I was fascinated by the story of Stanford medievalist (and “text technologies”) researcher Elaine Treharne who compressed Beowulf into 100 tweets. #Beowulf100
Could I do the same with another medieval epic, The Song of Roland? Well, I decided to try. I based my tweeted version on the 1963 prose translation by poet W. S. Merwin. Instead of 100 tweets, I opted for 291, which corresponds to the 291 laisses, or stanzas typically found in medieval French literature, specifically French epic poetry.
I had a time frame—one month from start to end—and although I took a two week break from tweeting while in India, I actually did complete the project.
So what did I discover in all that tweeting?
1. The Song of Roland is repetitive. For example, there’s the question of whether or not to blow the horn.
LXXXIV Roland, for God’s sake, blast your horn! cries Oliver. #SOR291
LXXXV Blast your horn! No! I will not be shamed! says Roland. #SOR291
LXXXVI The horn! The horn! Oliver begs once again. Roland replies I am eager for battle! #SOR291
LXXXVII No more talk of horns! cries Roland. We will meet the enemy head on. #SOR291
Or take the fainting. Roland faints; he is revived; he faints again. Next Charles the King faints a few times. So does the Archbishop. You get the point.
But, of course, this all makes sense because The Song of Roland is a chanson de geste, or “song of deeds” and songs tend to include repetitive lyrics or refrains.
2. The Song of Roland is brutal. Hand to hand combat with halberds and swords is bloody. It is not pretty. War is tough and this is a book about war.
CVII Oliver draws his sword and slices Justin of Val Ferree. #SOR291
CVIII More Saracens are split open by the French. #SOR291
3. The Song of Roland is a propaganda piece. Written a few hundred years after the time of Charles the Great, or Charlemagne, it plays fast and loose with the historical facts and, instead, gears its message towards recruitment for the Second Crusade standing firmly on the side of the Christians. Mountjoy!
4. The Song of Roland is a book about men. The only women (Alde and the Queen of Spain) who appear on the stage briefly are but paper dolls in this story of men.
CCLXVIII Alde, the one promised, learns of Roland’s death. She dies rather than take up with another. #SOR291
5. The Song of Roland is not The Iliad. Both books are books of war and are full of nasty killings—thousands upon thousands of young men being slaughtered in hand-to-hand combat but The Song of Roland lacks the comedic interludes from the soap-opera drama of the Greek gods. There is, however, one similarity in that both Zeus and God interfere in the affairs of the mortals and ultimately influence the outcomes of the wars.
5. The Song of Roland should be called The Song of Charles the King. It is Charles who takes the journey and returns home a changed man. In the end, Charlemagne realizes he is merely a puppet for God’s war on the pagans. Therefore, Charles not Roland fits the mold of the epic hero.
CCXCI The night darkens. Gabriel appears with a call to arms. Oh God, laments Charles the king, my life is a burden. The End. #SOR291
291 tweets is a lot of tweets. Would I do it again? Probably not, but maybe.