The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

BattleOfRoncevaux Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778.  The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn.  Roland will not.  He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal.  He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine.  They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book—a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories.  This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre—the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.

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The Travels

Marco Polo

(with Rustichello of Pisa)

1299

(An Italian explorer treks fearlessly into the unknown East, and discovers astonishing cultures and kingdoms no European had ever seen).

 Caravan_Marco_PoloMarco Polo journeying to the East in the time of the Pax Mongolica, from the 1375 Catalan Atlas, housed at the National Library of France

 

We are fortunate that Marco Polo lived long enough and expended the energy to record the greatest travels ever performed by any man to his time and for very long afterwards.  He dictated– apparently from memory– his adventures to a romance-writer Rustichello of Pisa while they were prisoners of war in Genoa.  No repetitive or trivial diarizing here—this is a very entertaining work, often fascinating and at times hilarious.  I am struck, as Polo was, by the variety of customs observed in the many areas through which he trekked.  I am also intrigued by the amount of wealth those in power were able to amass; such wealth that Kublai Khan, for the prime example, could romp in several sumptuous palaces with manicured grounds and scenic paths like those of the richest modern European monarch.  It surely seems that the book’s two repeated claims may well be true: that Marco Polo had traveled further and knew more of the world than any other man who had ever lived; and that the Mongol empire under Kublai Khan was the largest empire in subjects and geographical area ever to have existed.

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The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)

Joseph Bédier

1900

(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)

JohnWilliamWaterhouse_TristanDetail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death.  This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross.  Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center

When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”:  too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience.  In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities.  It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources.  The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite:  a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest.  Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it.  And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story.  And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text.  Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.

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Pearl

The West Midlands Poet

14th century

(A father struggles to recover faith and peace after losing his baby daughter.)

 PearlIllustration2Illustration of the vision of the narrator of the Pearl poem, from its only manuscript: Cotton Nero A.x.  Courtesy of the Cotton Nero A.x. Project at the University of Calgary

 

Diversity of structure is one of the wonders of poetry.  Today’s poets often celebrate freedom from structure, which has its own beauty.  The medieval mind cherished a different kind of beauty, one that is neither extinct nor obsolete today, just overlooked.  It is the elegant euphony of placing what one wishes to convey into a strict, unifying framework.  Rather than delivering a point casually or even haphazardly as we may do in everyday life, the medieval poet would conform ideas to a predetermined scheme of alliteration, rhyme, stress, mid-line breaks (caesurae), and a multilevel organization of lines into stanzas and groups of stanzas, interconnected by strands of repetition.  Surely it is a handicap to expression—but this is part of its charm!  The skill required to create a meaningful poem that has a detailed or complicated structure is so great that its demands separate the geniuses from the dabblers.  Modern poetic sensibilities may balk at this comment, but in this age where much art and poetry is still very polarized into distinct “high” and “low” forms, I think these sensibilities are a little hypocritical.  It seems in fashion today both to create art that only a fraction of society can understand, and at the same time to repudiate notions of hierarchy, including hierarchy of understanding, wherever they appear.  Generally the medieval mind, cultivated within the feudal economic and political system and a strongly hierarchical Church, was more candid about social stratification.  Medievals did not tend to preach egalitarianism except under God, which would be realized only in another world.  This perspective characterized their art as well as society.  Thus, I would argue that the structured medieval poem’s handicap to expression is in itself, aside from its resulting euphony or atmosphere, a badge of excellence.

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