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,...
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