An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 5: Song of Roland
An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt 5: The Song of Roland
Good Morning, Everyone!
Only at Wednesday, and it’s already been a very busy week, filled with some medieval history business, yard-work (mowing & getting things back into shape after a vacation), and lots of writing. I spent much of yesterday drafting broad swaths of the plot for The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance, the second of my nine-book epic-fantasy series, The Artifacts of Destiny. As I let the characters and narrative of the new adventure unfold — at this stage, I just need the top-lines of where each person needs to be by the end of the book, and then the story almost writes itself! — the process reminded me of how much I enjoy the creative process of this job. That’s the part where I retreat to the office, queue up some favorite music, and then just start drafting a story; depending on the day, that might mean scratching a series of plot-lines, research, rough drafts, and even conversations in a moleskin notebook, or sitting in front of the Mac and just letting my characters get to work and “live” while my fingers try to keep up the pace of their adventures on the keyboard.
Editing’s a necessary evil for the writing craft, of course — and I’m in the midst of looking at The Codex Lacrimae to see if some things can be tweaked to reduce Part 2’s mammoth 792 page-count — but I think any writer would agree that revision is often a grueling process; in my case, that self-critical component too-often devolves into growling (me) and any number of the possible reactions from my immediate circle of readers/editors: (1) manuscript-slapping with a “WTF?” expression & irritated voice (my wife, Sophia), (2) compliments & graciously phrased corrections (my daughter, Ariadna), or (3) a disembodied voice from New York City saying “trim this, excise this” (my agent). [Here are links to the e-book versions of The Codex Lacrimae, Parts 1 & 2! CL, Pt 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight and CL, Pt 2: The Book of Tears]
On the creative side, however, for epic-fantasy writing and creating a faux-medieval world, part of the imaginative journey I take when traveling into a new story is always governed by knowing something about the Middle Ages, and, particularly, the worlds of medieval literature that I’m trying to recapture in my own storytelling. Historical knowledge is not the same as storytelling, but inarguably, some of the greatest storytellers in history were the troubadours of southern France in the 12th century, minstrels and singers who knew something of their own history and entertained courtly audiences (think Eleanor of Aquitaine) with tales of a fabled past.
Charlemagne was one of the most dominant figures in the history of Western Europe, and the troubadours often returned to him in their chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”). No surprise there, because “Charles the Great,” or Charlemagne (r. 768-814), was a larger-than-life king who expanded the Frankish Empire to its greatest territorial extent, was acclaimed “emperor” by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800, and oversaw a revival of learning and cultural expression so dramatic that his era (and successors) is known as the Carolingian Renaissance. For a “writing blog,” the last achievement is the most important for us at a remove of 1,200 years. During Charlemagne’s reign, he revived learning partly because he knew that any kind of good government needs literate officials, but also because he was enthusiastic about education; to this end, he included in his circle men such as Peter of Pisa (grammarian), Paul the Deacon (historian), Einhard (royal biographer), and other learned monks & scholars from Ireland and Germanic lands. An Anglo-Saxon scholar from Northumbria, Alcuin of York (735-804), was the most important of Charlemagne’s friends, founding a palace school at Aachen and importing many scholars to work on translations and the recovery of the classical past. The monastery at Fulda also became important during this period (under Abbot Hrabanus Maurus, d. 856), who along with Walafrid Strabo would carry educational reforms in French and German monasteries throughout the 9th century.
The words you’re reading write now are perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the educational reforms of the Carolingian Renaissance; called “Carolingian minuscule,” these lower-case letters, or “book-hand” were devised at monasteries of Corbie and Tours, and allowed more words to be etched into the parchment pages of codexes and manuscripts. Alcuin also developed what came to be called “scriptoriums” (or “writing offices”), whose monks were completely devoted to translating and editing texts of the Bible (or Vulgate). When we think about the achievement of this period, note this: 90% of our textual evidence from antiquity (Roman sources) survive in their earliest forms because of the work of these Carolingian scribes!
