Why is The Song of Roland called the national epic of France?

The Song of Roland is France's national epic because it promotes values that have made the French nation what it is today. These values include courage, loyalty, and sacrifice for the good of one's community.

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The Song of Roland is France's national epic, not just by virtue of its considerable length, but by the values it promotes. The title character is consistently presented throughout the poem as a role model for French manhood, a brave soldier whose loyalty, valor, and sacrifice make him the first...

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The Song of Roland is France's national epic, not just by virtue of its considerable length, but by the values it promotes. The title character is consistently presented throughout the poem as a role model for French manhood, a brave soldier whose loyalty, valor, and sacrifice make him the first authentically national hero.

Roland's heroic deeds on the battlefield have served as an inspiration to successive generations. That such deeds were performed in mortal combat with the Other—in this case, Muslim Saracens—is particularly instructive. The French nation, like all nations, was built on exclusion as much as inclusion. The nationalist ideology that gave rise to the founding of France as a modern nation-state determined who was and who wasn't part of the nation.

Generations of Frenchmen from the 19th century onwards saw Roland as a redoubtable defender of French values against alien ideals from without. Extreme nationalists extensively cited his noble exploits in their propaganda, urging Frenchmen to follow his heroic example and combat the various dangers to the spiritual and geographical integrity of the French nation represented by its perceived enemies—Jews, Protestants, Freemasons, Germans—both within and without.

Nowadays, it is possible to enjoy this great work of literature without subscribing to such repellant ideas. But it is important to acknowledge one of the more unsavory factors that contributed towards The Song of Roland's becoming the national epic of France.

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This is an interesting question which owes as much to the modern editors of The Song of Roland as it does to the poem itself. In the nineteenth century, a particular drive towards national identity took hold all over Europe and often manifested itself in an interest in the early texts, which could be said to "define" the nation.

In Germanic and Teutonic nations—specifically in Britain and Germany itself (which was only unified into one country in the nineteenth century)—this meant a preoccupation with Old English, Norse, and Old High German texts, with editors emphasizing the elements of coherence within these. The same occurred in nineteenth century France and could be seen to be connected to the turbulence France had undergone over its long revolutionary period.

By emphasizing (modern critics tend to say overemphasizing) the elements of purely French cohesion in The Song of Roland, nineteenth-century critics hoped to help define France as a nation by showing that, in a hero like Roland, archetypal French qualities and values could be seen.

Obviously, The Song is an epic poem and it is French —to an extent. But although it is set in France and features a French hero, the most significant manuscript is actually in Anglo-Norman and now resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

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Just as Beowulf is the oldest surviving poem written in English, so also The Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving poem written in French. Also like Beowulf, The Song of Roland is the tale of hero who performs great acts of courage.

The Song of Roland is the national epic of France not simply because it is written in French, however. Unlike Beowulf, which although written in English does not have an English hero, Roland is a thoroughly French hero. He is the nephew of Charlemagne, leader of the Franks and future Holy Roman Emperor.

The story is set during a battle between the Franks and the Saracens (Arabs). Roland has the fatal flaw of hubris, or excessive pride. When the troops he commands are attacked from the rear, he refuses to blow the horn to call Charlemagne to come to their rescue because it would bring dishonor to him as a knight. After nearly all his men are killed, Roland is finally persuaded to blow the alarm, and he blows the horn so hard that blood vessels in his head burst, causing his death. Charlemagne does come to the rescue and defeats the Saracens, but too late to save his nephew.

 

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