The Song of Roland

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss an early masterpiece of French epic poetry, from the 12th Century. It is a reimagining of Charlemagne’s wars in Spain in the 8th Century in which Roland, his most valiant knight, chooses death before dishonour, guarding the army’s rear from a pagan ambush as it heads back through the Roncesvalles Pass in the Pyrenees. If he wanted to, Roland could blow on his oliphant, his elephant tusk horn, to summon help by calling back Charlemagne's army, but according to his values that would bring shame both on him and on France, and he would rather keep killing pagans until he is the last man standing and the last to die.

The image above is taken from an illustration of Charlemagne finding Roland after the Battle of Roncevaux/Roncesvalles, from 'Les Grandes Chroniques de France', c.1460 by Jean Fouquet, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Ms Fr 6465 f.113

With

Laura Ashe
Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Worcester College, University of Oxford

Miranda Griffin
Assistant Professor of Medieval French at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Murray Edwards College

And

Luke Sunderland
Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University

Studio producer: John Goudie