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Roland the Hypertext

Please note: this article was written in 2001 and is part of my Master's thesis. It is here for archival purposes only. See the bottom of this page for licensing information.

-Vika Zafrin (email me with any questions)

Ted Nelson's 1963 definition of literature ("an ongoing system of interconnecting documents") speaks directly to hypertext's primary function in this project: to explicitly represent the relationships inherently present between any written text and its cultural context. These intertextual relationships implicitly or explicitly connect the writing with other texts (George Landow's "texts or phenomena that one can treat as texts" (35)). The connection may be a stylistic one, a direct reference to another text, or perhaps even one not intended by an author, which a reader perceives through his or her own socio-cultural context.

Edward Vanhoutte speaks of "the advent of the electronic paradigm to the field of scholarly editing and textual criticism," which facilitates the creation of "new kinds of editions in which the record of textual variation becomes a central point of attention, both on the markup- and on the delivery-side." RolandHT is a work which, while it is not a critical edition of any one text, certainly speaks to text variation as its main focus.

RolandHT began as a critical exposition and literary experiment. At its center is the protagonist of the 11th-century Song of Roland and of many other works in Europe's literary canons. Currently in its second year of development at Brown University, RolandHT uses hypertext theory and Jean Baudrillard's idea of fragmentary writing to weave Roland storylines from different literary traditions into a single multi-pathed narrative. A new, composite, often self-contradictory virtual character is thus created, drawing upon such contributor works as the French Song of Roland, the Italian Orlando Furioso, the Welsh Can Rolant and many others.

In this project, passages from a set of primary sources are combined into a heavily interlinked web. The hyperlinks, which lead directly from one quoted passage to another in the same work or in a different one, highlight both similarities and differences among the themes and imagery in the storylines. This is true both for works whose plots parallel (for example, in the German, Welsh and Norse retellings of the French Song of Roland) and for writings with differing plots (such as a rendition of the Song of Roland on one hand and the Italian Renaissance epic Roland in Love on the other). Some of these hyperlinks point to the next passage in RolandHT through an intermediary paragraph which explicates the connection between the two passages.

The project's aim is not a coherent linear narrative. It is, rather, an exploration of this character, so pervasive in Europe's writing between the Middle Ages and the present day, that reaches beyond the confines of any one work written about him. Roland evolved as an oral epic hero for three hundred years before the first extant written work about him was created. The electronic environment is an invaluable and unique tool for exploring the relationship between orality and literacy in the context of the evolution of this character. Before we had the technology we have now, this sort of study was performed in a one-sided fashion, by studying and trying to understand orality in its own context, as Walter Ong has done, and viewing literacy separately. Now an attempt can be made to reproduce the fragmentary nature of oral storytelling in a written context and let readers experience it in a fashion which will enable them to better understand how people learned about Roland in the first place, during his proliferation in the age of primarily oral storytelling.

The project cannot possibly reproduce fully the literary aspects of Ong's primary oral culture. The Carolingians (inhabitants of France and Germany in the eighth and ninth centuries, when the Roland legend was conceived) were not a primary oral culture (McKitterick). Their storytelling tradition, however, was oral, as was the Roland legend, which first appears in writing only in the eleventh century. Instead, the new approach to reading epic poetry that RolandHT presents is arguably closer to the way in which epic poetry was perceived by its audience when it was presented orally—no story was seen as an isolated phenomenon, but rather as part of a cultural network. In the process of reading a work of print literature, even a well-annotated one, it is easy to forget the impossibility of its existence outside of its cultural context. This fact, while certainly true when cultural boundaries are being crossed, becomes even more relevant when there is a large difference between the reader's temporal context and the time period in which the work was written. In this case, especially if the work's original language is the same as that of the reader, one can be mislead into a false sense of understanding of the work and fail to delve into it more deeply. This new electronic version of the Roland texts simply does not allow one to think of a work of literature as an isolated event. In the traditional study of literature one is compelled to study one text at a time in depth, subsequently branching out. Here we have the opportunity instead to piece knowledge together from many starting points and eventually to converge toward an understanding, instead of branching away from generalized, theoretical knowledge to specific points.

The knowledge to be gained from this ongoing investigation will fill a void in Roland scholarship. This work provides its readers with a tool to help them visualize the complexity of the Roland canon by presenting it as a whole. At the same time, it makes it possible to trace themes and imagery common to some or all of the works, presenting them together, interwoven as they are in the source materials but clarified by critical commentary interspersed with fragments of primary texts illustrating the points. These analyses could be presented on paper, each of them separately; however, this would make visualizing the whole much more difficult, and be discordant with Roland's multi-faceted nature.

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