Review: The Song of Roland translated by Dorothy Sayers

The Song of Roland is an often overlooked masterpiece of medieval literature. This short epic is an introduction to the virtues and ideas of chivalry. Here, the good old king Charlemagne leads the good forces of Christian France against the evil Paynim. The greatest warrior of Christendom, Roland, Charlemagne’s nephew, is slain in the battle, but the Christians achieve victory nonetheless. Charlemagne himself kills the Paynim king in single combat. He then orders of the Paynim baptized and takes the queen herself to his palace to be catechized and baptized.

The relationship between Charlemagne and Roland is an obvious allegory of the relationship of the Father and the Son in the Christian Trinity. Charlemagne is the Father, the Ancient of Days, two centuries old and possessing a long white beard. Roland is the Son who enters into the world to defeat the forces of evil through his death and resurrection. Roland is betrayed by a friend, dies and rises while on a hill with a tree and four silent witnesses. Charlemagne the Father then becomes Charlemagne the Spirit, completing the Trinity, as he leads the Christian army in the apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil and takes up the task of spreading the Gospel — both the Gospel of Christianity and the “gospel” of Roland in telling the tale of his deeds.

The Paynims are the equal and opposite of the Christians with their unholy trinity, their idolatrous statues, and their priests lacking proper ordination. Although historically the enemy were Muslims, they have become instead anti-Christians. Whatever is opposite to Christianity is what the Paynim is.

An interesting feature in the story which caught my eye is the habit of pairing. Each of the 12 great warriors of the Christians is paired with another of their group. There is a Paynim warrior who looks like a Christian and a Christian who betrays his fellow men to the Paynim. There are two deaths of Roland, one temporary and the other permanent. The betrayer Ganelon is killed through the use of water and the Queen of Spain enters new life through the waters of baptism. There are, the poet shows us, two ways: the way of life and the way of death.

This translation is by the erudite Dorothy Sayers, perhaps best known for her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” now very popular among advocates of classical education. Of particular interest here is the use to which she puts her theory of literature, most fully explicated in The Mind of the Maker, in translating this work. Her introduction serves as an excellent crash course in chivalry in addition to laying a framework for interpretation of The Song of Roland.

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in literature, particularly in Christian/Western literature, the Middle Ages, and/or the epic. I believe, however, that any reader will enjoy this work for its wonderful storytelling and thought-provoking themes.

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