Having already read the "fanfic" that came from this work, what struck me first and foremost when I read The Song of Roland was its ancient tone. I know I was reading in translation, but I felt through the translation the same tone that I have discerned in Francis Magoun's translation of the Kalevala - or in the Heaney and Chickering translations of Beowulf. Or the various translations of Homer that I've read.
I also had a Mormon moment while reading it: at the end, when Charlemagne laments how hard his life is, I thought of Mosiah 29:33:
And many more things did king Mosiah write unto them, unfolding unto them all the trials and troubles of a righteous king, yea, all the travails of soul for their people, and also all the murmurings of the people to their king; and he explained it all unto them.
I really like Umberto Eco's essay "Dreaming of the Middle Ages" (in Travels in Hyperreality - affiliate link, you can get it pretty cheap), where he breaks down "Ten Little Middle Ages" of modernity, mentioning Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto as examples. I definitely felt the difference between Ariosto's "Spaghetti Western" epic and the original chanson de geste. Even through translation, Roland felt more barbaric - and Germanic. I thought more than once of Beowulf (and the Sagas): noble swords with their names and lineages, loving descriptions of fancy armor, long-winded boasts and harangues, even the bit about Roland having plenty of work to do when surrounded by the enemy - that was classic Saga wryness. It was interesting to see so much of that still manifesting in an 11th century work (though I remind myself that the Sagas themselves were being written down at the same time).
And the other thing: no sex. Orlando Furioso and The Faerie Queene, with all their sex, remind me of fantasy scenes by Frank Frazetta (also mentioned in Eco's essay), as well as Larry Elmore and Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (not so different from Ingres' famous scene of Ruggiero and Angelica, really). The Song of Roland to me is . . . more like a Bolt Thrower album cover, maybe? At least in the battle scenes.
Maybe that's not quite fair. But so much violence! Njal's Saga has that famous scene where Skarp-Hedin splits Thrain's skull as he skates by, so that teeth clatter onto the ice - I thought of that as I read Roland, which in parts was like that scene amplified and repeated at Peter Jackson levels of absurdity. Eyes flying out of their sockets, brains coming out of ears, blood pouring down over armor . . . I won't lie, it all made me a bit sick.
Some years ago I read Millennium; A History of the Last Thousand Years by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto (which you can get used for quite cheap on Amazon - another affiliate link) and was struck by his mention of "aristocratic thuggery" and "noble hoodlums" in early medieval Europe. I reflected on this as I read the story's depictions of gruesome slaughter and callous hatred (though tempered by tears and grief beyond what modern sensibilities would expect or even accept). As a 16-year-old, when I was supposed to be reading this for my high school Humanities class, I probably would have thought the battle scenes were just awesome: I loved medieval and fantasy violence so much at that age.
I still enjoyed reading it now, and wish that I had read it at age 16. Reading Suzannah's comments on it have helped me to appreciate it more finely. So thanks, Suzannah, for the challenge! The Sayers translation of Roland is firmly on my wish list, and I look forward to next year's epic.