THE SONG OF ROLAND
Roncesvalles (French: Roncevaux, Basque: Orreaga) is a small village and municipality of northern Spain (Navarrese Towns), in the province of Navarre. It is situated on the small river Urrobi at an altitude of 900 meters (2,950 ft.) among the Pyrenees, and within five miles of the French frontier. Population in (2007) was 24. Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778, during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Charlemagne's rear guard was destroyed by Basque tribes. The small collegiate church contains several curious relics associated with Roland. The battle is said to have been fought in the picturesque valley known as Valcarlos, which is now occupied by a hamlet bearing the same name, and in the adjoining pass of Ibañeta (Roncevaux Pass). Both of these are traversed by the main road leading north from Roncesvalles to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the French Basque Country. Since the Middle Ages, this collegiate church has been a favorite resting place for Catholic pilgrims along the Way of St. James, since it is the first place to have a rest after crossing the French Pyrenees. Every year thousands of pilgrims begin their way to Santiago de Compostela at Roncesvalles.
The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various different manuscript versions which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these is the Oxford manuscript which contains a text of some 4004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero.
Roland pledges loyalty to the king Charlemagne
There are nine extant manuscripts of the Song of Roland in Old French. The oldest of these manuscripts is held at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. This copy dates between 1140 and 1170 and was written in Anglo-Norman.
Scholars estimate that the poem was written between approximately 1040 and 1115, and most of the alterations were performed by about 1098. Some favor an earlier dating, because it allows one to say that the poem was inspired by the Castilian campaigns of the 1030s, and that the poem went on to be a major influence in the First Crusade. Those who prefer a later dating do so on grounds of the brief references made in the poem to events of the First Crusade. In one section, Palestine is named Outremer, its Crusader name – but is presented as a Muslim land where there are no Christians.
The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, from an illuminated manuscript c.1455–1460.
For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Muslim stronghold remains: the city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne's vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne's departure. But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive Marsile's messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at Marsile's court on Charlemagne's behalf.
Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne's nephew, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his diplomatic mission he plots with the Saracens, telling them that they could ambush Charlemagne's rear guard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with Roland dead, Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.
After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile's good faith, Roland, as predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve peers, later known as the Paladins, Charlemagne's greatest and most beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent man and Roland's best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery Archbishop Turpin, a clergyman who also is a great warrior. At the pass of Roncevaux, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering four hundred thousand. Oliver counsels Roland to blow his olifant horn, to call back Charlemagne's main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland gives three long mighty blasts on his oliphant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples burst from the force required, and he presently expires. He positions himself so as to face toward the enemy's land before dying, and his soul is escorted to heaven by Saint Gabriel, Saint Michael and assorted cherubim.
Image of the devastation of the frank troops (from a book of the song of Roland)
Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a miracle of God; the sun is held in place in the sky so that the enemy will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the river Ebro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned.
Marsile has escaped, though Roland succeeded in cutting off his right hand in battle. Wounded and demoralised, he returns to Saragossa, where the remaining Saracens are plunged into despair by their losses. But Baligant, the incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived to help his vassal. The emir goes to Roncevaux where the Franks are mourning and burying their dead. There is a terrible battle which climaxes with a one-on-one clash between Baligant and Charlemagne. With a touch of divine aid, Charlemagne slays Baligant, and the Saracens retreat. The Franks take Saragossa, where they destroy all Jewish and Muslim religious items and force the conversion of everyone in the city with the exception of Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne wants her to come to Christ through the agency of love. With her as a captive, the Franks return to their capital, Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle.
Ganelon is put on trial for treason. Pinabel, Ganelon's kinsman and a gifted speaker, nearly sways the judges to let Ganelon go. But Thierry, a brave but physically unimposing knight, says that Ganelon's revenge should not have been taken against a man in Charlemagne's service and constitutes treason. To decide the matter, Pinabel and Thierry fight. Though Pinabel is the stronger man, God intervenes and Thierry triumphs. The Franks give Ganelon a traitor's death: "Four chargers are brought out and tied to Ganelon's feet and hands...four sergeants drive them past the spectators towards a stream...Ganelon is lost, his ligaments will be stretched intolerably until all his limbs are torn apart." They also hang thirty of his kinsmen, not including Pinabel, who is already dead.
