The main action in The Story of Roland occurs in the late eighth and early ninth-century Frankish kingdom, which was ruled by Charlemagne. This kingdom was slightly larger than but roughly similar to modern-day France. The setting of the narrative shifts rapidly from Paris to Rome to Moorish Spain. A few of the episodes involve more exotic locales in "the East," suggestive of Persia or Arabia. There is a sense of unreality about the work which is entirely appropriate for medieval romance. Although these stories have some foundation in history, the descriptions of castles, palaces, and lavish banquets always far exceed the actualities of medieval life. Certainly, one of the purposes of medieval romance was to provide an idealized escape from the harshness of everyday life. Baldwin's book does full justice to that intention.
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The Story of Roland has all the essential features of a medieval romance. It is a lengthy narrative which consists of a series of loosely connected episodes. The actions depicted in these episodes involve descriptions of knightly combats, siege warfare, dangerous quests, romantic interludes, and encounters with giants, dragons, dwarfs, elves, and magicians. In such a work a large element of fantasy surrounds a core of realism. The tone is generally lighthearted, the mood optimistic, and the atmosphere magical, in contrast to a work such as Beowulf where the general outlook is gloomy. Such a contrast in tone and mood represents one general difference between romance and epic. Also characteristic of medieval romance are the chivalric values reflected in The Story of Roland. Scorn falls on the many who fail to live according to such values, while those few who manage to live in accordance with the chivalric code— Roland, Ogier the Dane, Reinold—are revered.
Sometimes medieval romances are classified according to their "matters" or subjects. The four major categories of romance are said to be the Matter of Classical Antiquity, the Matter of France, the Matter of Britain, and the Matter of England. The Matter of Classical Antiquity concerns heroes such as Hector of Troy and Alexander the Great; the Matter of France focuses on Charlemagne and his knights; the Matter of Britain concerns King Arthur and the Round Table knights; and the...
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James Baldwin points out in the foreword to The Story of Roland that he was attempting to "adapt [his narrative] to our ways of thinking, and our modern notions of propriety." Now, more than a century later, Baldwin's "modern notions of propriety" seem almost too primly proper. The brief love affairs are handled with extreme decorum, and the violence which necessarily attends the adventures of knights is treated only in a general way and never with anything approaching the stark realism sometimes found in Baldwin's medieval sources. The book does have an important religious dimension, for the crusading spirit of the Middle Ages is reflected in Charlemagne's struggle to preserve Christianity from the pagan Saracens. Militant Christianity surfaces in the direct conflict between Christian "good guys" and non-Christian (usually Moslem) "bad guys." In this regard the book remains faithful to its medieval sources, in which Christian beliefs are emphasized.
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Topics for Discussion
1. What are the chief virtues of the true chivalric hero? Which characters best exemplify these qualities?
2. What character flaws does Charlemagne possess? How seriously do they detract from his nobility?
3. Does Roland exhibit any important character flaws? What are they? In which episodes are they seen?
4. Sometimes unlikely characters, or characters who appear to be among Charlemagne's or Roland's enemies, also exhibit chivalrous qualities. What are some instances of this?
5. How much realism is there in the book? Where is it found?
6. In which particular episodes does magic play an important part?
7. Although most of the major heroes in the book are men, women also play a significant part in many of the adventures. Characterize the most prominent women in the book.
8. Several episodes involve horses. Which ones? What are the special capabilities of Reinold's horse Bayard?
9. Which do you consider to be the most effective of the individual episodes in the book? Why?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare the figures of Roland, Ogier, and Reinold. What important character differences, if any, can you find?
2. There are other modern adaptations of medieval materials pertaining to Roland and Charlemagne, such as Ian Serraillier's Ivory Horn and Richard Winston's Charlemagne. Choose another book that treats these figures and compare it with Baldwin's Story of Roland. You may wish to make a general comparison, or you may wish to limit your comparison to a specific character or even a specific adventure.
3. Compare the figure of Roland as he is presented in Baldwin's book with the figure of Beowulf in a work such as Ian Serrailier's Beowulf the Warrior. To what extent do their virtues and capabilities overlap? In what important ways do they differ? Is it necessary for both to die?
4. Compare the chivalric code as it is reflected in this work with the heroic code as reflected in earlier epics such as Beowulf.
5. Read about the figure of Morgan La Fay in works of Arthurian literature. Then compare the versions of her character in those works with her character presented in Baldwin's Story of Roland.
6. Do research on the historical Charlemagne. How true to history is the portrait of Charlemagne found in Baldwin's book?
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Among the many varied writings of James Baldwin, those which are most closely related to The Story of Roland are Stories of the King, which deals with King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and The Story of Siegfried, which focuses on the exploits of the great hero of Germanic legend. These two books, like The Story of Roland, are adapted directly from medieval literary sources. In a similar vein are Baldwin's retellings of classical legends in Old Greek Stories and The Golden Fleece: More Old Greek Stories; his renditions of Arabic and Persian tales in Old Stories of the East; and his recounting of early Finnish tales in The Sampo: Hero Adventures from the Kalevala.
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For Further Reference
Dudley, Robert. In My Youth: From the Posthumous Papers of Robert Dudley. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1914. This is James Baldwin's partial autobiography, which he published under the pseudonym of Robert Dudley; it was republished in 1923 with the title In the Days of My Youth. It provides an affecting portrayal of the rural Quaker community of Baldwin's youth.
Goldin, Frederick. The Song of Roland. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. From among the many readily available translations of this Old French chanson de geste—which is one of Baldwin's major sources—Goldin's translation is one of the best for younger and older readers alike. It also contains an excellent introduction and bibliography....
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