However, while all of these educational developments were all well and good for the sake of posterity, it wasn’t so much Alcuin’s or Einhard’s literary concerns that the troubadours sang about in the chansons de geste. No, it was Charlemagne the “action-hero” that caught the attention of minstrels and bards! Charlemagne’s wartime successes were remarkable in any age: he defeated the Lombards (northern Italian “barbarians”) in the 770s; invaded Bavaria in the 780s, whose defeat brought his kingdom into conflict with the Avars (son defeated them in the 790s); and, he brutally crushed the Saxons after a 20 year campaign, and forced them to convert to Christianity. He also attacked Spanish Muslims in 778, and it was on the return from this campaign that his rear-guard was trapped by Christian Basques; the anonymous author of The Song of Roland (c. 11th-12th cent.) transformed those Basques into Muslims to make a story that pitted Christians against Muslims, but Charlemagne’s historical success was to make that strip of land in the Pyrenees into a “safe zone” called the Spanish March, a buffer given to succeeding barons that eventually evolved into the territory of Barcelona. So, when a fantasy writer takes the time to learn about medieval literature or history, I’ve found that you can bypass much of the rote-memorization of events and dates that makes most people groan and get to the story that resides in each period. For a figure such as Charlemagne, we have the benefit of both historical and literary accounts.
As you check out these kinds of sources with an eye to inspiring your own writing, keep in mind a couple of points that will help create a faux-medieval world. First, the chansons de geste represent a blend of oral tradition and literary expression that give us a bird’s eye view of how troubadours told their stories. Second, the chansons are both a form of medieval entertainment most likely sung by troubadours in castle or courtly environments and a direct link to how medieval people perceived the world and were amused. If you’re trying to create a story that evokes the spirit of the Middle Ages, these texts will reward the patient reader with many characters and adventures. Third, it’s one thing to use the clichéd images and settings of medieval castles, but quite another to actually take yourself back in time to imagine yourself “listening” to a troubadour in the castle environments where the chansons were performed; you might not find anything in these chansons that relate to your particular storyline, but you’ll at least take away a memorable view of medieval society c. 1100-1300!
Those are just a few of the reasons epic fantasy writers and readers should glance through some of the chansons. When we look at the historical side of the record and bore down to look at a particular chansons de geste, here’s some background on the battle described in The Song of Roland (written c. 1050-1100). This excerpt was written in Charlemagne’s own lifetime, by his biographer, Einhard (c. 775-840), whose Life of Charlemagne contains the clearest account that we have the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778, the conflict immortalized by an anonymous troubadour some two centuries later in The Song of Roland:
[Begin excerpt: From “The Spanish Campaign,” in Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne]  In the midst of this vigorous and almost uninterrupted struggle with the Saxons, he covered the frontier by garrisons at the proper points, and marched over the Pyrenees into Spain at the head of all the forces that he could muster. All the towns and castles that he attacked surrendered. and up to the time of his homeward march he sustained no loss whatever; but on his return through the Pyrenees he had cause to rue the treachery of the Gascons. That region is well adapted for ambuscades by reason of the thick forests that cover it; and as the army was advancing in the long line of march necessitated by the narrowness of the road, the Gascons, who lay in ambush  on the top of a very high mountain, attacked the rear of the baggage train and the rear guard in charge of it, and hurled them down to the very bottom of the valley [Roncesvalles]. In the struggle that ensued they cut them off to a man; they then plundered the baggage, and dispersed with all speed in every direction under cover of approaching night. The lightness of their armor and the nature of the battle ground stood the Gascons in good stead on this occasion, whereas the Franks fought at a disadvantage in every respect, because of the weight of their armor and the unevenness of the ground. Eggihard, the King’s steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany, with very many others, fell in this engagement. This ill turn could not be avenged for the nonce, because the enemy scattered so widely after carrying out their plan that not the least clue could be had to their whereabouts… [End excerpt from Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham Univ.)]