Charlemagne announces to all that Bramimonde has decided to become a Christian. Her baptism is celebrated, and all seems well. But that night the angel Gabriel comes to Charlemagne in a dream and tells him that he must depart for yet another war against the pagans. Weary and weeping, but resigned to the will of God, Charlemagne inwardly prepares himself for what is to come.
Karlomagno finds Roland dead (XIV. mendeko miniatura)
The poem is written in stanzas of irregular length known as laisses. The lines are decasyllabic (containing ten syllables), and each is divided by a strong caesura which generally falls after the fourth syllable. The last stressed syllable of each line in a laisse has the same vowel sound as every other end-syllable in that laisse. The laisse is therefore an assonal, not a rhyming stanza.
On a narrative level, the Song of Roland features extensive use of repetition, parallelism, and thesis-antithesis pairs. Unlike later Renaissance and Romantic literature, the poem focuses on action rather than introspection.
The author gives few explanations for characters' behavior. The warriors are stereotypes defined by a few salient traits; for example, Roland is loyal and trusting while Ganelon, though brave, is traitorous and vindictive.
The story moves at a fast pace, occasionally slowing down and recounting the same scene up to three times but focusing on different details or taking a different perspective each time. The effect is similar to a film sequence shot at different angles so that new and more important details come to light with each shot.
In The Song of Roland, the French epic written down in the last years of the 11 th century, good and evil are clearly delineated and understood. On the battlefield that is the setting for much of the poem, super-mortal forces fight for control of the Earth, utilizing the bodies of the warring Christians and pagans as pawns in a game of cosmological significance. While there is truth at the base of The Song of Roland, much of the history behind the work was “edited” in the three centuries that transpired between the battle of Roncevaux and the recording of the poem. It is true, as the poem claims, that in 778 the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army was massacred at Roncevaux. But in reality— and in contrast to the claims of the song—the Basques, and not the Muslims, destroyed the rear guard of the Frankish forces (Kalchoff, 46). In actuality, the campaign the Franks were waging in Spain was not a holy war: the year before the massacre, Sulayman ibn a l cArabi came to Charles in revolt against the Emir, cAbd ar- R a h m a n . They asked the chief of the Franks for aid. Charles granted it to them, and he prepared a great army to traverse the Pyrenees, to place Sulayman on the throne, and to receive Iberia as a fief (Lafont, 123-128). The re-writing of history we see in The Song of Roland is that which Paul Aebischer calls the “mythification” of events:
[D]ans la souci de la censure impÈriale de cacher le dÈsastre des PyrÈnÈes, d’en minimiser les consÈquences, de conserver au roi sa rÈputation de chef invincible... nous ne sommes pas plus dans l’histoire, mais dans la lÈgende, dans une atmosphËre mythique. (Aebischer, 3)
In the attempt of imperial censure to conceal the disaster of the Pyrenees, to minimize the consequences, to preserve the reputation of the king as invincible head of state... we are no longer in the realm of history, but in that of legend, in a mythic atmosphere.
In a world of myth, symbols occupy a special place, one more important than that of concrete fact. The Song of Roland, as national epic, gives religious significance to secular acts, appropriating the campaign of 778 not only as holy war but as war between God and Satan. Anne Lombard-Jourdan notes that there is a long tradition of appropriation and transformation of pagan symbols by the Christian monarchs of France, for “les rois Ètaient dÈsireux de conserver les anciens emblËmes qui assurent aux yeux de tous leur lÈgitimité [The kings were desirous to conserve the ancient emblems that assured in the eyes of all their legitimacy]” (Lombard-Jourdan, 13). The case with the battle of Roncevaux is the same: after the result of the battle slipped out of living memory, the campaign of 778 was rewritten as a battle between good and evil in order to give to the French kings—the heirs to the legacy of Charlemagne—a moral imperative to justify their rule and to give the church a brilliant past history to inspire its soldiers as they marched eastward on the First Crusade.
