The Song of Roland is loosely associated with the chivalric romance literature—the adventure narratives—of medieval France. The romance is divided into three types on the basis of content. The first concerns matters of Britain and deals with Arthurian legend and Celtic lore. The second concerns matters of antiquity and takes its cue from the legends of Thebes, the legends of Troy (such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1382), and the legends about Alexander the Great. The third concerns France and focuses on stories of Charlemagne and his circle, as well as on stories of William of Orange, drawn from the chansons de geste. It is in this category that The Song of Roland is important, for it is, properly speaking, a “song of great deeds.”
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 were written in French verse, as were the early romances; late romances were written in prose, using first a ten-syllable, then 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 the term implies, on battles, heroic feats, and knightly ideals. Little notice is paid to women or the theme of love. These tales furnished the material for the medieval romance, where, however, the emphasis shifts from the heroic to the chivalric, from war to love, and from tragic seriousness to lighthearted adventure. The Song of Roland is a narrative of knights in battle, but Lodovico Ariosto’s sixteenth century Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) concerns a smitten Roland (Orlando) gone mad over his hopeless infatuation with the faithless Angelica, the princess of Cathay.
Some verification for the events narrated in The Song of Roland is provided 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 778, of the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army during a retreat through the Pyrenees. One unusual aspect of the story is that it tells of a defeat; although defeat was not a total stranger in the epic world of chansons de geste, the heroic ambience that pervaded them precluded an emphasis on defeat. Among the scholars who have suggested explanations for the apparent anomaly, one traces the place names mentioned in the poem to the pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James of Compostella; according to this theory, 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. However, a third scholar approaches the problem by way of the poem’s purpose: If the poem were 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...
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story with a strong crusading spirit. 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, and they fight for personal glory or material gain rather than for 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 later readers, 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 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, or even of major battles by single combat, is another heroic ideal that often manifests itself in the poem. In addition, the motifs of victory and defeat, treason and vengeance, weigh heavily in the balance of heroic ideals. Still another factor, which later readers might call team spirit, is the knightly obligation to subsume individual or personal honor and glory in furtherance of a cause. Thus Roland’s early pride, especially his insistence on the use of force to subdue the Saracens and his subsequent refusal to blow his horn to summon Charlemagne’s aid until all are dead or dying, is eventually brought low. Finally, Roland regrets 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 is still law, although the most powerful peers insist on having 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 characterizes 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.
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 cliché that fiction is often truer than history, for that is certainly the case in The Song of Roland. 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.