Anne Latowsky

title.none: Burland, Strange Words (Anne Latowsky)

identifier.other: baj9928.0806.008 08.06.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Latowsky, University of Southern Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Burland, Margaret Jewett. Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: Univrsity of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. 344. ISBN: $37 978-0-268022-03-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.06.08

Burland, Margaret Jewett. Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition. Notre Dame, IN: Univrsity of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Pp. 344. ISBN: $37 978-0-268022-03-7.

Reviewed by:

Anne Latowsky
University of Southern Florida

French medievalists have been hearing an increasingly urgent call for new approaches to the study of the Song of Roland that look beyond the version based on Oxford Digby 23. In his 2001 Speculum article "Was there a Song of Roland?," Andrew Taylor answered his own provocative question affirmatively, but with the crucial qualification that while there had been songs of Roland, there had likely been no single lengthy version routinely sung from beginning to end. In 2005, Brepols published the monumental collaboration led by Joseph Duggan, La Chanson de Roland; the Song of Roland: The French Corpus, which conveniently gathers into a single publication new editions of the Oxford, Venice 4, Châteauroux- Venice 7, Paris, Cambridge, and Lyon manuscripts. Now, with the publication of Margaret Jewett Burland's Strange Words: Retelling and Reception in the Medieval Roland Textual Tradition, we possess an invaluable tool with which to reconsider the battle of Roncevaux and its aftermath, and to see it in its broader context as an essential piece of collective memory that was the subject of multiple and varied narrations. In Burland's capable hands, the comparison of four separate versions of France's most famous lost battle proves to be a groundbreaking new look at not only the Roland tradition, but the very functioning of medieval French literary culture.

Burland engages her reader from the outset with the unexpected assertion that the Song of Roland has been largely neglected by scholars. She is being ironic, of course, and is referring to something beyond the Oxford Roland, and that is the world of "other" Roncevaux narratives. Her study consists of four discrete yet harmoniously united studies of four different Roncevaux narratives: Oxford, Châteauroux, the Occitan Ronsasvals, and the Cheltenham Galïen restoré. For each of these works, she considers discursive moments, that is to say, scenes in which characters speak (lamentations, confessions), debate (to sound or not sound the horn?), and recount events to one another, such as when Charlemagne informs Aude of Roland's death. Her discovery in comparing these multiple narratives is that the act of retelling what happened at Roncevaux was a rhetorically sophisticated enterprise, and one motivated by a "deliberate metaliterary agenda." While based on a set of essentially unchangeable elements, the matter of Roncevaux offered the possibility of innovation, which occurred primarily in scenes of discursive interaction. Changes from version to version in the discourse between characters did not change the basic components of the story, but they could create shifts in perception. For instance, Roland and Oliver will always die, but depictions of the debate over the blowing of the horn can vary, and those variations are available to the audience, but never to the other characters in the story. Thus, changes in Roland's or Oliver's reasoning had the power to alter the perception of their characters over time and in different literary contexts.

Burland's cogently presented overall argument holds that the various retellings of the story of Roncevaux, each in their own ways, staged competing narratives within the fictional universe that expressed larger concerns about the transmission of pieces of collective memory. The problems of narration and reception that played out within the story can therefore be seen as mirrors of both contemporary problems of oral and textual transmission as well as of the experiences of audiences who were themselves increasingly confronted with multiple versions of the events at Roncevaux. I should add here that, for better or worse, Burland does not dwell on the problematic concept of the medieval audience, although she does concede that the strategies she exposes were certainly meant for an audience familiar enough with preceding narrations to recognize and appreciate the changes she points out.