The authors of the Frankish epic shaped the reaction of their audience by diverging from the traditional narrative structure found in The Iliad and The Aeneid; the two classical epics valorize both warring factions, heightening the station of the victor, whereas the perspective of the medieval poem is entirely Christian: “Its story is narrated from a valorial position which is that of the Christians as against the Saracens. The latter are to be converted or to be killed: there is no empathy for alterity in this text” (Haidu, 37). More anti-Christian than Muslim, the pagans in the poem “do not bear any ‘real’relationship to their presumed referents: they do not ‘refer’ to the concrete, historical societies that occupied either Spain or the Near East” (Haidu, 36). According to the theories of Edward Said, the authors of The Song of Roland projected Christianity onto the pagans in a trope common to occidental literature in order to create a new society—a society marked specifically as anti-Christian. This anti-Christian society, according to Norman Daniel, is constructed to convince, or perhaps to amuse, Christians, but has little resemblance to actual Arabs or the actual Arab world. This is a case of what Said calls the “theater of the Orient,” in which caricatures of Orientals take the place of actual men:
The idea of representation is a theatrical one: the Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe. (Daniel, 259-260 in Said, 6365)
In Roland, the Orient is defined as anti-Occident. If Occidentals have positive value—and they do—Orientals have none. Thus in the Frankish epic, the pagans are never unconditionally praised as we see in Greek and Latin epics such as the Iliad:
There the Trojans and their companions were marshaled in order.
In the poems of Homer, admitting the valor of the Trojans amplifies the Greek victory. But this is not the case in the French epic, in which valor in the pagan camp is noted only with a lamentation that the worthy pagan is not Christian:
Sa vasselage est suvent esprovet.
His vassalage was certainly proven.
When pagans are valorous, it is noted as a strictly individual characteristic. The enemies in Roland are collectively rewritten as “feluns” and “criminels,” giving the Frankish army a moral imperative to conquer.
However, the fact that the symbolic system of the pagans in the poem is simply the inverse of the Christian system complicates the issue and raises new questions. Peter Haidu sustains that during the Middle Ages “strictly human alterity could only be recognized as a negatively marked version of the self” (Haidu, 37). If we accept the theory of Haidu—that the Other is the negative version of oneself—we find that the pagans of Roland have more sins to account for: they are heretics. From the narrative viewpoint in the song, the pagans believe in a caricature of the true faith. They have a trinity of gods, named Apollin, Tervagant and Mahomet, whom the pagans beg to intercede for them in battle, much as the Christians do with respect to their God. The pagans’ belief in three gods—not one God in three persons—is closely allied with the beliefs of a number of heretical movements of 11th century France, which denied the existence of a Trinity (Wakefield & Evans, 21). One manifestation of this heresy, Catharism, subscribed to the belief that:
[L]e PËre, le Fils, le Saint-Esprit ne sont point, pour eux, un Dieu en trois personnes. Le PËre est plus grand que le Fils et que le Saint Esprit. (Nelli, 286)
The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit are not, themselves, one God in three persons. The Father is greater than the Son and than the Holy Spirit.
The pagans also transform the Christian practice of veneration of idols into worship—another manifestation of their lack of comprehension of the true faith. As those who worship idols, they look towards and move towards nothingness. According to Saint Paul: “nous savons que l’idole n’est rien—ou est le Rien— en ce monde [we know that the idol is nothing–moreover the Nothingness–in this world]” (I Corinthians 8:4), and Saint Augustine states that before he found religion, he tended towards nothingness like an idol (Soliloquies, 167). But the greatest sin in the pagan camp is the rejection of Christ. Since they have rejected the mercy brought by the voluntary death of the son of God, they are still marked by the stain of Original Sin:
Difatti noi abbiamo offeso (Dio) nel primo Adamo, non osservando il suo precetto; perÚ siamo stati riconciliati nel secondo Adamo, diventati obbedienti fino al morte. (Testa, 5)
In fact we offended God with the first Adam, not observing his precept; but we have been reconciled by the second Adam, following obediently to the death.
All are culpable for the sin of Adam, save the Christians who accepted the saving grace of Christ. Culpability for this sin, among the others, rests with the pagans until they accept the true faith.
