French Connections

Find Holiday accommodation in France

The story behind the The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland) which is the oldest major work of French literature.


Rollant ad mis l'olifan a sa buche, Empeint le bien, par grant vertut le sunet. Halt sunt li pui e la voiz est mult lunge, Granz .XXX. liwes l'oïrent il respundre. Karles l'oït e ses cumpaignes tutes . . .

YES, I had problems with this, too. It's Norman French, from about the time of William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry. 1066 and All That, in fact. The lines come from La Chanson de Roland, the Song of Roland, a masterpiece of early French epic verse. I had a quiet word with Josephine about it: she did French at Cambridge, and a ready translation ought to trip off her tongue. Our version's maybe a bit free, but you get the general idea:

Roland raised the horn to his mouth, Grasped it firmly, blew it with great strength. Its mighty sound echoed among the high peaks; Thirty leagues away Charlemagne and his all companions heard it . . .

Now what's all this about, then? 'Rollant' is Roland, Orlando in Italian, Roldan in Spanish, a great hero from the time when dawn was just breaking over the Dark Ages, a figure as iconic as Beowulf, as pure in thought, word and deed as Sir Galahad, as brave, and as fated to die, as Richard Coeur de Lion.

Here's the story. After a successful campaign in Spain Charlemagne led his armies back to France, leaving behind a gang of Saracen kings reeling after heavy defeat like a 9-strike at ten-pin bowling. One, however, a craven chap called Marsile, swore allegiance to Charlemagne and promised to become a Christian if only his kingdom of Zaragoza could be spared. Charlemagne agreed, but some skullduggery between Marsile and Ganelon, a traitor in Charlemagne's camp who had a score to settle with Roland, resulted in our hero being given command of the rearguard as Charlemagne's army marched northwards across the Pyrenees over the Pass of Roncevalles.

Charlemagne had given Roland a horn called an oliphant (l'olifan in the lines above), so called because it resembled an elephant's tusk. The oliphant had very special properties: whenever and wherever it was blown, Charlemagne would hear its summons and would come at once to the rescue. If Roland found himself in trouble, he had only to blow the oliphant and help would be at hand.

No sooner had the main body of Charlemagne's army disappeared over the crest of the pass than Marsile's lurking horde of Saracens crept up to the pass. Roland, heavily outnumbered and isolated with his men, laid about him mightily with his sword Durandal, but slowly the Saracens gained the upper hand. Roland refused to blow, saying it was shameful thus to admit defeat, and only relented when he and his close companions Oliver and Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims, were close to death. He blew, bursting blood vessels in his head. Charlemagne heard it, and turned at once despite Ganelon trying to dissuade him. But it was too late: when Charlemagne arrived, the Saracens had retreated but Roland was dead with his sword Durandal buckled where he had tried to break it on a great rock to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

 (So much for legend. Serious historians assign some kind of battle at the Pass of Roncevalles to the year 778, probably fought between Charlemagne's troops and an army of Basques who were subsequently slaughtered. It was this fight that was later grafted on to the Roland legend. However, it has to be said that when the Duke of Wellington invaded France in the closing stages of the Napoleonic Wars in 1813, he dispersed his armies over several Pyrenean passes, rather than risk concentrating his forces at one exit point as Charlemagne's enemies had done. I feel - I'm sure you do, too - that this just goes to show how foolish it can be to put all your Basques in one exit.)

 When we went to Spain for a birthday holiday recently, ears cocked for echoes of the famous legend of Roland, we took in Roncevalles. The word means 'valley of brambles' or possibly 'thorns'. It's the highest point on the road from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Pamplona in Spain. On the French side it rises very sharply with the road hairpinning up through dense forests and steep-sided rocky gorges loud with rushing torrents. At the top it levels out, and the descent into Spain is much gentler. No brambles, but thick clumps of gorse. Could these be the ronces of the place-name?

 Someone has set up a large commemorative rock with the inscription 'Roldan 778 - 1967'. There are also some twisted stubs of iron brackets, all that's left of a replica of the sword Durandal, which some determined souvenir hunter, maybe a latter-day Saracen from Zaragoza, has wrenched off. (If you want to see what's supposed to be the original of Durandal you have to go to Rocamadour in the Lot département, where a massive sword is stuck high in the wall of the Notre Dame chapel.)

There was the deep silence of high places, broken only by the occasional passing car, children playing and the harsh cry of eagles soaring on the Pyrenean thermals. No echo of the clash of sword on shield, no braying of frightened horses, shouts of triumph or agony. No horn-calls, either.

* * *

France is gripped by election fever at the moment, as President Chirac's time is up. It takes two elections to find a new president: the first round weeds out the no-hopers and the mavericks, while the two highest-scoring candidates go through to the second and final round a fortnight later. The polls clearly show four possible front-runners:

François Bayrou, from the centrist UDF (Union Démocratique Française) Jean-Marie Le Pen, from the far-right Front National Ségolène Royal, from the Parti Socialiste Nicolas Sarkozy, from the centre-right UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire)

Well, as expats we don't have the right to vote (although they don't deprive us of the right to pay French taxes) so whatever happens to France in the next few years it won't be our fault. I wrote to each of these candidates recently asking each of them whether, if elected, he or she (Mme Ségolène reminds me comfortably of childhood milk puddings) would give voting rights to long-term expats like Josephine and me. To date only one has replied. The National Front gave me a clear and unequivocal answer: No.

Evidently sterner measures are needed. If we expats are to win voting rights, much more  attention needs to be drawn to our plight. I'd better an oliphant. Quickly.