Charlemagne and Roland, By Allan Massie

Don't ask what's in the soup
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The Independent Culture

This is the last, we are told, in a tale of last things. Massie's Dark Age Trilogy which began with The Evening of the World and continued with Arthur the King reaches its conclusion with Charlemagne and Roland. As in the previous books, the story is told in the form of a homily: the narrator, Michael Scott, genius and heretic, instructs the young emperor Frederick II in the ideals of kingship by showing him how the great men of the past often betrayed them.

Charlemagne, the shy, dull son of a doting mother and scornful, savage father, speaks in "a high, piping voice" as if locked forever in the world of femininity his mother had chosen for him when she first dressed the child in girl's clothes. He has something to compensate for, as they say. In his none too gentle empire-building he compensates with a vengeance.

The one person he cannot subdue to his will is his sister Bertha, with a mind and a heart of her own. She runs off with an outlaw of the forest: her elopement tears the webs of loyalty on which the great king's empire rests. Finally brought to bay, she uses her newly born son, Roland, to secure the life of her lover and his friends. Humiliation and death follow. The boy grows, watched over by Benoni, a Breton peasant with a gift for intrigue and a winning way with men. Roland, dashing but none too bright, falls, for the wrong sort of girl, is forced to flee, is forced to fight, goes mad, is rescued by a visit to Ethiopia in which his former friend's brains are turned to soup to provide him with a potion of sanity. The characters in this novel haven't heard of short cuts. Roland, in turn, goes on to glory and defeat, betrayed by those who had betrayed him in childhood. The plot hangs upon repeated cycles: resourceful boys fall in love with older men and become their faithful factotums; great warriors love and lose the girl then win battles, then lose those as well.

Anachronism is both Massie's best weapon and his nemesis. I could just about accept, in this romance, the existence of a Muslim emir of Smyrna 500 years too early. The liberties taken by the medieval romancers served to lull with their sweetness; Massie, in Brechtian fashion, jars and judders us.

For all this, he is a mighty story teller, and his learning gleams from his knowledge of the Dark Ages. He may play fast with both fact and fiction, but he never plays loose. Just as you're wondering what happened to the last historically dodgy digression, he scoops it up into the plot.

More sober and more gentle than its two predecessors, Charlemagne and Roland is, sadly, also less moving. Massie's decision to imitate courtly imitators has seen to that. Still, I shall miss the wit and humanity of Michael Scott. I indulge a hope that this will not prove the last we hear of him. He displays so much learning, so much sympathy; but I found myself longing for the wisdom that lies beneath.