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Sémiologie et La chanson de Roland Steele, Stephen


The Song of Roland's place in contemporary theoretical discussion is marked by ambiguity. On the one hand, the text is cited on nearly every question of importance to medieval philology and literary studies, a practice which certainly evinces general consensus regarding the importance of the work. On the other hand, these citations often take the form of appeals to an oracular authority; that is, rather than encourage theoretical reflection, they replace it. Paradoxically, it is precisely the Song of Roland's omnipresence in critical discourse today that occludes a serious critical engagement with the text. Everyone «knows» about the Song of Roland; the text is dissolved in philological discourse. Perhaps only a second reading can save it. The situation commands modesty on the part of a critic who would take up the Song of Roland, and it is a modest task I have set for myself here. I will analyze the text from a fresh perspective: semiotics. The language and the story of the Song of Roland are largely constituted by signs. For example, the text's characters frequently encounter «signs» of their destiny. They are, however, bound by Christian notions of fate to accept those signs, even when they augur death. Charlemagne, with (semiotic) foreknowledge of Roland's death is powerless to alter the course of events. He can interpret signs. But, he is unable to act on their messages. That is the semiotic bind of the medieval Christian world. Signs have another level of meaning in the Song of Roland. They have mnemonic significance. Since the Song of Roland is an oral text (and, here, I will make use of philological evidence), signs are an «aide-mémoire» that enable the text's reader to recall the narrative. I will argue, then, that the text's semiosis is a formulaic strategy: in other words, the same signs occur throughout the text -- a sort of set semiotic pattern generating the narrative. I will also use semiotics to classify the types of discourse (political, poetic, religious, etc.) which characterize the work. For instance, I will show that the Church and the King authorize the text in a bid to enlist crusaders. I will offer no final decisions on the issues of the Song of Roland debate such as the question of origins, nor any contributions to philological concerns about sources and etymologies. I will simply try to adhere as closely as possible to the meaning(s) of this single text and, through semiotics, to re-new critical interest in the Song of Roland.

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