La Chanson de Roland is the earliest of the more than one hundred extant Old French epics. It survives in seven complete manuscripts; the oldest is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is dated 1130-50. The Oxford manuscript is a copy, but the questions that arise as to when, where, by whom, and in what form the original poem was composed present problems for scholars.
The poem was composed in assonating stanzas of irregular length as a song to be sung by a minstrel. It tells the story of Charlemagne's wars against the Saracens of Spain. The French choose the paladin Ganelon as their ambassador. He quarrels with Roland and in his anger betrays Roland and his rear guard of 20,000 men to the enemy. The French are attacked by overwhelming numbers of Saracens in the Pyrenees. They fight magnificently, and the Saracens are stayed. One by one the twelve peers fall, the last to resist being Archbishop Turpin and the companions Oliver and Roland. When Roland dies, he is victor on a field from which the last enemy has fled. Charlemagne, summoned by the urgent call of Roland's horn, returns too late to save him and his comrades, but is in time to destroy the remnants of the Saracens. He then leads his army against the emir, Baligant, who has assembled against him Saracen forces. Baligant is defeated and slain, and Ganelon is led home, tried, condemned, and put to death.
Several conflicts interweave within the narrative and its heroic characters, including Christian opposing pagan views, Frenchman opposing Saracens, and in the protagonists themselves, the deeper and more obscure conflict between incompatible ideals. The final victory of Christian over pagan is won both on the battlefield and in the minds of men through action, as befits an epic poem. The scenes and portraits created in the poem live for the senses. The style is laconic and suited to an audience unschooled in rhetoric, which has a direct and moving effect. Characters are portrayed in strong and simple strokes, creating an impression of their strength and simplicity.
The date of the poem seems to be the last few years of the eleventh century, probably before the First Crusade, of which much of the spirit but none of the facts are reflected in the poem. Linguistic evidence suggests that the poem was composed somewhere to the southwest of Paris. La Chanson de Roland was very popular throughout the Middle Ages as is evidenced by the later manuscripts and the many foreign translations. The poem early became popular in Germany as well as in Spain, where it gave rise to a cycle of ballads. In Italy it was a source for the great romancers Pulci, Boiardo, and Ariosto.
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