Yaroslav V. Vassilkov yavass at YV1041.SPB.EDU
Sun Jul 12 23:01:29 UTC 1998

acob Baltuch (July 11) quoted my recent message:

>>Well known example: there was no particular battle in the mountains
>>with the "Saracenes", which is glorified in the Old French "Song of Roland"=
>>but its description absorbed the features of many real battles and the song
>>itself reflects, we may say, the centuries of political confrontation on th=
>>southern borders of France between Christians and Muslims, Frenchmen - and
>>Arabs and even Basques.
and wrote:

<Well known example? ...
<What is well known to me is that there *was* a particular battle (not with
<the "Saracenes" but with the Basques) on the 15th of August 778 at Roncevaux
<in the Pyrenees where "Roland, le comte de la marche de Bretagne" (don't
<know how to say this in English; the actual text of the chronicle is of
<course in Latin) was killed while leading the rearguard of that Charles who
<was later to become Chalemagne (at the time he wasn't yet emperor and not
<even king)

<Clearly the epic distorts the facts and includes many elements that have
<nothing to do with history .... but the central theme of the epic does have
<its root in a (relatively minor) historical event.

        Well, I just wanted to say that real epic

(that is, an epic of oral origin and oral-formulaic style, which we may say
about the "Song of Roland"
but not about the Old Russian "Tale of Igor's Campaign", mentioned by you,
which is, if genuine, an artificial epic, written, by the way, not in verse,
but in rythmical prose) -

the real epic does never describes a particular historical battle, but always
some typical, generalized and idealized event. Yes, there really was the battle
of 778 at Roncevaux, where some Roland was possibly killed (however, I am not
sure that anything mentioned in a chronicle necessarily is a historical fact;
sometimes epic tales find their way in the chronicles!). But you are right,
that battle was with Basques, not with the Saracenes, as in the "Song of
Roland", and the latter used and mixed to it also some details borrowed,
as far as I know, from other historical battles, including the Frenchmens'
defeat in the same mountainous region in the reign of king Dagobert. In the
same way Serbian songs about the battle at Kossovo combined reminicences of
the battle in 1389 with memories of several similar defeats, including the
catastrophic battle of 1457, which really put an end to Serbia's
        The epic poet may think, of course, that he describes real historical
event, and sometimes a historical name may be preserved by chance in his poem;
but what he really sings about is a typical, ideal battle with typical,
generalized enemy.
        Best regards
                                Yaroslav Vassilkov

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