The Song of Roland is loosely associated with the chivalric romance literature—the adventure narratives—of medieval France. The romance is divided into three types on the basis of content. The first concerns matters of Britain and deals with Arthurian legend and Celtic lore. The second concerns matters of antiquity and takes its cue from the legends of Thebes, the legends of Troy (such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1382), and the legends about Alexander the Great. The third concerns France and focuses on stories of Charlemagne and his circle, as well as on stories of William of Orange, drawn from the chansons de geste. It is in this category that The Song of Roland is important, for it is, properly speaking, a “song of great deeds.”
Chansons de geste are epic in nature, although the precise origins of the form are unknown. A popular literary form between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, they were written in French verse, as were the early romances; late romances were written in prose, using first a ten-syllable, then a twelve-syllable (Alexandrine) line and assonance. Rhyme was substituted for assonance in the late chansons. The lines are grouped in stanzas—called laisses or tirades—of varying lengths, and series of chansons developed into story cycles dealing with a particular person, such as Charlemagne, or a particular theme, such as the conflict between Christians and Saracens. Like the classical epics, the chansons de geste concentrate, as the term implies, on battles, heroic feats, and knightly ideals. Little notice is paid to women or the theme of love. These tales furnished the material for the medieval romance, where, however, the emphasis shifts from the heroic to the chivalric, from war to love, and from tragic seriousness to lighthearted adventure. The Song of Roland is a narrative of knights in battle, but Lodovico Ariosto’s sixteenth century Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) concerns a smitten Roland (Orlando) gone mad over his hopeless infatuation with the faithless Angelica, the princess of Cathay.
Some verification for the events narrated in The Song of Roland is provided in the Annales regni Francorum of Einhard (or Eginhard), Charlemagne’s biographer and chronicler. On this basis, it is possible to pinpoint the essential Roland story as a Basque ambush, in 778, of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army during a retreat through the Pyrenees. One unusual aspect of the story is that it tells of a defeat; although defeat was not a total stranger in the epic world of chansons de geste, the heroic ambience that pervaded them precluded an emphasis on defeat. Among the scholars who have suggested explanations for the apparent anomaly, one traces the place names mentioned in the poem to the pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James of Compostella; according to this theory,...
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