Friday, May 3, 2013

The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland recounts the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778 in a style that would put Quentin Terantino to shame and was probably written for a similar target demographic. Claimed to be the oldest surviving work of French literature, this epic poem depicts the betrayal of the Franks and their subsequent battle to victory.

The poem begins "Charles the king, our mighty emperor has been in Spain for all of seven years.." at this point all pagan nations from France to the sea have been conquered, all but the mountain city, Saragossa. "Marsilla holds it; he does not love God, but serves Mohammed and invokes Apollo. No matter what he does, his ruin will come." An inauspicious beginning for the Saracens.

Charlemagne and his men are exhausted from battle and apprehensive about the size of the Saracen army and decides to send an envoy to ascertain whether or not this last bastion of pagans will throw in the towel and convert to Christianity. As Charlemagne ponders whom to send on this somewhat dangerous mission, his lords and barons seem hesitant to claim such a mission for themselves, and then the much lauded Roland decides to nominate his stepfather...much to the stepfather, Ganelon's, chagrin. Ganelon is enraged.  As he musters his courage and gathers his gear the hatred drips off his brow. "His arrogance will be the end of him, for every single day he teases death. If someone killed him...we might all have peace." And thus the germ of an idea is planted, and Ganelon ruminates, chewing the cud of his idea as he makes his way to meet Marsilla, he promises under his breath that he will see to it that Roland dies.

As Ganelon is presented to Marsilla he paints Charlemagne's demands as unglamorously as possible. " Thus noble Charlemagne requires of you that you receive the holy Christian faith, and he will give you half of Spain in fief." Obviously Marsilla is insulted, growing colorless with rage he is about to strike Ganelon, when he is told this messenger might not have France's best interests at heart. After a short tete a tete, Genelon has told the Saracen's how they can ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne's army and as a bonus kill Roland in the process. Charlemagne will be so distraught over losing his nephew, that he will have no desire to ever fight again.

"If someone were to cause the death of Roland, then Charles would lose the right arm from his body; the awe-inspiring host would cease to be, no more would Charles assemble such a force and Tere Majur would then be left in peace..."

It doesn't exactly go according to plan and Ganelon officially has become the worlds worst stepfather. Although the Franks are ambushed, they fight so valiantly they are able to do considerable damage to the Saracen army. Rather than risk any remote possibility of cowardice, Roland refuses to blow his olifant and call for help..."May God forbid that it be said by any man alive I ever blew my horn because of pagans..."

There might be a tiny bit of confusion between bravery and bravado and after receiving a little lecture from Olivier regarding prudence and recklessness, Roland decides they have lost enough men, there is no hope for the rear guard, but if Charlemagne would come with all his army to defend their honor and avenge their name, they would certainly be victorious. Roland blows his olifant, bursting his temples and continues to fight until he is the last man standing. Slowly he crawls to a hill, attempts to destroy his sword so that it won't fall into the hands of  the pagans and then as he leans himself against a tree facing the enemy he dies, even in death not turning his back on his oppressors.

When Charlemagne finally arrives, he finds only the dead bodies of even his most valiant soldiers. The Franks arms themselves and pursue the fleeing Saracen army, chasing them into the Ebro river where they drown en masse.

Some of the more horrific Terantino-esque moments were: "He breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, bursting both his eyeballs from his head- his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet -..." or  "the count swings down with such tremendous force , he shears away his helmet to the nasal and slashes through his nose and mouth and teeth, his trunk and through his coat of jazeraint, his gilded saddle, both its silver bows and deep into the backbone of his horse..." YIKES!

I also thought the blatant propaganda was interesting. Each time a pagan dies, Satan is waiting near by to drag his spirit into hell unlike the lucky Franks who not only have St. Michael and the angel Gabriel fighting for them, but they are all guaranteed a seat in Holy Paradise next to the Innocents. While the Saracens are presented as cowards, fleeing and screaming "we can't take any more!" The Franks dutifully and gloriously follow in pursuit.

While a little heavy in the skull crushing department,  I  found this poem vastly more engrossing than Beowulf...and I now, like Charlemagne and all his army can cry "Monjoy" when charging the enemy into battle, something I'm sure will come in handy one of these days.


  1. I remember reading this for a class on world literature. The main discussion in my class revolved around Roland's stubborn refusal to blow the horn to summon help. Some felt it was a heroic deed; others argued it was an error in judgement that doomed his men to needless death. I think I'm inclined to agree with the latter. But then again, I'm a contemporary man, not from the warrior society that gave birth to this poem.

  2. Sounds like a fun discussion. I feel like since even Olivier thought it was a little much, I would tend to agree with you. I think the image that will forever stay with me is that of Roland slowly crawling up the hill, blood and brain matter pouring out of his ears, and then after getting there, with the last of his strength trying to destroy Durendal so that his sword won't fall into enemy hands. Crazy. What passion. I wonder if there is a modern equivalent to this? Do you think contemporary soldiers name their guns?

  3. I'm glad to say I've never been called to serve on the front line, so I can't speculate on soldierly life. But I do have a tendency to name my gadgets. My iPhone, for example, is Isabella :-)


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