By not ascribing to the Christian faith, the pagans become evil in the theological system of the Middle Ages. Evil, according to Augustine, comes from the improper usage of the free will God gave to mankind. Boethius expanded upon Augustine’s thesis, reaching the conclusion that good emanates from God into all things. Normally, beings tend towards the good because it is nature for a being to desire the good. It is, however, possible for a being to be deceived into wishing for evil—that is, to act against God’s will (Nash-Marsh, 210-218). In Boethius’s schema, evil can come from lack of knowledge, from fortune, and from lack of divine order (Boethius, 67-68). In The Song of Roland, one finds proof of the lack of knowledge on the part of the pagans: “«o est une gent ki unches ben ne volt. AOI [This is a sort of which has never seen goodness. AOI]” (v. 3231). According to the philosophical system of Boethius, to tend towards evil (or away from good) is to tend towards a state of non-being:
Historical Time Line of Charlemagne's Life
St James appears to Charlemagne
Carolingians and the Papacy
732 Arabs are defeated at Tours (Poitiers) by Charles Martel
731-728 - Pope Gregory III was a Syrian who was equally skilled in Latin and Greek. He threatened to excommunicate the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (717-741) who had promulgated a decree that prohibited sacred images in churches (Iconoclastic Controversy).
741-752 - Pope Zacharias a Greek from Southern Italy was the last of the Greek popes. He was also the last pope who sent envoys to Constantinople to inform the emperor and the patriarch of his election
742 AD - Pepin the Short's son Carolus Magnus (Charlemagne in French) or Charles the Great is born in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) on April 2.
753 - Pope Stephen II (752-757) appealed to the Byzantine emperor for military help against the Lombards. When his appeal failed he turned to Pepin the Short in 754. Pepin led a military expedition against the Lombards and defeated the Lombard King Aistulf. Pope Stephen recognized the legitimacy of Pepin's claim to be king of the Franks. Pepin gave the pope dominion over the lands of Central Italy and established the legal foundation of the Papal States (Patrimony of St Peter). Stephen also used the Donation of Constantine to support his claim to rule over central Italy.
754 - Pope Stephen crowns Pepin the Short.
760 - Charlemagne accompanies his father during his military efforts to conquer the lands south the Loire River, or Aquitaine as they are more commonly known.
768 - Pepin the Short dies and his kingdom is divided up between Charles and his brother Carloman.
771 - Carloman dies, and Charlemagne unites the Frankish Empire quickly. There is some speculation as to the cause of Carloman's death, but there is no evidence to indicate Charlemagne had any knowledge of wrong- doing.
774 - Reacting to the Pope's plea for help, Charlemagne conquered the lands of his brief father-in-law after a lengthy siege of Pavia. Charlemagne spent the following Easter in Rome and reaffirmed his vow to protect Papal lands.
Expansion of Charlemagne's Kingdom and Christianization of Northeastern Germany
775 - Charlemagne begins new attacks against the Saxons and their leader Widukind.
778 - The events surrounding the Song of Roland take place as Charlemagne's rear guard leaves Spain in Gascon territory.- Though somewhat romanticized in the 4000 line epic, the defeat of Roland is the most important epic literature to come from the Middle Ages.
782 - In response to Widukind's attacks, Charlemagne orders the execution of 4500 Saxon prisoners in one day. Return to Topic Four
783 - On April 30, Hildegarde dies in childbirth, and Charlemagne's mother Bertrada dies three months later. Charles also begins the final three year campaign to conquer Saxony. The Saxons are finally crushed, and Charlemagne imposes strict new rules to govern all areas of their lives, laws that only the Christian Church in Saxony could remove.
788 - Charles overpowers the Bavarians.
791 - 796 - Charlemagne conquers the empire of the Avars (modern Hungary and Austria.)
Charlemagne and the Papacy: Pope Leo III (795-816)
795 - On Christmas day, Pope Hadrian dies and Leo the Third is named the new Pope.
799 - Leo III was attacked while on a religious procession in Rome. After returning to health with Charlemagne, the Pope is sent back to Rome.
800 - Charles decides that the Papal situation in Rome needs his personal attention, so he and his entourage (including his children) went to Rome. After arriving, Charlemagne immediately called to order a trial for the Pope. There was a rebellion in Rome against the Pope, and the trial could neither condemn the Pope or find him innocent. Then however, Pope Leo took an oath of innocence near the holy tomb of Saint Peter.
