I had the opportunity to retell "The Song of Roland" to a grade school audience a few weeks ago. The re-telling was at a weekend children’s camp, so I was able to spread the story over three different sessions. Retelling a 1,200-year-old story to grade school children is no easy task (especially when the story was composed for an audience of Frankish warriors). Here are a few basic principles that got me through. These principles should serve you when attempting to retell any literary piece.
First, pay attention to the story’s structure. How is the story set up? Does its composer use parallel scenes? For example, The Song of Roland begins (after a brief preface which provides the setting) with two garden scenes. In the first scene, the evil king Marsaile conceives his plot to deceive King Charlemagne. The second scene shows Charlemagne and his court. This second scene provides an introduction to the good knight Roland and his betrayer, Ganelon. Ganelon becomes the focus of the next scene, as he returns with Marsaile’s advisor Blancandrin, and the two of them plot Roland’s death. The next scene is again in a garden with Marsaile. Here Ganelon receives gifts in exchange for his betrayal of Roland and Charlemagne. After this, Ganelon returns to the garden of Charlemagne’s advisors. So in the first part of the story, the action revolves around garden scenes. Ganelon’s plot to betray Roland becomes a bridge between two sets of parallel scenes, each featuring a king. Additionally, the different setting for Ganelon’s plot highlights that scene’s importance.
Second, look for key phrases. To help my audience keep the characters straight, I needed some repeating phrases to serve as epithets for each character. My inspiration came in Roland’s first stanza. Here Charlemagne’s military victories in Spain are briefly described, and the phrase “and not castle could withstand him” is used. What a great descriptor! To suggest that a King is able to level a castle makes him more than human. So each time I mention Charlemagne, I use the epithet “whose sword was long, whose blade was sharp, and no castle could withstand him.” Admittedly, I am tweaking the words used to describe Charlemagne, but I believe I am being true to the spirit of the story. I took additional liberties and created epithets for Roland, Marsaile, and Ganelon. Again, I looked for how their characters were portrayed in the story, and created brief epithets to reinforce how the audience perceives them.
Third, emphasize or explain key ideas. Epithets assist with this. The repeating phrases help explain the motivations behind the actions of the characters. Sometimes not only characters, but concepts will need additional comment. Fealty is an important concept in The Song of Roland. Rather than begin the first session with a mini-lecture on the concept of Fealty (which I would enjoy, but I am not so sure about my audience), I incorporated an explanation into the story, and emphasized any time an act of Fealty was performed.
When an act of Fealty (or more accurately, “homage”) is performed, a lord gives a gift (often land or money, but in this story a glove is used symbolically) to his vassal. In return the vassal makes a pledge of loyalty to his lord. To emphasize this, I created my own preface for the story:
Once upon a time great kings walked the land.
These kings gave gifts to their servants.
These were special gifts.
No servant could accept one of these gifts unless that servant was willing to pledge his perfect loyalty to the king who gave him the gift.
These gifts and the promises that went with them were known as fealty.
Additionally, I placed emphasis on any scenes that contained the giving or receiving of gifts. This concept of fealty is important because it makes Ganelon’s acceptance of gifts from an enemy king even more of a betrayal.
Finally, end each session with a cliffhanger. This is probably one of the oldest storytelling tricks in the book. For an example of this, see Arabian Nights, where the storyteller’s ability to end each night’s tale with a cliffhanger literally saves the teller’s life. For Roland, this was relatively simple. I began by dividing the story into thirds (since I was speaking at three different sessions). Then I looked for natural breaks near those thirds. I chose not to tell the whole story, but only the part about Roland’s betrayal and death.
These steps are simple but effective. Their simplicity can be deceiving, as the application of these steps requires time and thought. However, the opportunity to introduce a young audience to some of humanity’s greatest literary works, and the potentially life changing ideas contained in those works, is worth the effort. Blessings to you as you attempt to retell some of the greatest stories ever told.