Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France - Alfred J. Church

In these stories taken from the Charlemagne Romances, the swashbuckling bravado of the great age of chivalry is well preserved. Stories of Reynaud, Fierabras, Roland, Oliver, and Huon are all told with much gusto. Modern renditions of these stories sometimes tone down the comical bluster of these stories and thereby miss the humor in them. This is not so of Church's version.

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[Book Cover] from Stories of Charlemagne  by Alfred J. Church
Oliver and Fierabras


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I have endeavoured to tell in this volume the story of Charlemagne, the Charlemagne, it must be understood, not of history, but of Romance. The two personages are curiously different. Each writer of a romance had naturally a hero of his own. As he had to exalt this hero, he could hardly help depreciating the king. Charlemagne suffers by comparison with Roland and Reynaud very much as, in the Iliad, Agamemnon, the over-lord of the Greeks, suffers by comparison with the subordinate King, Achilles. The real Charlemagne was a very great personality, one that impressed his age as deeply as any man has ever done; in these stories he often appears petty, capricious, and obstinate. Then the romance writers were Frenchmen, and they make the great king a Frenchman, holding his court in Paris, and surrounded by great French lords. They began to write when the air was full of the crusading spirit, and their work is coloured accordingly. The enemy is always a Saracen or a follower of Mahomet. There could not be a more curious instance of this than is to be found in the story of the death of Roland. In the romance Charlemagne's rear-guard is destroyed by an overpowering force of Saracens. What really happened was that it was attacked, probably for the sake of plundering the baggage, by a gathering of mountaineers, who are called Gascons by the chroniclers, but were, in fact, Basques. Then, again, we find the romance writers in sympathy with the great feudatories, indicating the time before the French monarchy had become consolidated, when the king at Paris had all that he could do to hold his own against his powerful vassals, the Dukes of Brittany and Burgundy, and the English king.

The Charlemagne romances, as translated by Lord Berners and William Caxton, occupy twelve volumes in the Extra Series of the Early English Text Society. Some of these are variants of the same story. There is a romance of "Ferumbras," for instance, which gives substantially the same tale as that which occupies eleven chapters in this volume. "Huon of Bordeaux," again, fills four volumes in the Extra Series. But the original chanson  is contained in one of the four and is complete in itself. This, too, I have considerably compressed and shortened. The same process has had to be applied to all before they could be made acceptable to the readers of to-day. I hope that they have not lost their life and colour and human interest.

The stories of which I have made use are "The Four Sons of Aymon" (I-XI); "Ralph the Collier" (XII-XIII), a genuinely English production, it would seem, as no French original has been found; "Fierabras," taken from the "Lyf of Charles the Grete" (XIV-XXIV); "The Song of Roland" (XXV-XXXV), and "Duke Huon of Bordeaux" (XXXVI-XL). This has been put last in order, as it represents Charlemagne grown old and weary of power. The death of the great King is only mentioned as imminent in the romance which I have followed; I have added an abridged account of it from the contemporary biography written by Eginhard. The story of Huon is peculiarly interesting to us because it introduces the fairy King Oberon, who was to become so important a figure in English literature.

I have to express my obligations to the Introduction, written by Mr. Sidney Lee to the first part of "Duke Huon of Bordeaux."

Oxford, July 17, 1902.

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