Despite 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.

When 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.

But 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.

This 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 readily acknowledge []. Hers is a rare sensitivity allied to a remarkable intuition and an unusually high degree of poetic awareness.

But 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.

Dominique 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.

Ian Short
University of London