espite their distance in time and their
obscurity, and however alien and ‘other’ some of their mentalities
might appear to us today, the Middle Ages still cast a surprisingly
tenacious spell over us, challenging our understanding and our
powers of interpretation. They are Dark Ages in more senses than
one. Medieval history is like a huge tapestry in which faded and
hardly recognisable outlines loom out of a background of shadows.
Though most are unknown and anonymous, some of these shapes from the
dim and distant past have a name that confers some measure of
definition on them. It can lend them also a certain lustre, and for
those who have eyes to see, they can emerge from the darkness of the
past and spring momentarily to life again. Such is the case of the
Song of Roland.
reading a work from the past such as this, one of our most difficult
tasks is that of reconstructing, in all its human complexity, the
society that gave birth to it and to other literary texts like it.
To be able to unravel what this society’s particular characteristics
were, what morality underpinned it, what principles and values
guided people’s behaviour, not to mention their manners and their
tastes, we are faced with the impossible task of transforming
ourselves into contemporaries of these poets from the past. The only
alternative left open to us, then, is that of recreating in our
imaginations those areas to which history denies us access.
the more we learn to understand these texts at the linguistic level,
the more we find ourselves coming up against modes of thought that
surprise us or concerns which, despite all the resources of our
imagination, we cannot apprehend. One area, however, where the
modern reader will perhaps encounter less difficulty is in the
visual field, since even the most cursory reading of the Song of
Roland will show how consistently imagery finds expression in
concrete terms. This is one of the most obvious of the many
different literary techniques that this most tangible of epics
exploits, and one which, we may presume, gave the poem an immediacy
and a familiarity with which its medieval listeners could readily
identify. However much epic characters may be motivated by passions
similar to our own, we need to see, not merely feel, their emotions.
Suffer as they might the horrors of war, or even enjoy its glory, we
need, in order to understand and share their emotions, actually to
see them in action on the battlefield.
is an area of interpretation where there is ample room for
innovation, but such new approaches require as much courage as they
do technical skill. Dominique Tixhon enjoys the advantage of both,
as those familiar with her brilliant and ground-breaking
illustrations to the Anglo-Norman Voyage of St Brendan will
[saintbrendan.d-t-x.com]. Hers is a rare
sensitivity allied to a remarkable intuition and an unusually high
degree of poetic awareness.
there is one particular problem that confronts anyone brave enough
to illustrate the Song of Roland, a task, incidentally, that
few contemporary artists have dared to undertake. This is the
question of violence, what Jean-Charles Payen so pertinently termed
“the liturgy of genocide” which echoes so unrelentingly from the
beginning to the end of the Roland. Ever inventive, Dominique
Tixhon has found her answer by taking her inspiration directly from
the famous Bayeux Tapestry. She succeeds not only in
harmonising text and image, but also in maintaining a quite
remarkable balance between, on the one hand, frenzied fervour and
shameless brutality, and on the other hand, graciously stylised
movements, poses and elegant gestures. Words are inadequate to
describe the beauty she is able to extract from such unpromising
material, and her images will speak for themselves.
ominique Tixhon’s visual commentary on the
Song of Roland is
an original and unique achievement, and it is a great pleasure for
me to be associated with it. Her enterprise is sure to earn for her
the admiration and gratitude of a large number of modern readers.
For them she will have made this medieval masterpiece not only
accessible and but a rare aesthetic pleasure too.
University of London