The Medieval Review 13.03.09

Duggan, Joseph J. and Annalee C. Rejhon. The Song of Roland: Translations of the Versions in Assonance and Rhyme of the Chanson de Roland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. 519. 90.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-54464-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Gerard J. Brault
Penn State University

The world famous chanson de geste known as The Song of Roland survives in many different versions. However, it is the Anglo-Norman text found in a manuscript discovered by French antiquarian Francisque Michel in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and first published by him in 1837 that has attracted the attention of most scholars. And rightly so.

Endeavoring to establish its original form, elucidate the meaning of key passages, and encapsulate the broader significance of this epic, generations of commentators and editors have published a wealth of studies that highlight its great importance. As a consequence, it is the only version that is taught in schools and known to general readers, usually in a modern translation.

Be that as it may, the other early retellings of the poem are certainly worthy of perusal and study. Joseph J. Duggan, who recently retired as Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, deserves great praise for recruiting an international team of seasoned and respected scholars--Robert F. Cook, William W. Kibler, Annalee C. Rejhon, Ian Short, and Wolfgang G. van Emden (Karen Akiyama provided a concordance of laisses)--who earlier published a long-awaited set of the entire French corpus. [1] Like the work under review here, it is characterized by sound editorial judgment and analysis.

Duggan and his spouse and collaborator, Annalee C. Rejhon (she is Lecturer in the same department at Berkeley with an added specialty in Middle Welsh), have now brought out modern English translations of the Oxford and the Châteauroux-Venice 7 (CV7) Versions respectively.

Over the years, there have been numerous English translations of the first of these texts, but CV7 now receives its first rendering in this language. Both versions are competently edited and well-annotated by their translators. Some of the differences readers may find in other translations of the Oxford version have to do with decisions made editing the text upon which it is based. Here Duggan used Short's edition in the 2005 collection mentioned above and Rejhon utilized Duggan's in the same series.

There are some interesting variations in these two versions of the same poem and it is to be hoped that their availability together in this elegant new work will stimulate detailed comparisons leading to new insights. Also, one cannot help but be curious about how a translator renders thorny passages. To cite but one example, Duggan translates Oxford's concluding line (4002) Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet as: Here ends the tale that Turoldus copies.

Some of Duggan's earlier contributions to Roland studies shed light on the preceding sentence. Early on, he published A Concordance of the Chanson de Roland, which, to this day, remains a very useful tool for scholars of this epic, especially those engaged in a close reading of the work. [2]

This major reference work was followed by Duggan's book entitled The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft, a provocative analysis of our chanson de geste in the footsteps of Milman Perry, Albert B. Lord, and Jean Rychner. [3]

Duggan's approach to the Roland, elaborated and energetically defended in this 1973 study, led to a debate with William C. Calin, Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida. It took the form of four major articles in the Spring 1981 Issue of Olifant, the journal of the American-Canadian Branch of the Société Rencesvals (Calin, pp. 227-237; Duggan, pp. 238-255; Calin, pp. 256-285; Duggan, pp. 286-316). In this carefully reasoned discussion, Duggan made his case and was ably opposed by Calin, writing in defense of more traditional approaches.

Among other contributions, one may also cite Duggan's Guide to Studies on the Chanson de Roland. [4] Though modest and outdated, it can still be consulted with profit today.

In 1978, the 1200th anniversary of the battle of Roncevaux, which is central to our poem, inspired a number of commemorations--notably an itinerant international congress along the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela--and an unusually bountiful harvest of publications.

The uninitiated person desirous of obtaining an English translation of The Song of Roland, whether for casual perusal or for serious study, is confronted with a bewildering number of options. There are dozens of texts available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle, a couple of the latter actually for free as e-books. On, Duggan and Rejhon's translations reviewed here go for a whopping $157.

But you certainly get what you pay for.


Notes: 1. Joseph J. Duggan, gen. ed., La Chanson de Roland/The Song of Roland: The French Corpus (Turnhout: Brepolss, 2005).

2. Idem, A Concordance of the Chanson de Roland (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969).

3. Idem, The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973). 4. Idem, Guide to Studies on the Chanson de Roland (London: Grant and Cutler, 1976).