Christmas Day, 800 - Charlemagne, after greatly helping Pope Leo III, is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. With much splendor and drama in Saint Peter's Basilica, Leo presented Charles with a gold crown. Emperor Charles V (1550-1558) was the last emperor to be crowned by the pope; Francis II (abdicated in 1806) was the last Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon crowned himself.
813 - Charlemagne delegates power to his only surviving son Louis.
814 - Charlemagne dies on January 28.
A new war began when Count Gerard refused homage to the emperor. Oliver, grandson of the count, was among the knights opposed to Charlemagne. After the French had besieged the fortress of Viana for seven months, it was decided to settle the war by encounter between a champion from each army. Roland was chosen to fight for Charlemagne. Unknown to him, his adversary was to be Oliver, his boyhood friend. When the two discovered each other's identity, they embraced.
A few weeks later on a boar hunt near Viana, Charlemagne was captured by Count Gerard. The two leaders declared a truce, and Count Gerard agreed to be a faithful liege man of the emperor thereafter. Roland met Oliver's sister, Alda, and became betrothed to her.
At Christmastime the Princess of Cathay arrived with her brothers at Charlemagne's court. She proposed a contest between a Christian knight and her brother Argalia. If one of Charlemagne's knights were the victor, he should have her hand in marriage. If the knight were defeated, he should become a hostage. Malagis, the wizard, discovered that the princess and her brothers really sought by sorcery to destroy Charlemagne. He visited the apartment of the foreigners but was discovered by them. They complained and Charlemagne, not understanding the wizard's desire to help him, sentenced Malagis to be imprisoned in a hollow rock beneath the sea forever.
The jousts began. After Argalia had defeated the first knight, Ferrau, the fierce Moor, began combat. Unhorsed, the Moor fought Argalia on foot and overpowered him. Then the princess became invisible, and Argalia rode away, the Moor in pursuit.
In the forest of Ardennes, the Moor discovered Argalia sleeping, killed him without honor, and seized his wonderful helmet. Roland, having followed them, discovered the murder of Argalia and sought the Moor to punish him for his unknightly deed.
Reinold of Montalban found the Princess of Cathay in the forest after he had drunk from the waters of the fountain of Merlin, and the effect of this water was to make him see the princess as an ugly crone. She thought him handsome, but he felt disgust and hurried away. Roland discovered the Moor and challenged him to combat, but the Moor suddenly remembered that his liege lord in Spain was in need of his help and did not remain to fight with Roland.
When the Princess of Cathay saw the Moor wearing her brother's helmet, she knew a tragedy had occurred, and she transported herself by magic to her father's kingdom.
Roland went on a quest to the Far East in search of the complete armor of Trojan Hector. Whether by chance or by evil design, he came to a fountain and there drank the water of forgetfulness. He was rescued by the Princess of Cathay and fought many battles for her sake, even though she was a pagan princess.
At last he came to the castle of the fairy queen, Morgan le Fay, where the armor of Trojan Hector was said to be hidden. Overcome for the first time, he failed to gain the armor and was ordered to return to the court of Charlemagne.
He arrived home in time to help the Danes resist an invasion of their country. When Ogier's father, Duke Godfrey, summoned help, Ogier and Roland set out for Denmark. The invaders fled. At the same time Ogier's father died, but Ogier, on the advice of Morgan le Fay, renounced his rights to his father's holdings in favor of his younger brother.
On his way back to France, Roland heard of a fierce ore said to be the property of Proteus. The ore devoured one beautiful maiden each day until Roland overcame it and was rewarded by Oberto, the king of Ireland, whose daughter he had saved.
In the meantime Charlemagne's forces were being attacked by the Saracens, and Roland set out to help Charlemagne's knights. On the way he was trapped in a wizard's castle. He was saved from this captivity by Bra-damant, a warrior maiden. She, having won a magic ring from the Princess of Cathay, overcame the wizard and released all the knights and ladies held prisoner in the wizard's castle.