Okay, that’s the text from Charlemagne’s biographer in the early 9th century. Now, let’s broaden the context of The Song of Roland before we look at the literature itself. Here’s the entry for “The Song of Roland” from the Encyclopedia Britannica
[Begin excerpt]: “La Chanson de Roland,” English The Song of Roland, Old French epic poem that is probably the earliest (c. 1100) chanson de geste and is considered the masterpiece of the genre. The poem’s probable author was a Norman poet, Turold, whose name is introduced in its last line. The poem takes the historical Battle of Roncesvalles (Roncevaux) in 778 as its subject. Though this encounter was actually an insignificant skirmish between Charlemagne’s army and Basque forces, the poem transforms Roncesvalles into a battle against Saracens and magnifies it to the heroic stature of the Greek defense of Thermoypylae against the Persians in the 5th century BC.
The poem opens as Charlemagne having conquered all of Spain except Saragossa, receives overtures from the Saracen king and sends the knight Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, to negotiate peace terms. Angry because Roland proposed him for the dangerous task, Ganelon plots with the Saracens to achieve his stepson’s destruction and, on his return, ensures that Roland will command the rear guard of the army when it withdraws from Spain. As the army crosses the Pyrenees, the rear guard is surrounded at the pass of Roncesvalles by an overwhelming Saracen force. Trapped against crushing odds, the headstrong hero Roland is the paragon of the unyielding warrior victorious in defeat. The composition of the poem is firm and coherent, the style direct, sober, and, on occasion, stark. Placed in the foreground is the personality clash between the recklessly courageous Roland and his more prudent friend Oliver (Olivier), which is also a conflict between divergent conceptions of feudal loyalty. Roland, whose judgment is clouded by his personal preoccupation with renown, rejects Oliver’s advice to blow his horn and summon help from Charlemagne. On Roland’s refusal, the hopeless battle is joined, and the flower of Frankish knighthood is reduced to a handful of men. The horn is finally sounded, too late to save Oliver, Turpin, or Roland, who has been struck in error by the blinded Oliver, but in time for Charlemagne to avenge his heroic vassals. Returning to France, the emperor breaks the news to Aude, Roland’s betrothed and the sister of Oliver, who falls dead at his feet. The poem ends with the trial and execution of Ganelon. [End excerpt]
Ok, we’ve got the history, we’ve got the context, now let’s look at part of the story of The Song of Roland, specifically at how battles and combatants were depicted. At the heart of the chansons de geste lay the realistic depictions of battles and warfare so venerated by the warrior culture of a thousand years ago, and in literature the chansons were one of the first sustained attempts to entertain in a way different from recounting Bible stories or reading chronicles. Yes, the chansons were probably performed in a courtly culture, but they can be very useful to an epic fantasist if she’s imaginative enough to suss out aspect of medieval life. For example, as you read through this excerpt form The Song of Roland, see how many “realities” of medieval life you can learn from the battle between Charlemagne and the emir. [Begin excerpt from “The Song of Roland”]: …At this the emir starts to realize That he wrong and Charlemagne is right. The pagans from Arabia retreat. To his own people calls the emperor. ‘Say lords, in God’s name, will you give me aid?’ The Franks reply: ‘There is no need to ask: Only rogues will not strike with all their might!’
The day draws on, evening begins to fall. The Franks and pagans strike out with their swords. Valiant are those who locked the hosts in strife. They have not put their war-cries from their minds: Now the emir has shouted, ‘Precieuse!’ And Charles ‘Monjoie!’, the famous battle-call. Each knew the other by his loud, clear voice, And so, charging together in the field, They went to strike, gave and received great blows. They smite their circled targes with their spears And above the broad bosses shatter them; And then their hauberks’ skirts they rend apart But leave each other’s body quite untouched. The girths burst, and the saddles slip and turn, Both the kings fall and tumble to the ground Then swiftly rise up on their feet again. Now with great valor they have drawn their swords. Never will this combat of theirs be stopped: Only one man dead its end will come.
Charles of fair France is very valorous; The emir holds him in no fear or dread. Each to the other shows his naked sword, Exchanging on their shields prodigious blows, Slicing the leather and the double board; The nails fall and the bosses fly apart. On their unguarded byres then they smite. From their bright helmets fly up fiery sparks. This is a combat that can never cease Unless one of them should admit his wrong. The emir said: ‘Now, Charles, take careful thought: Resolve to show repentance towards me! You’ve slain my son, as I know very well, And criminally you dispute my land. Become my vassal: swear me loyalty, Come and serve me right in the Orient!’ Charles says: ‘What great baseness this seems to me! I should grant pagans neither peace nor love. Receive the faith that God reveals to us The Christian faith, and I’ll love you at once; Believe and serve then the almighty King!’ Baligant said: ‘Your homily starts ill!’ Then with their girded swords they set to strike.
