Saturday, August 20, 2011

Delayed gratification is sweeter

Maybe you can tell from the yellowing of the paper on the cover of Tome II that it's older than Tome I. I bought Tome II at a book sale in 1975 or 1976, when I had just finished a year-long U of Minn night school course in basic French, and only a few years after I had finished a really fine course in medieval history at the U. I knew it was an important piece of French literature, and I wanted to see if I could read it in an edition published for French speakers (Nouveaux Classiques Larousse).

I put it on the shelves and waited.

In 2002, I found a copy of Dorothy Sayers' translation of the epic, leafed through it a bit, put it on the shelves, and waited.

On August 5, 2011, I finally found a copy of Tome I, and now I can settle down with the whole thing and enjoy.

"The poem itself as we know it," writes Sayers, "would appear to have achieved its final shape towards the end of the eleventh century." She translated from a manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which she says is "the oldest and best of all the versions." It contains 291 laisses, or divisions. In the Larousse books, the laisses are all in modern French, but with laisses 146-185 in the original Old French, which for me is a double treat.

Here's a sample, laisse 150. First the original, then in modern French, then in Sayers' English (she attempts to emulate the syllabication and assonance of the original):

Oliver sent que la mort mult l'angoisset.
Ansdous les oilz en la teste li turnent.
L'oïe pert et la veüe tute;
Descent a piet, a la tere se culchet,
Durement en halt si recleimet sa culpe,
Cuntre le ciel ambesdous ses mains juintes,
Si priet Deu que pareïs li dunget
E beneïst Karlun e France dulce,
Sun cumpaignun Rollant sur tuz humes.
Falt li le coer, le helme li embrunchet,
Trestut le cors a la tere li justet.
Morz est li quens, que plus ne se demuret.
Rollant li ber le pluret, sil duluset;
Jamais en tere n'orrez plus dolent hume.

Olivier sent que la mort l'angoisse beaucoup.
Les deux yeux lui tournent dans la tête,
Il perd l'ouïe et la vue entièrement;
Il quitte sa monture, s'étend à terre.
Fermement, à haute voix, il dit sa coulpe.
Vers le ciel, il a élevé ses deux mains jointes,
Et il prie Dieu de lui donner le paradis,
De bénir Charles et la douce France
Et par-dessous tous les hommes, son compagnon Roland.
Le coeur lui manque, le heaume retombe,
Tout son corps s'affaisse contre terre.
Le comte est mort, il n'a pu prolonger son séjour.
Roland le preux le pleure et s'afflige;
Jamais sur terre vous n'entendrez homme plus douloureux.

Oliver feels the coming pangs of death;
Both of his eyes are turning in his head,
Now he is blind totally, and totally deaf.
He lights from horse and to his knees he gets
And makes confession aloud, and beats his breast,
And clasps his hands, and lifts them up to Heav'n;
In Paradise he prays God give him rest,
And France the fair and Carlon prays Him bless,
And his companion Roland above all men.
His heart-strings crack, he stoops his knightly helm,
And sinks to earth, and lies there all his length.
Dead is the count, his days have reached their end.
The valiant Roland weeps for him and laments,
No man on earth felt ever such distress.

Sayers also has some insightful comments on the Middle Ages, and on the war between Saracen and Christian (timely today, which is another reason waiting until 2011 to read this was a good thing).

"And now, embattled alongside the French, for the first time we see "the Franks", and hear the voice of all Christendom. In the final encounter of the last great battle Charles and Baligant meet face to face:
Quoth the Emir: 'Bethink thee, Charles, and see
That thou repent what thou hast done to me.
My son is slain; I know it was by thee;
And on my lands thou wrongfully hast seized.
Become my man, and I will be thy liege;
Then come and serve me, from here unto the East.'
Quoth Carlon: 'Nay, I'd hold it treachery;
Never to Paynims may I show love or peace.
Do thou confess the Faith by God revealed,
Take Christendom, and thy first friend I'll be.
The King Almighty then serve thou and believe.'
Quoth Baligant: 'Thy sermon's but ill preached.'
Once more with swords they battle, each to each.

"At last the word is spoken that should have been spoken long ago: 'Never to Paynims may I show love or peace.' It should have been spoken at that first disastrous council; but Charlemagne, though his mind and conscience misgive him, takes counsel of the French, and the French, swayed by Naimon and Ganelon, choose to have peace for peace's sake.

"So the grand outline of the poem defines itself: a private war is set within a national war, and the national war again within the world-war of Cross and Crescent. The small struggle at the centre shakes the whole web."

I could never have appreciated any of this in 1975 or 1976, nor before 2001 especially, the conflict.