Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 71The Italian Orlando
Italy has laid claim to Roland, and in the guise of Orlando, Orlando Furioso, Orlando Innamorato, has made him into a fantastic, chivalrous knight, a hero of many magical adventures.
Roland in French Literature
Noblest of all, however, is the development of the “Roland Saga” in French literature; for, even setting aside much legendary lore and accumulated tradition, the Roland of the old epic is a perfect hero of the early days of feudalism, when chivalry was in its very beginnings, before the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary added the grace of courtesy to its heroism. Evidently Roland had grown in importance before the “Chanson de Roland” took its present form, for we find the rearguard skirmish magnified into a great battle, which manifestly contains recollections of later Saracen invasions and Gascon revolts. As befits the hero of an epic, Roland is now of royal blood, the nephew of the great emperor, who has himself increased in age and splendour; this heroic Roland can obviously only be overcome by the treachery of one of the Franks themselves, so there appears the traitor Ganelon (a Romance version of a certain Danilo or Nanilo), who is among the Twelve Peers what Judas was among the Apostles; the mighty Saracens, not the insignificant Basques, are now the victors; and the vengeance taken by Charlemagne on the Saracens and on the traitor is boldly [Pg 122] added to history, which leaves the disaster unavenged. Thus the bare fact was embroidered over gradually by the historical imagination, aided by patriotism, until a really national hero was evolved out of an obscure Breton count.
The “Chanson de Roland”
The “Song of Roland,” as we now have it, seems to be a late version of an Anglo-Norman poem, made by a certain Turoldus or Thorold; and it must bear a close resemblance to that chant which fired the soldiers of William the Norman at Hastings, when