armed with sword and shield and his horn at his side, Roland attacks another soldier

The Song of Roland

Start Free Trial

Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Song of Roland was largely ignored by critics and the reading public until the nineteenth century. In their cursory examinations of the French epic, the first commentators on the work considered it lacking in emotionalism, primitive, and inferior to Greek and Latin epic. The first real interest in the text stemmed from a debate between Gaston Paris, the most illustrious professor of medieval French literature in late nineteenth-century France, and his student, Joseph Bedier. Paris claimed that The Song of Roland was an essentially oral text, having been sung by minstrels since the battle of Roncesvalles. The written text, he contended, was simply a version of the oral story copied down by a cleric. This critical approach is called "traditionalism.'' Bedier contended that, while the story of Roland and Olivier was a popular legend, the cleric who found in the legend material for an epic poem added the detail and complexity that make it a significant literary work. This is called the"individualist'' approach to The Song of Roland.

This critical debate, never resolved, has given way to different readings and debates, making The Song of Roland arguably the most analyzed work in the French literary tradition. Many essays closely analyze the actions and character of Roland. Should he have blown the horn or not? Is he guilty of the sin of excessive pride in refusing to call for help, or is such reckless bravery the hallmark of the worthy soldier? Critic Alain Renoir sees Roland's internal conflict as a religious one, and several commentators have noted that Roland's final prayer is followed by the approach of angels who take his soul to heaven, indicating that he has found redeption. D. D. R. Owen and others, however, maintain that the motivation for Roland's conduct is non-religious, based on "a triple sense of duty: to king and country, to family, and to self." Roland's refusing to blow the horn is not a sin of pride but rather an admirable trait of bravery that came from his utter devotion to the feudal political system. The question of Roland as hero or as redeemed recalcitrant yet remains, as does the dispute between traditionalist and individualist interpreters, unresolved and probably unresolvable.

Yet another trend in Song of Roland criticism reads the epic for the insight it provides into late eleventh-century French life. While at first glance the tale seems far from realistic, many of its episodes recount events common in eleventh-century life. Emanuel J. Mickel has found that Ganelon's trial by judicial combat between his representative and a representative of his accuser is an accurate account of such medieval trial. For Eugene Vance the story illustrates a political conflict that preoccupied eleventh-century France. According to Vance, the author writes to explore the questions "How to tame the barons?", "Where does power reside?", and "Where is loyalty due?"

The Song of Roland lends itself as well to postmodern criticism. In a foray into psychoanalytical criticism, R. Howard Bloch finds the hostility between Roland and Ganelon to be an expression of the oedipal archetype. Ganelon, married to Roland's mother after the death of Roland's father, represents the wicked stepfather, while Charlemagne, Roland's maternal uncle, is Roland's spiritual father. This psychoanalytic reading explores the many twisted and complicated familial relationships found in The Song of Roland. Feminist critic Ann Tukey Harrison looks at the women in the text, finding that Aude is essentially passive and defined by her relationship to male characters (Roland's fiancee, Olivier's sister), whereas Queen Bramimonde functions independently: she is active in ruling Saragossa and guiding court business.

The many and varied approaches to reading The Song of Roland demonstrate the work's timeless appeal. The epic is sufficiently complicated and vague to allow multiple readings that have significance for audiences of all times. Each reader can find a lesson, a moral, or an example that is appropriate to his or her own experience. As long as The Song of Roland is read, new audiences will bring new ideas and approaches to the text. Some of these notions will no doubt share much with those of the eleventh-century audience, while others will be unique to the reader's time and place.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Introduction


Essays and Criticism