Ferrau, the Moorish knight, lost the helmet he had stolen from Argalia and vowed he would never again wear a helmet until he should wear that of Roland. By trickery he managed to get Roland's helmet.
Roland was set upon by Mandricardo, the fierce knight to whom fortune had awarded the arms of Trojan Hector. They fought for the possession of Durandal, Roland's sword, the only part of Trojan Hector's equipment which Mandricardo did not possess. At last Mandricardo was forced to flee for his life.
Roland visited the forest where the Princess of Cathay and Medoro, a Moorish prince, had fallen in love. Some declared it was jealousy for the princess, but others declared it was sheer exhaustion which caused Roland now to lose his mind. He cast his armor away from him and went wandering helplessly through the forest. Mandricardo seized Durandal and made Roland his prisoner.
Astolpho and Oliver set out from the court of Charlemagne to save Roland. Astolpho journeyed on the back of a flying horse to the fabulous land of Prester John. Having freed Prester John from a flock of harpies, Astolpho journeyed to the rim of the moon and there saw stored all the things lost on earth. There he found Roland's common sense, which he brought back with him and returned to Roland so that the knight became his former self.
In a battle against the Saracens, the wicked Ganelon betrayed the knights of Charlemagne. Greatly outnumbered, they fell one by one to their enemies.
Roland, unwilling to call for help, refused to use his famous horn to summon aid, and he died last of all. Charlemagne, discovering the dead hero, declared a great day of mourning. Alda, the betrothed of Roland, fell dead and was buried with many honors. Then Charlemagne died and was buried with great pomp. Only Ogier the Dane remained, and it is said that Morgan le Fay carried him to Avalon where he lives in company with Arthur of the Round Table.
It is also said that Charlemagne dwells inside a vast mountain cave with all of his heroes gathered around him. There they wait for the day when they shall march out to avenge the wrongs of the world.
The Song of Roland is loosely associated with the romance literature—the adventure narratives—of medieval France. The romance is divided into three types on the basis of content. The first is the "Matter of Britain," dealing with Arthurian legend and Celtic lore. The second is the "Matter of Antiquity," taking its cue from the legends of Thebes, the legends of Troy (such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1382), and the legends about Alexander the Great. The third is the "Matter of France," focusing on stories of Charlemagne and his circle as well as stories of William of Orange, drawn from the chansons de geste, or songs of great deeds. It is here that the Song of Roland becomes important, for it is, properly speaking, one of the songs of great deeds.
The chansons de geste are epic in nature, although the precise origins of the form are unknown. A popular literary form between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, they are written in French verse—as were early romances; late romances were written in prose—using first a ten-syllable than a twelve-syllable (Alexandrine) line and assonance. Rhyme was substituted for assonance in the late chansons. The lines are grouped in stanzas—called laisses or tirades—of varying lengths, and series of chansons developed into story cycles dealing with a particular person, such as Charlemagne, or a particular theme, such as the conflict between Christians and Saracens. Like the classical epics, the chansons de geste concentrate—as implied by the name—on battles, heroic feats, and knightly ideals. Scant notice is paid to women or the theme of love. These tales furnish the material for the medieval romance; however, in the romance, the emphasis shifts from the heroic to the chivalric, from war to love, and from tragic seriousness to lighthearted adventure. Thus the Song of Roland, a chanson de geste, is a narrative of knights in battle, but Lodovico Ariosto's sixteenth century Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532) concerns itself with a smitten Roland (Orlando) gone mad over hopeless infatuation with the faithless Angelica, the Princess of Cathay.
