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This review is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

Cover of The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne, a new translation by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt
Andrew HadfieldNo Half Measures The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne, a new translation by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt (Oxford University Press, Oxford World’s Classics) £8.99

As Charlemagne’s army retreated after his Iberian campaign, his troops were successfully ambushed in the Roncevaux Pass high in the Pyrenees. This defeat of AD 778 was celebrated in the first major poem that can be described as French, La Chanson de Roland. The poem celebrates a heroic earlier age and, in recounting the clash of Christian and Islamic civilisations became a wonderful propaganda tool for the Crusades which kicked off in 1098. Written in an elaborate from with varying stanza lengths, based on a decasyllabic line and making skillful use of the heavy caesura, the work bears an obvious relationship, like other epics which celebrate the heroic age such as Beowulf, to oral culture.

Roland and Oliver fight a doomed rear-guard action against the hordes of pagans who threaten to overwhelm the French army, and their sacrifice transforms defeat into Christian victory. The poem is not for the fainthearted and the outlook of the poet and his knights is scarcely PC:


When Roland sees the accursed races
Who are blacker than the blackest of ink,
With only their teeth showing any whiteness,
The count said this: Now I can see truly
That today we shall die, I am sure of this.
Frenchmen strike, for with you I return to the fray.’
Said Oliver: ‘A curse on him who tarries!’
On hearing this, the French surge forward     
                                                                           (stanza 144).


These lines provide a good sense of Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt’s ...


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