Due to treachery, Charlemagne’s nephew Count Roland finds himself and 20,000 other knights hopelessly outnumbered by pagan forces at the battle of Roncesvals in the year 778.
Most likely written sometime in the early 12th Century, The Song of Roland is the French national epic, much like the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey and the Romans’ Aeneid. It is not, in my tolerably humble opinion, quite on that level, but an interesting read nevertheless.
The story is pretty straightforward, although decorated with a couple of flourishes here and there, but it’s not the narrative of impossibly large armies chopping each other up that evokes the most interest. More striking, for better and worse, are the themes and the form. I don’t mean this in an over-analytical literary critic kind of way (those people bore me to death in no time flat), but in the way you can’t help noticing those aspects when reading.
Often deemed a work of propaganda, The Song of Roland points at least as many didactic fingers as any Greek tragedy or Christian sermon. And Christianity is a big thing here: trust in god and you shall be amply rewarded. You may get chopped to pieces by irate pagans, but hey, you’re in the running for a good seat at the table in Paradise. The whole source of the conflict, the whole reason why Charlemagne has invaded Muslim-controlled Spain in the first place, is that he feels a desperate itch to decapitate anyone who’s not a Christian. The pagans (nominally Muslims, but it’s laughably clear that the unknown author knew precisely not a thing about Islam) have pretty much the same urges towards anyone not sharing their faith. This, then, is the only piece of The Song of Roland that smacks of realism: the facts about Islam are all wrong, as are the historical facts of Charlemagne’s rule, and even the types of armour used in the 8th Century, but the one thing the poem gets right is just how elatedly fond religious people are of killing each other in droves.
Christianity isn’t the only thing lionized here, however. The other big constituent is the idea of “vassalage”, which evidently means a combination of lunatic courage and chivalry on the one hand, and unfailing servitude under one’s betters on the other. Roland himself is the very personification of these iffy virtues, his greatest terror being the risk of becoming the subject matter for denigrating songs. He absolutely refuses to sound his famous horn Oliphant to call for freely available reinforcements when it becomes obvious that the approaching pagan host is too much to handle; it would cut into his fame to choose not to die fighting impossible odds, so dying it is, then. He also lives solely for the glory of Charlemagne, obviously having no other ideas of a good time than conquering city after city for his emperor.
It’s all very crazy indeed to modern eyes, but one has to admit that there is a strange part of one’s brain that does find this demented mentality somehow magnificent. Well, in my case not the Christian nonsense, but the idea of going down in flames for a good cause. Not being hero material, I will of course put on a pair of slippers and have a nice cup of tea instead, but in concept there’s something in me that likes the idea.
Anyway, a great number of scholars have spent decades analyzing the themes and didactic purpose of The Song of Roland, as well as the medieval mindset in general, so I’ll foreshorten further discussion on the matter, since I am simply not qualified.
The same holds true of the poem’s form, but since it affects the reading experience, I’ll say a few words about it even so. The verse of The Song of Roland is, I’m told, ever so intricate and restricted by a number of rules. This in itself isn’t necessarily noticeable when you read the thing, because it can be just as easily read as prose, but like the Iliad’s hexameter, the meter affects the structure of the text. The Song of Roland is told in 291 short stanzas (the term for this type of stanza is evidently laisse), almost all of which are expressed in a curiously clipped, chopped and frankly wooden idiom that does little to elevate excitement levels. Considering that this is the story of men on horseback galloping towards each other with lances and swords, it feels remarkably static and unthrilling. The verse form limits the options for vivid description, and also invites laziness on the part of the author: once he managed to cobble together a fair bit of laisse, he sure liked reusing it, so that most of the knights are killed in one of two ways, lending little variety to the almost constant butchery. One of these types of deaths is a doozy, though: people are cloven from head to groin with a single sword stroke, with the blade finally splitting the spine of the horse the victim was riding on.
Instead of describing with colour and fervour just how vicious a battle is, the author prefers saying things like “the battle is very brutal, the knights fight very hard”, making parts of the poem sound amusingly like a history essay by a fifth grader. And maybe this isn’t so very far from true: if one compares The Song of Roland to The Iliad, there is no denying that the latter is a complex, highly polished work milling with the detail, richness and linguistic beauty of a refined culture, whereas The Song of Roland is a simple, creaky, thin work told in short, unpoetic sentences, being as it is a product of a rather primitive society that had yet to reach anything approaching the sophistication of – the admittedly savage – Ancient Greece.
The Song of Roland has a stirring story at its heart, and it is intensely interesting to see what people’s thinking was like in the 12th Century (or rather, what the authorities wanted people’s thinking to be like). Furthermore, Roland is one of the great legends that echo behind much of modern fiction, and it’s satisfying to have read the source material behind it. Tolkien must have taken quite a bit of inspiration from it, and Stephen King has stated outright that it was a huge influence on his Dark Tower series, so Roland lives on. He just might not be at his most inviting in his original form.
Rating: 4 of 10 as literature. 7 of 10 as a cultural document.