Turoldus - The Song of Roland

Death of Roland

The Song of Roland, or, in French, La Chanson de Roland, is the best known of the Old French epics. It was possibly first composed some time in the 10th or 11th century, though the earliest extant version of the chanson, was found in the 12th century, in a manuscript designated as "Digby 23", now kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. There are later versions that can be found in other manuscripts, but none of them are as complete as the Digby version.

The author of the chanson de Roland was possibly Turoldus, whose name was include at the very end of the epic. Whether he was the original composer of the epic or that he was the compiler of Digby manuscript, or a fictional author, is uncertain.  The author of the chanson clearly set out to immortalize the hero Roland and the so-called Twelve Peers, in similar fashion that later medieval poets immortalize King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

 

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The Song of Roland by Turoldus

 

The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It was possibly first composed some time in the 10th or 11th century, though the earliest extant version of the chanson was found in the 12th century, in a manuscript designated as "Digby 23", now kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It exists in various different manuscript versions, which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these versions is the one in the Oxford manuscript, which contains a text of some 4,004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170).  This is an English translation. Translated by Charles Kenneth Scott-Moncrieff.

The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero.  The chansons de geste, Old French for "songs of heroic deeds [or lineages]", are the epic poems that appear at the dawn of French literature.

 

Roland receives brief mention in Einhard's account of the massacre at Roncesvalles. The Song of Roland transforms him into an epic hero, a model of knighthood for the new era of the Crusades. Roland is hot-tempered and bold, which wins both criticism and praise from his friends. He is Charlemagne's nephew and right-hand man, and he has conquered vast lands for his liege lord. So important is he to Charlemagne's efforts that Ganelon promises the Saracens that Charlemagne will lose the will to fight if Roland dies. Roland also refuses, from the beginning, to negotiate with the Saracens. He sees the war against Islam as being a question of religious obligation. He is bold, but not prudent or wise. Arguably, his decision not to blow the oliphant early in the battle at Rencesvals leads to the deaths of twenty thousand men, among whom are the very dearest of his friends. And yet he is undeniably the poems most glamorous hero. His death scene (see picture above) is one of the most powerful and memorable scenes in French literature, and his soul is escorted to heaven by saints and angels.

 

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