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(La Chanson de Roland)
late 11th century
(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)
The year is 778. The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn. Roland will not. He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal. He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine. They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book– a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories. This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre– the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit, it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.
(A master of disguise rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and drops them safely into London society—until a sly French inspector tracks him down.)
Don’t let the title’s reference to a dainty flower and the femininity of the author fool you. This is no Austen or Brontë novel. It is a hearty adventure, more along the lines of the father of adventure stories Sir Walter Scott, or Dumas, or Stevenson. What a treat to have a woman join these illustrious ranks! Rugged oaths and swordfights may be lacking, but stories stocked with those can easily be found elsewhere. Instead Orczy proficiently places a “caped avenger”-style suspense drama (a genre some say she invented) against a backdrop of fashionable London society. The high manners, the social competition, the gossip, the dress, the flamboyant events… Orczy was a baroness herself, and this is undoubtedly part of the reason why she was able to present these ingredients with such freshness and authenticity. But all this is ancillary to the mystery and excitement that lend this tale its permanent appeal.