Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noted, become curious little gems in their own right, regardless of the advance of scholarship or textual history, and one of those is the 1957 translation of La Chanson de Roland done by renowned mystery novel author Dorothy Sayers. The Song of Roland, that massively popular medieval verse epic about a heroic knight in the rearguard of Charlemagne fighting against the Muslims, has since been given a spiffy newer translation by Glyn Burgess, and scholarship has moved on – if a graduate student in French medieval literature were to cite Sayers’ translation, that student would be politely told to use more up-to-date material, and there’s probably justice in that.
But it doesn’t change the fact that Sayers’ Chanson is downright wonderful. She was capaciously learned (her Dante – also for Penguin Classics – is a marvel of annotation erudition … and the verse often isn’t bad either) and a fiercely energetic workhorse, and best of all she had a passionate love of the bookcase of revered classics in her London home. It’s every bit as thrilling now to watch her grappling with the works she translates as it was thirty or forty years ago. In the case of the Song of Roland, for instance, she grapples with the central quality of the work:
This is perhaps the right place at which to speak of the essential Christianity of the poem. It is not merely Christian in subject; it is Christian to it very bones. Nowhere does the substratum of an older faith break through the Christian surface, as it does, for example, in Beowulf. There is no supernatural except the Christian supernatural, and that works (as being fully Christian it must) only to influence men’s minds and actions, and not to provide a machinery for the story. And it is a Christianity as naïve and uncomplicated as might be found at any time in the simplest village church.
Simplicity does not mean ignorance. The poet is not likely to have been a monk or an ecclesiastic in major orders, but he was “clerky” enough to be acquainted with the lections and liturgy of the Church, and his theology, so far as it goes, is correct. But like most of his Christian contemporaries he has only the vaguest ideas about Moslem religion. For him, Saracens are just “Paynims” (i.e. pagans) and therefore (most inappropriately) idolaters.
And what of the verses themselves? Well, they creak. The main thing that can be said in their defense is that their vigor usually drowns out the creaking (we’ll see if this is true of Burgess’s version in 2045; I have my doubts, but we’ll see). Usually; The Song of Roland tends to bring out the worst in her Prince Valiant-style archaisms. I don’t know many readers today who’d be willing to slog through 4000 lines of stuff like this:
Lo, now! There comes a Paynim, Valdebron;
He stands before the King Marsilion,
And gaily laughing he says to Ganelon:
“Here, take my sword, a better blade is none.
A thousand mangons are in the hilt thereof;
‘Tis yours, fair sir, for pure affection,
For help against Roland the champion,
If in the rear-guard we find him as we want.”
Quoth Ganelon to him: “It shall be done.”
They kiss each other the cheek and chin upon.
I myself love it dearly for all its flaws (the main one being the fact that reading it is nothing at all like reading the original), love it far more than far better translations like the one Burgess does. I love its weird, matronly energy and its unabashed theatricality. Of course the very plot at the heart of the poem couldn’t be more fraught with topicality than it is in 2014, and that only adds to the quaint aura of the Sayers version. But her verses bounce along just as briskly as they did half a century ago, but her long Introduction holds up even more strongly, a joy to read as was everything she wrote. I re-read her Song of Roland more often than I do any other version I have – creaking and all.