The emir is possessed of mighty power. On Charlemagne’s burnished steel helm he strikes, Bursts it and splits it open to his head, Bringing the sword down onto his thick locks, Slicing away a full palm’s breadth and more To lay the bone at that place quite exposed. Charles staggers, and he very nearly falls; But God did not wish him vanquished or slain, And so Saint Gabriel returned to him And asked him: ‘Great king, what are you about?’ When Charles had heard the holy angel’s voice, He had no fear or dread that he would die. His memory and force returned to him. He strikes the emir with the sword of France, Shatters his helmet where the gems blaze forth, Cleaves his head open and spills out the brains, And cuts through the whole face to the white beard To fell him utterly past recall. ‘Monjoie!’ he cries to rally all his men. Hearing the call, Duke Naimes comes up to him. He takes Tencendur, and the great king mounts. The pagans turn: God would not have them stay. And now the French have at those whom they seek.
The pagans flee as is the Lord God’s will; The Franks and emperor ride in pursuit. The king said: ‘Now, my lords, avenge your griefs, Work out your wrath and raise up all your hearts — Your eyes I saw this morning filled with tears.’ The Franks reply: ‘Yes, sire, this we must do.’ Each man then strikes what mighty blows he can. Few of the pagans there made their escape. Great is the heat, and high the dust-clouds rise. The pagans flee, and the French harry them. To Saragossa the pursuit goes on. Up to her tower Bramimonde has climbed; With her have gone her canons and her clerks Of the false faith that never had God’s love: They are not tonsured, no orders have they. When she beheld the Arabs so dismayed, She cried aloud: ‘Mahomet, give us aid!’ Ah, noble king, our men are vanquished now, And the emir is slain so shamefully!’ When Marsile hears her, he turns to the wall; Tears fill his eyes, his whole face is cast down; From grief he dies, prey to calamity. His soul he gives up to the fiends of Hell.
The infidels are dead [or some in flight], And in his battle Charles has won the day. Now Saragossa’s gate is broken down He knows full well it has no more defense. He takes the city, and his men come in: That night they all lie there as conquerors. The grizzle-bearded king is full of pride. From Bramimonde he has received the towers, Ten of them high, the other fifty small. He whom the Lord God helps does his task well. The day has waned, and now the night descends. The moon is bright, the blazing stars shine forth. The emperor of all Saragossa holds. He has a thousand French comb the town well, Searching the mosques and every heathen shrine. With iron mallets and axes in hand The statues and each idol they destroy: No sorcery or false thing will remain. The king believes in God, will serve Him well; And so his bishops bless the water there And lead the pagans to the baptistries… [End Excerpt from D.D.R. Owen, trans., “The Song of Roland,” in Richard Barber, ed., Epics of the Middle Ages; London, Folio Society, 2005; pp. 91-93]
Well? Besides giving the reader an action-packed moment in time with imagery still vivid after nine hundred years, even in this short selection, the observant epic-fantasist (or epic fantasy enthusiast!) comes away from The Song of Roland with vivid images of medieval life: — warfare (battle-cries, weapons, rudimentary armor, sequence of fighting both on/off horses, wounds, etc) — religion (Christianity, Islam, views of paganism & heresy, hell, etc.) — depictions of women — depictions of horses (Tencendur) — depictions of nobility — iconoclasm (destroying idols and statues) — division of spoils & territories as reward to loyal followers (“feudalism”) You certainly don’t have to use all/any of these aspects, but knowing about this type of genre certainly can add a “flavor” to your faux-medieval world-building that go somewhat beyond the too-often clichéd sources of Tolkien and Lewis that writers & film-makers have been imitating since the 1950s and 1960s. Next Time: More Chansons!