- Elye of Saint-Gilles: A Chanson de Geste
According to the cover blurb, ‘Elye of Saint-Gilles is the first English translation of the Old French chanson de geste and includes a new critical edition, facing the English text. This work encapsulates many of the standard elements of the [End Page 263] French chanson de geste and provides an excellent example of the virtues of this literary form for entertainment and instruction’. Chansons de geste were ‘songs of deeds’ and roughly 80 epics survive in written, and sometimes illustrated, form. They date back mainly to the thirteenth century, many of the chansons existing in only one codex or compilation of works. Thematically, these poems usually depicted an historical situation, and were structured in strophes or laisses composed of varying numbers of lines. Their versatility meant they appealed to a large and heterogeneous audience from the eleventh to the fourteenth century.
A. Richard Hartman and Sandra Malicote’s Introduction provides a useful discussion of the genre’s cultural background: chansons de geste tended to reflect and teach feudal Christian values, while simultaneously serving as edifying entertainment for aristocratic communal feasts, like weddings. Interestingly, ‘chansons de geste were approved by the church both for their ability to console busy rulers and magnates in their leisure hours and for their usefulness in instructing the uneducated classes’ (p. ix).
Elye de Saint-Gilles comes from a thirteenth-century manuscript and is attached to the cycle or geste of William of Orange. Together with its companion poem Aiol, Elye forms the centrepiece of the codex Bibliothèque nationale de France MS fr. 25516 which also contains two completely distinct works: Beuves de Hanstone and Robert le diable. Some scholars refer to the two main poems as the geste of Saint Gilles although this term does not occur in the works themselves. The editors provide the following explanation for the two poems: ‘Commonly termed “romance epics” and called romans or estoires in the texts, they tell the story of Count Julien of Saint-Gilles, the last noble defeated by William of Orange in Le Couronnement de Louis, who then becomes William’s vassal and serves King Louis of France’ (p. xii). The plot evolves around the story of Elye – Julien’s only son – and his exploits against the Saracens during his youth and early knighthood. The story reaches the time of Elye’s marriage with the sister of the king, whose seneschal he becomes. As for the timeframe, the historical kernel is linked to the First and Fourth Crusades and the Re-conquest of Spain.
Elye is full of both literary and visual allusions to other chansons de geste, like the poems of the William of Orange cycle, and the Arthurian romances. This partly testifies to the fact that Elye was deemed an exemplary and superior work in its own time. Elye contains the first appearance in literary works of the popular character Galopin: later imitated in epics such as Huon de Bordeaux, Galopin went on to became the prototype of Shakespeare’s Oberon. [End Page 264]
Hartman and Malicote’s English translation seems faithful to the original and avoids archaic language. The addition of explanatory notes under the French text compensates for ‘the loss of a rich vein of significant interpretative information concerning versification’ (p. xix).
This publication is recommended for anyone keen on reading chansons de geste in the original version. It represents a significant literary achievement and the authors have made a major contribution to the field of Old French literature.