jan shirley french translator and childrens author

The Song of Roland
Translated from French by Jan Shirley

Translation into blank verse, introduction and notes by Janet Shirley. Highly commended and first runner-up for the 1998 European Poetry in Translation prize. Accessible and accurate. Typeset by the Book House, JAN SHIRLEY

Paperback available from bookshops and from Llanerch.

The Old French original

A famous poem, which everybody 'knows' but hasn't read. Incidentally no one in the Middle Ages would have read it either. They would have watched and listened to it, it is a performance text - you have to imagine it put across by a performer who knew how to enact the different roles, who could at one moment be the stately emperor, next the furious young knight or the devious villain. At present the conversational exchanges, often very rapid, all lie flat on the page, but they are there for an actor to bring to life.

This, the oldest surviving version of the Roland story, was only rediscovered in 1837 in manuscript Digby 23 in the Bodleian Library.

It was probably written by a man called Turoldus or Thorold at the turn of the 11th/12th centuries, and links up powerfully with the crusading ethos of that time: go and slaughter non-Christians for the love of God. Incidentally, it's not really the story of Roland at all, but of Holy Church - Roland dies before the poem is half done and the rest is the triumph of Charlemagne and God. The human thread running through all this is brilliantly shown with the minimum of words. Roland and Ganelon, two of Charlemagne's most valued knights, hate each other. Why? No one tells us, people in those days knew the story, but we can guess - heroic Ganelon is the man who has married Roland's widowed mother, a lady the poet never even names, but we know she is Charlemagne's sister. We're among top people here. Heroic sneaky brilliant Ganelon, what lies he tells! Roland has contrived to get him sent on an embassy to the Muslim king, i.e. to almost certain death. Ganelon creates such a firework display of untruths that the Muslims swallow his bait hook line and sinker, and are all set to make a sham peace with Charlemagne and then move in on Roland and his company and massacre them all. And so they do, but you can read the poem itself. Look out for Oliver, a man with good sense, whereas Roland his sworn comrade is only rich in courage and his arrogance is fatal. To see some of the original text, click on Old French for the scene where the two heroes know they are dying and bid each other farewell.

Old French

La Chanson de Roland ed. Whitehead page 59:

Laisse 149

As vus Rollant sur sun cheval pasmet
E Oliver ki est a mort naffret.
Tant ad seinet, li oil li sunt trublet;
Ne loinz ne pres ne poet vedeir si cler
Que reconoistre poisset nuls hom mortel.
Sun cumpaignun, cum il l'at encuntret,
Sil fiert amunt sur l'elme a or gemet,
Tut li detrenchet d'ici qu'al nasel,
Mais en la teste ne l'ad mie adeset.
A icel colp l'ad Rollant reguardet,
Si li demandet dulcement e suef:
'Sire cumpain, faites le vos de gred?
Ja est co Rollant ki tant vos soelt amer,
Par nule guise ne m'aviez desfiet.'
Dist Oliver: 'Or vos oi jo parler,
Jo ne vos vei; veied vus Damnedeu!
Ferut vos ai? car le me pardunez!'
Rollant respunt: 'Jo n'ai nient de mel.
Jol vos parduins ici e devant Deu.'
A icel mot l'un a l'altre ad clinet.
Par tel amur as les vos desevred.

My version

Roland sits senseless on his horse. Nearby
Count Oliver is dying. He has bled
so freely that his eyes are troubled; now
he cannot see to tell two men apart.
Roland came near; Oliver struck at him,
struck on the helmet rich with gems and gold,
from top to nosepiece cracked the helm in two,
but did not touch his head. Roland looked up,
kindly and gently asked him,

'Comrade, friend,
did you intend that blow? It's Roland here,
Roland who's always loved you. I don't think
you gave me any challenge.'

'That's your voice.
But I can't see you,' Oliver replied.
'The Lord God see you! Was it you I hit?
Brother, forgive the blow!'

'You did no harm,
none,' said his comrade. 'I forgive it you
here and before the face of God.' At this
the two men bowed. In such dear love they part.


The archetypal traitor, whom Dante puts in the lowest pit of hell. Yet he is wonderfully handsome, his own knights are devoted to him, and so clever a liar that no one dreams of disbelieving a word he says. Even editors of the text sometimes discuss his lies quite seriously as if they were gospel truth. His good looks are repeatedly emphasised, and he often arrives on the scene in the very early morning just before dawn when, as medieval listeners would have known, you would expect to see the morning star, Lucifer, light-bringer, the angel who fell from heaven and became a prince among the devils in hell.


If you look for an accurate historical record in this poem, you will be disappointed. It shows the emperor conquering the whole of Spain for God; in fact he did mount a campaign or two in northern Spain, but in alliance with a local emir. It shows Roland and his rearguard massacred by Muslim forces as they withdrew over the Pyrenees; in fact an imperial baggage train was attacked and looted in 778, but by mountain-dwelling Basques, as Christian as anybody else. The dead did include the emperor's commander of the French-Breton borders, whose name was Roland. (See Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, tr. Thorpe, Penguin.) But if you want to know how people thought and felt about themselves and their world at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, this is the story to go for.

Charlemagne's Enemies

There is one thing missing from the Roland poem that seems common nowadays – the Roland does not demonise the enemy. There is a glorious series of character sketches of Moslem commanders and every single one of them is brave, intelligent, heroic. Some of them are wonderfully handsome, one is so attractive that no woman can help smiling at him, all are individual and distinct from each other, all are dangerous but not one of them mean. As for Baligant himself, the Emir of Babylon in Egypt, with his thatch of white curly hair and his princely bearing, the only thing wrong with him is that he is not a Christian. He is a fit opponent for the great Charlemagne, who does in the end defeat him, but only with what I cannot help feeling is the unfair help of the Angel Gabriel.

But why the poem shows Moslems as worshipping three gods and bowing down to images, I do not know and would dearly love to find out.