Thursday, April 21, 2011

A-Z: Roland

Roland feels that his death is near;
Through his ears his brains are seeping.

To prevent any reproach he took the oliphant
And seized Durendal in his other hand.
Further than a crossbow can shoot an arrow
He goes over toward Spain, into a fallow field;
He climbs on to a mound, beneath a beautiful tree.
Four great marble blocks are there
And on the green grass he fell
for death is close to him.

He places his sword and the oliphant beneath him;
Toward the pagan host he turned his head,
Because it was his earnest wish that
Charles and all his men should say
That he, the noble count, had died victoriously.

Many things began to pass through his mind:
All the lands which he conquered as a warrior,
The fair land of France, the men of his lineage,
Charlemagne, his lord, who raised him.

He proffered his right glove to God;
Saint Gabriel took it from his hand.
Roland laid his head down over his arm;
With his hands joined he went to his end.
God sent down his angel Cherubin
And with him Saint Michael of the Peril.
With them both came Saint Gabriel.
They bear the count's soul to paradise.

–– The Song of Roland (Translated by G.S. Burgess. London: Penguin, 1990, excerpt edited and abridged by Bard)


  1. Certainly one of the oldest epics, but I did not know it was the oldest piece of French literature that exists until I did some checking on it this AM.

    Is this where Tolkien got the word "Oliphant" from?

  2. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is where Tolkien took the word, but it appears to be a real possibility. As Tolkien was a philologist and medieval scholar, I think it would be surprising if he hadn't seen the word before. This said, I cannot absolutely affirm that to be true. But I got thoroughly excited about your question (lunchbreak research project!!!) and here's what I discovered:

    The old french word for an ivory horn is indeed a figurative use of the same old french word that was the term for elephant itself (both were "olifant," according to the TLF, which is basically the French equivalent of the OED).

    The OED gives the English word "oliphant" as an archaic term for "elephant" as well as for "ivory" and "ivory used to make a horn," and says the term is derived from "Anglo-Norman olifan, olifant, oliphant, ollifaunt, holifaunt and Old French olifan, olifant, oliphant, etc., ivory, musical horn made of ivory (early 12th cent. in the Chanson de Roland), elephant (late 12th cent.; French oliphant, olifant (hist.) the ivory horn in the Chanson de Roland [...]), apparently representing a post-classical Latin variant (compare post-classical Latin olefans elephant [...] of classical Latin elephant-, elephantus (also elephans, elephas) elephant n. "

    So even if Tolkien didn't consciously take the word from the Song of Roland, I'd have to say he at least got it indirectly from there, as the whole English language took it from the old French and the Song of Roland.

  3. The saga of Roland makes me think of the Dark Tower, a series that started so well, and ended so very poorly.