The striking title Strange Words comes from a key instance of retelling and reception in the Oxford Roland when Charlemagne informs Aude of Roland's death. She refuses to accept the news, declaring his words "strange" or "foreign" to her: "Cest mot mei est estrange" (v. 3717). Her reception of this tragic news embodies a primary concern of Burland's study, namely the ways in which interactions within the fictional universe dramatize both the possibilities for multiple representations of a single truth and the accompanying risks of faulty transmission. The scene is thus a crucial metaphor for the risks inherent in preserving and passing down the Roncevaux story. Throughout the thirteenth century, Burland argues, audiences were encouraged to see information as both subject to interpretation and vulnerable to misinterpretation. They were consequently also encouraged to see authors and narrators (bearers of information) as potentially flawed, mistaken, and capable of deforming the contents of their messages, an idea that can be extended to figures of real political authority. Charlemagne in the Oxford Roland is to Aude, then, what a narrator or author was to an audience, a bearer of news concerning the events that occurred at Roncevaux. The audience, like Aude, could be summoned to pass judgment on the message and its messenger. Such scenes also raise questions that go beyond the fiction within the text to the broader issues of the relationship of the text to its narrator (internal primary narrator or scribe) and of the narrator to the audience charged with determining the value of the message and its messenger.

In her relatively brief and lucid introduction, Burland aligns herself with scholars such as Peter Haidu and Sarah Kay, whom she credits with bringing notions of linguistic indeterminacy and narrative interplay to readings of Old French epic. As a narrator herself, Burland proves an expert guide in leading the reader through the sometimes very detailed evidence which she brings to bear. The result is a tightly presented piece of scholarly work that goes deep enough for experts in Roland studies, but remains accessible to initiates to the world of Roncevaux. Throughout the book, the issues she confronts are not simply about the Roncevaux tradition, for her work goes to the very heart of many ongoing problems in the study of medieval textuality: genre, hybridity of discourses, orality, authorship, textual transmission, innovation, rhetorical strategy, audience reception, and the political and spiritual functions of literature.

The first chapter is devoted to the Oxford Roland, in which, among other things, she demonstrates the metaliterary function of moments when information is available to certain characters and to the audience while unavailable to others. Such distributions of information then implicate an informed audience, which is tacitly encouraged to judge the motives, value, and the reliability of the discourses of certain characters over those of others. For Burland, this dramatization of modes of conveying information evokes the larger issues of translation and transmission in medieval culture. For instance, the famous final line of Oxford, "Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet," creates a complex triangular relationship between an oft-invoked preexisting authority, a new narrator, and a new version that seeks to be no less authentic than its source. Yet, within the Oxford Roland, a self-conscious retelling of the version given in the geste, Burland finds numerous moments in which the pains of that process of reiteration are metaphorically played out within the discursive interplay between characters. She duly acknowledges her debt to Eugene Vance and his notion of commemoration in the Oxford Roland, and then builds upon it by providing further evidence of the poem's deep preoccupation with the very processes by which the precious matter of Roncevaux was being and might again be transmitted.

The second chapter considers Châteauroux, one of seven rhymed versions of the Roland, which dates to sometime from after 1190. Châteauroux stands out in its elongation of both the episode with Aude and the trial and execution of Ganelon, and for its greater attention to character discourse in general. As Burland painstakingly shows, the changes brought by this particular author are subtle, akin, in her words, to subliminal advertising, but with the potential to provoke major shifts in perception. Aude's reception of the news of Roland's death is again an essential moment when changes in discourse invite new modes of reception of the larger narrative. In this version, Charlemagne decides to lie to Aude about Roland's death, thereby becoming his own brand of lying narrator of the events of Roncevaux. After having a dream that tells her what has happened, Aude seeks help from a clerk in interpreting the information she is receiving. He also lies to protect her. Charlemagne and the deceiving clerk do not lie out of malice, but Aude knows the truth based on the transcendent power of her dreams, divine messages that both king and clerk elect to undermine. Faced with these multiple misrepresentations, however well- meaning, Aude is confronted with a dilemma that mirrored the dilemma of contemporary audiences faced with multiple messengers bringing the Roncevaux story. More broadly speaking, rulers and clerks were manipulators of public discourse and individuals with the power to misrepresent and even commit to the page faulty versions of matters of collective interest.

