet, in the hall of the lordly castle—the story of Roland and his brothers-in-arms fighting so heroically against the infidel Moslem, with all its episodes of warlike rage, haughty courage, and pathetic partings, must have strangely moved listeners that received erery word with undoubting faith and entered into the spirit of every line. It is no wonder that they should thrill and weep, like the citizen of Milan, who (it is Poggio relates the fact) once entered his house sobbing, and when questioned by his wife, replied that he had heard a minstrel sing a pitiful lay of Roland and the peers that perished with him. But it was not among the people that the jongleur, or trouvère, found his most fitting audience. Such a noble strain of chivalry, telling of high purpose, firm resolve, and dauntless courage, was appreciated best in the chateaux of the warlike nobles. What pleasure the minstrel's coming brought to the inmates of the castle! He was feasted with dainty viands and rich wine, and then standing, harp in hand, in the spacious hall before the lord and lady, their children, and numerous attendants, and sweeping boldly the sounding chords, he sang with trained voice, and interpreted with expressive gesture, the “Song of Roland.” As the lay proceeded, the flushed cheeks, the eager gaze, and the flashing or softened eye of the hearers spoke eloquently of their interest in the narrative. How they hung upon his words, as, “in all the pride of minstrelsy,” he made them gaze upon the stirring incidents of the fight! They listened till their fancy beard "the clang of swords, the crash of spears." They were no longer in the castle-hall; they were with the peers of Charlemagne in Roncesvalles, charging the Moorish host; they were assisting at the death of Olivier and Roland; they were approving
witnesses of the punishment inflicted on the Moslems and the traitor Ganelon. When the trouvère paused for rest, and especially when he ended the strain, how cordially they gave him the applause which is so dear to the minstrel's heart!
It is hard to overrate the humanising influence of such a poem. But for it, and the other chansons de geste which sprang from it, the feudal nobles would have been condemned to pass their existence without any form of intellectual enjoyment. War, the chase, and the care of their lands were their sole occupations; but, as Littré points out (Histoire de la Langue Française), the ballads of the trouvères and troubadours supplied them with an ideal which raised them above the vulgar cares of life and above themselves, and imparted, even through its very charm, a sort of education; for no better food could be provided for the imagination than the poetry of their fascinating national legends, which recounted to them the prowess of their ancient heroes, and fostered in their souls the love of what was truly beautiful and noble. This good result was not confined to France. So popular were the chansons that numberless translations were made of them, and thus they came to be well known and highly prized in England, Germany, Italy, and every part of feudal Europe.
Although many French writers compare the Chanson de Roland with Homer's great epic, others, like M. Littré, acknowledge candidly that it cannot be reckoned among the small number of poems which deserve to be called the “chefs-d'auvre des nations.” It has, it is true, many attributes of the epic, but the absence of figurative language and sublimity of style must be fatal to its claim to the highest rank as a poem. Its extreme simplicity and plainness mark it out as belonging rather to the ballads than to the epics. Perhaps the term ballad-epic, which I have seen somewhere applied to it, describes best what it is.
Everything in the poem is on a gigantic scale, and one needs much credulity to receive without question some of its assertions. This, however, may be forgiven to its legendary nature; but modern taste will not accept so easily the copious weeping and frequent swooning of the warriors. When Charlemagne reached Roncesvalles and found Roland and his comrades slain, he swooned several times over his nephew's body, and with him “aswoon full fifty thousand fall.” His knights and barons wept fast and bitterly, and it is stated in another passage that “a hundred thousand wept like one,' and further on, that "a hundred thousand fainted there.” But
those defects cannot obscure the real merit and beauty of the poem. Though the hero of the poem is Roland, Charlemagne is the figure which is surrounded with the greatest majesty and grandeur. His piety as a Christian is dwelt upon (on rising every morning "matins and mass he failed not to hear”); his tenderness of heart for his soldiers is described ; and his great successes in war against the infidel are triumphantly recounted. He inspires his followers with such enthusiastic love and admiration that one of their greatest sources of pain when perishing in battle is that they are never more to look upon his face. The imagination of the Middle Ages, contemplating the career of Charlemagne as history reveals it, magnified its wonders, and made that great man himself the centre of innumerable legends. His splendid reign, indeed, coming as it did after the troubles which resulted from the fall of the Roman Empire, and preceding the turbulence and lawlessness of the Middle Ages, was sufficiently striking to call forth admiration and excite the fancy; and thus it has come to pass that, as Lecky words it, his colossal figure towers with a majestic grandeur both in history and in romance.
The excellence of Mr. O‘Hagan's original poems, which, the Academy says, are distinguished by tenderness and power, gives the assurance that the translation under review has been executed by a skilful hand. One great characteristic of this version is the fidelity with which it renders into pure and nervous English both the text and the spirit of the original. In making this assertion I do not speak at random, for I have compared several passages of the Chanson (there is a beautiful copy of it in the Melbourne Public Library, with a translation into modern French by M. L. Petit de Julleville) with the corresponding English stanzas, and Mr. OʻHagan's power as a translator has excited my admiration. I cite a short passage as an illustration. In the stanza (I should give the whole of it, were it not that my quotations are already too numerous) in which Alda,“ the fair and gentle dame,” is described as going to Charlemagne's royal halls at Aix, and asking for Roland who had vowed to take her for his bride, it is said that the Emperor wept, announced to her Roland's death, and offered her his own son Louis as husband. Alda's reply and sudden death are thus given in the Chanson :
“Ne placet Deu ne ses seinz ne ses angles