Karen Pratt on a new translation of the Oxford Roland by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt (Oxford World’s Classics).

In The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne our aim was to produce lively prose translations, which, especially in the case of the Oxford Roland, pay attention to epic rhythm and style, in an attempt to recreate some of the excitement of aural reception. We have also placed the famous epic about the heroic death of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland in the context of two lesser-known medieval French epics which present the emperor and his companions in a far from favourable light. The late twelfth- early thirteenth-century Occitan Daurel et Beton depicts Charles marrying off his recently widowed sister to her husband’s murderer for money, while the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Voyage de Charlemagne à Jérusalem et à Constantinople presents him as a relic-grabbing, arrogant, insensitive tourist abroad. His men, including Roland and Oliver, indulge in a series of post-prandial boasts which insult their host, King Hugo the Strong of Constantinople, and are only fulfilled with the dubious intervention of a highly indulgent Christian God. This work may well be a satirical riposte to the late eleventh-century Latin Descriptio qualiter, a text which outrageously claims Carolingian origins for the relics held at Saint-Denis. It also parodies the diction of heroic epic and pokes fun at the human frailty of characters who will play a more tragic and heroic role in the Battle of Rencesvals. While the epic grandeur and lyrical pathos of the Oxford Roland are not challenged by this re-contextualisation of the canonical work, we are reminded that as Charlemagne’s legend developed his reputation was not always unblemished, perhaps, in particular, when presented by French-speaking authors beyond the Capetian realm.