The third chapter studies Ronsasvals, an Occitan poem with signs of Old French influence that dates to the first half of the thirteenth century. Unlike in the Châteauroux, the matter of Roncevaux undergoes radical changes in Ronsasvals in the form of condensation, elongation, and elimination of episodes. It also contains the addition of new characters, such as the jongleur Portajoya. The work is markedly more religious than the previous two, and shows a shift from collective political concerns and solutions to an emphasis on individual spirituality, in particular with regard to Charlemagne. In this chapter, Burland elegantly displays the "generic hybridity" of Ronsasvals by showing how it was suffused with the themes and preoccupations of Occitan lyric poetry. She then demonstrates the metalinguistic effects of this "Occitan inflection." In a world of post-battle grief, certain protagonists embody the traits of the fin amant with characteristic self-absorption, desire for joya, feelings of extreme jealousy, fear of the slanderer (lauzengier), and concern with mezura. The troubadour influenced moments in the poem play out in scenes of extended discourse such as the horn debate, laments over the dead, and the conversations leading to Aude's death from grief.

The Charlemagne of this poem is a humble sinner overcome by grief over the death of Roland; he even admits that his nephew is also his son by his own sister. This Charlemagne fails as a leader precisely because his grief is excessive to the point of sinfulness, and he refuses to accept his sins and follow God's will. Roland, by contrast, is an exemplary figure who accedes to God's will and joins Aude in the afterlife in a spiritual marriage that is fin amors with God's approval. Ronsasvals, in a manner much bolder than that of Châteauroux, advocates new modes of reading and reception, and leaves judgment of the events of Roncevaux to an audience confronted with unfamiliar depictions of the spiritual development of its beloved heroes.

The final section addresses Galïen Restoré, which recounts the adventures of Galien, the son of Oliver and the daughter of Hugo the Strong, who was conceived during the night in Constantinople famously described in the Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. Galien narratives, of which we have none that predates the fifteenth century, were extremely popular, more so than any version of the Song of Roland until the nineteenth century. Despite the existence of multiple versions, Burland limits her study to the verse edition of Galïen Restoré preserved in the Cheltenham manuscript which dates to around 1490. Her first task is to justify her categorization of the poem as a Roncevaux narrative, which she does successfully by showing that the work is itself a carefully crafted call for recollection of Roncevaux.

The illegitimate Galien grows up in exile and upon reaching adolescence decides to find his father. The young hero arrives at Roncevaux just in time to cradle the dying Oliver in her arms. Galien is a new figure in the Roncevaux narrative, a sometimes awkward graft, but one, who, much like the changes in discourse seen in early texts, constitutes a meaningful emendation that is equally powerless to truly alter the essential elements of the story. His function is likewise metaliterary, for he offers the possibility of changes in perspective. Galien is at once a new hero for France, one who works alongside Charlemagne to save the French at Roncevaux and, at the same time, a reminder that Roland and Oliver can never be truly replaced. On a metaliterary level, Burland argues, this is a lesson about fifteenth- century literary culture and the relationship between new vernacular works and the classic Old French materials. To demonstrate this point, she offers a fascinating look at the Galien's nostalgic use of "old language," meaning language characterized by long outdated traits of Old French, deployed at moments when Galien is interjected into familiar scenes with the original characters of Roncevaux. This linguistic play is a strategy that reinforces the essential tension between the need for the creation of the new while preserving the value of the old as they are forced to coexist in a text founded on deliberate nostalgia. The Cheltenham Galïen, she argues, has a literary mission that it carries out by creatively retelling the Roncevaux story (an old classic by then) in a manner that addresses the concerns of both contemporary audiences and contemporary literature. Vernacular literature is warned not to forget where it came from.

This is a carefully constructed and elegantly argued study, and the issues at stake in the book go far beyond the study of songs of Roland. For, as Burland so deftly shows, by dramatizing the obstacles inherent in the very literary project in which they appeared, these Roncevaux retellings changed the very matière which they transmitted, and in doing so, altered the contexts in which they were received. We should all hope to hear much more from this important voice in medieval studies.