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The Story of Roland (Illustrated)

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Roland, the nephew of the Charlemagne of romance, and his companion in all great enterprises, is unknown to history. Yet he is the typical knight, the greatest hero of the middle ages. His story, as I shall tell it you, is not a mere transcript of the old romances. The main incidents have been derived from a great variety of sources, while the arrangement and the connecting parts are of my own invention. I have culled the story from the song-writers and poets of five centuries and of as many languages. Sometimes I have adhered closely to the matter and spirit, and even the words, of the originals; sometimes I have given free rein to my own imagination; and throughout I have endeavored so to arrange and retouch the individual parts of the story as lend interest to its recital, and adapt it to our own ways of thinking, and our modern notions of propriety. The oldest story of Roland was doubtless that which was sung by the minstrel of William the Conqueror, in 1066. Wace, in his account of the battle of Hastings, says, "Taillefer, who sang very well, rode before the duke, singing of Charlemagne and of Roland and Oliver, and of the vassals who died at Roncevaux." The song which Taillefer sang must have been the "Chanson de Roland," written by one Turold, perhaps as early as the tenth century. It is by far the finest of all the "tales of France." More than twenty years after the battle of Hastings, there appeared a Latin work, entitled, "The Life of Charles the Great and of Roland," which, it was claimed, had been written by Archbishop Turpin, the father-confessor of Charlemagne. The falsity of this claim is too apparent to need any proof; and yet the work, having been sanctioned by Pope Calixtus, and placed by him upon the roll of canonical books, exerted no small influence over the poetical literature which followed it, and supplied materials and suggestions to many later romancists. In England, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there appeared several rhyming romances relating to our hero. Among these were "Sir Ferumbras," an adaptation of a French poem, entitled "Fierabras," "Otuel," and "Roland and Ferragus." One of the first books printed in our language was a legendary history of Charlemagne, entitled "The Lyf of Charles the Great, fynysshed in the reducing of it into Englysshe in the xvii day of Juin MCCCCLXXXV. Explicit per William Caxton." In our own time, Mr. John Malcolm Ludlow, in his "Popular Epics of the Middle Ages," has given us a valuable critical analysis of some of the most noticeable legends of Roland and Charlemagne. In Germany, we find an adaptation of the "Chanson de Roland" in an old poem, entitled, "Ruolandes Liet," which appeared, probably, as early as 1177, and has recently been edited by William Grimm. Karl Simrock's "Kerlingisches Heldenbuch" contains some of the most delightful traditions of Roland and Charlemagne; and the "Kaiserchronik," published in 1849, gives a complete legendary history of Charlemagne and his peers from a German point of view. In Italy the story of Roland was long a most fertile and attractive theme, and gave rise to more than one great poem. The legends relating to his parentage and boyhood are contained in the "Innamoramento di Milone d'Anglante," printed in the sixteenth century, and in several other poems much older; the "Orlando Innamorato" of Boiardo tells us of the marvellous adventures of our hero in Fairyland and in the Far East; the "Orlando Furioso" of Ariosto tells of his prowess as a knight, his disappointment in love, his madness and ultimate recovery; the "Morgante Maggiore" of Pulci relates the story of his later adventures and his death. In the mediæval romances of Spain the name of Roland is of frequent occurrence; and the story, modified to suit the prejudices of Spanish readers, is found in numerous old songs and poems, some of them as early as the twelfth century.


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