Some verification for the events narrated in the Song of Roland is provided independently of the poem in the "Annales regni Francorum" of Einhard (or Eginhard), Charlemagne's biographer and chronicler. On this basis, it is possible to pinpoint the essential Roland story as a Basque ambush, in A.D. 778, of the rearguard of Charlemagne's army during a retreat through the Pyrenees. One unusual aspect of the story is that it tells of a defeat— not that defeat was a total stranger in the epic world of chansons de geste, but rather the heroic ambience which pervaded the chansons precluded much talk of defeat. Several hypotheses have been offered to explain the apparent anomaly. One scholar traces the place-names mentioned in the poem to the pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, theorizing that clerics on pilgrimage knitted the stories of Roland's defeat into an intrinsically Christian epic—in effect, an adaptation of history to a Christian poem. Another scholar construes the poem as a tribute to courage, loyalty, patriotism, and devotion in the face of overwhelming odds— in other words, a celebration of heroic ideals. A third scholar more plausibly approaches the problem by way of the poem's purpose. If, so the reasoning goes, the poem was written to glorify Charlemagne and Christianity, then Roland dies a martyr's death and Charlemagne's vengeance redounds to his credit as a Defender of the Faith. Whatever their other merits, these theories suggest two recurring themes in any reading of the Song of Roland: the religious and the heroic, both of them major preoccupations of the High Middle Ages.
The religious theme pits Christians against Saracens, imbuing the story with a strong crusading spirit. On the one hand, Charlemagne and his Peers display most, if not all, of the Seven Cardinal Virtues. Even the proud Roland dies humble and contrite, and Charlemagne's early indecision is resolved later in the poem when he becomes a courageous leader. The pagans, on the other hand, embody the Seven Deadly Sins. They are treacherous and greedy, fighting for personal glory or material gain rather than principle or faith. In this world of black-and-white morality, there are no good pagans, and the treasonous, deceitful Ganelon is severely punished for his perfidy. By contrast, the good Charlemagne is rewarded by the direct intervention of the Archangel Gabriel, who deals the pagan Saracens a final defeat by slaying their leader, Baligant, while God makes the sun stand still. Divine intervention even affects the trial of Ganelon. The Christian cause is never questioned, nor is there any doubt about its justice. The forced baptism of the Saracen captives is described without qualm, just as is the battlefield bloodshed. If contradictions appear to the modern reader, they certainly did not occur to the medieval mind, for religious faith—by no means the least of the Cardinal Virtues—obliterated any inconsistencies between, for example, the virtue of temperance and the slaughter of pagans.
The heroic theme in the Song of Roland is closely linked to the religious, since most heroic deeds are performed in the name of religious principle. The hero's role, however, requires dedication to ideals that have only peripheral, if any, relationship to religious precepts. Loyalty and bravery, for example, are held in high esteem, but they are such basic heroic ideals that they are more implicit than explicit in the poem. Decision of major issues and even major battles by single combat is another heroic ideal which often manifests itself in the poem. In addition, the motifs of victory-defeat and treason-vengeance weigh heavily in the balance of heroic ideals. Still another factor, which the modern reader might call "team spirit," is the knightly obligation to subsume individual or personal honor and glory in furtherance of the cause. Thus Roland's early pride, especially his insistence upon the force to subdue the Saracens and his subsequent refusal to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne's aid until all were dead or dying, was later brought low. Finally Roland regretted his stubborn pride in a vivid demonstration of the need for that heroic ideal, teamwork. Not all is a self-evident exercise in primitive democracy. Charlemagne's word was still law, although the most powerful peers insisted upon a voice in decision making; nor is there much attention paid to morality (as distinct from ethics) or to social courtesies. In fact, a pristine system of social and political justice characterized Charlemagne's court as an essential ingredient in the heroic ideal, quite apart from religious considerations altogether. Thus, the unique features of the heroic ideal are distinguishable from religious precepts.
All in all, the Song of Roland is a remarkable panorama of medieval life and thought, imaginatively perceived. To those who would say that it is false history, one can answer only with the cliche that fiction is often truer than history, for in the Song of Roland such is the case. The poem affords so vivid a picture of medieval reality that its historical accuracy is irrelevant; it presents psychological, emotional, and sociological realities that transcend factual data to reach a new plateau of reality, one reflecting the spirit of the times rather than the substance. In this sense the Song of Roland is, despite its ethical simplicities and its literary primitiveness, remarkably successful as a document of the medieval spirit, a characteristic that may explain its enduring popularity for nearly one thousand years.
Song of Roland
NOW RONCEVAUX PASS
A man walks as snow and frozen wind billows cross the region, in Roncesvalles, northern Spain, Thursday Feb. 2, 2012. A cold spell has reached Europe with temperatures plummeting far below zero. (AP Photo/ Alvaro Barrientos)