The Chanson de Roland tells of the decisive battle at Roncesvalles, Spain, between Charlemagne's Christian forces and the Saracens, or pagans, led by King Marsile of Saragossa. The knight Roland's bravery and his betrayal by his stepfather, Ganelon, are of central interest in the tale.
As the Saracens and Franks encounter each other, differences in culture and religion come to the foreground. The French admire the Saracens for their prowess, the beauty of their armaments, and, at times, their valor. However, Charlemagne's sole purpose in life according to the epic is to defend the Christian religion. As such, all non-believers must be converted or destroyed. Since the Muslim Saracens control Spain, which was formerly Christian, Charlemagne's special mission is to drive the Muslims from Christian lands. The epic shows no real understanding of Islam by the medieval, presumably Christian, author of the text.
Duty and Responsibility
Charlemagne is the venerable lord of the French fighters. They must serve him, even if this means personal danger or hardship. Roland, eager to serve, tries to volunteer for every mission. When he is appointed to head the rear guard, he vows to protect Charlemagne from all harm. Thus, he refuses to blow the horn that will summon Charlemagne when the rear guard is attacked. Even the treacherous Ganelon accepts his duty to act as emissary to the Saracens when Charlemagne orders it, but because of the danger involved he harbors resentment against Roland, who encouraged his appointment. Ganelon tries to separate his duty to Charlemagne from his duty toward Charlemagne's men. He contends that he remained faithful to Charlemagne even while betraying Roland. Charlemagne and the knight Thierry, who fights on his behalf, believe that the duty owed to Charlemagne includes protection of his men. The fact that an angel of God helps Thierry to defeat the knight who fights for Ganelon suggests that God, too, agrees that Ganelon's duty was to Roland as a representative of Charlemagne.
Olivier and Roland present a model friendship of men brought together in battling a common enemy. They have fought together for many years, and Roland is engaged to marry Olivier's sister. Olivier does not hesitate to criticize Roland for not blowing the horn.
Good and Evil
The characters of the Chanson de Roland are aligned starkly on the side of either Good or Evil. Individual Saracens are acknowledged to possess qualities of bravery, wisdom, skill in battle, and even physical attractiveness—but for the epic's author,...
(The entire section is 1081 words.)
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