Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 697

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.

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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 entire section contains 697 words.)

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