The Song of Roland
(La chanson de Roland) French poem, c. 1170.
The following entry presents criticism from 1970 to 1999 on The Song of Roland. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 1.
The greatest French epic and a landmark of medieval literature, La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is the earliest extant example of the chanson de geste, or “song of deeds,” an enormously popular genre in Europe in the Middle Ages and after. In its celebration of heroic deeds and feudal chivalric ideals, The Song of Roland reveals much about the culture of which it is a product, is invaluable to historians in its depiction of the evolution of ethics and Christianity, and is prized for its literary merit and beauty. The original, anonymous manuscript of The Song of Roland has been lost, so it is best represented by the 4000-line manuscript held at Oxford, which is believed to be a copy of a copy of the original. Written in an Anglo-Norman dialect, it blends legend and romance with historical accounts in telling the tale of Charlemagne's nephew, the beloved knight Roland and his death in the Pyrenees in 778, as the King and his men are returning home from a seven-year-long Spanish campaign. Historians believe the story was told for inspiration, to help rally troops to battle. The Song of Roland has been compared in importance to the Iliad and its depiction of honor and courage has engaged readers for centuries.
Plot and Major Characters
The plot of The Song of Roland unfolds chronologically and directly, with no ancillary matters to interrupt its flow. The characters are largely symbolic representations of various qualities: Charlemagne, the wise king; Roland, the fearless knight; Marsile, the evil infidel; and Ganelon, the treacherous schemer. Charlemagne and his men, weary in their seventh year of battle against pagan forces in Spain, have captured every heathen stronghold but the kingdom of Saragossa. Its ruler, Marsile, offers a treaty: he will convert and be baptized in Charlemagne's capital, Aix. The offer is made in bad faith; Marsile has no intention of surrendering and wants only for Charlemagne to end his siege of the city and get out of Spain. Charlemagne does not trust Marsile but nevertheless accepts the overture, although Roland strenuously objects. Roland nominates his stepfather, Ganelon, as emissary to Marsile. Ganelon initially balks but is forced to accept the dangerous commission. He publicly vows to wreak vengeance on his hated stepson, who laughs derisively at the threat. In collusion with Marsile, Ganelon plots his revenge: he will see to it that Roland is given command of the rear guard, which the Saracens will ambush and destroy. The scheme proceeds as planned: as Charlemagne's army travels homeward, through the Roncevaux pass in the Pyrenees, Roland and the rear guard, which includes the finest knights of France, are ambushed by Marsile's army. Oliver, Roland's closest friend and a brave warrior in his own right, thrice begs his friend to sound his oliphant, or horn, to summon the aid of Charlemagne's main troop. Despite their forces being outnumbered five to one, Roland three times refuses, citing his desire to preserve his family honor and his determination to win alone. When defeat is imminent, Roland at last sounds his oliphant, though it is too late to save the rear guard. He blows his horn so forcefully that his temples burst, and Charlemagne hears and turns his forces around. Even with the rear guard destroyed, the Saracens are unable to vanquish Roland; after he slays Marsile's son and cuts off Marsile's right hand, the pagan army deserts the field, leaving Roland the sole survivor. Amid vain attempts to break Durandal, his sword, so that it may not be taken by a lesser knight, Roland painfully makes his way to the front of the battlefield, wishing Charlemagne and the Franks to know that he died bravely. As Roland dies from the wound he sustained sounding the oliphant, angels descend to accompany his soul to God. After Roland's demise, Charlemagne and the main army gain revenge by annihilating Marsile's troops. Next Charlemagne faces the pagan Baligant; Baligant's defeat represents the defeat of paganism by Christianity. Once this conflict is resolved, the trial of Ganelon begins. In the denouement of The Song of Roland Ganelon argues that his action was not treason against his liege lord, Charlemagne, but honorable personal revenge against Roland. The Frankish barons are disposed to exonerate Ganelon, but the knight Thierry proposes to prove Ganelon's guilt by trial of arms against Ganelon's champion, Pinabel. Thierry, maintaining that Ganelon's action did indeed constitute treason against Charlemagne because his revenge was undertaken while Roland was acting in the King's service, vanquishes his opponent and Ganelon is drawn and quartered. As The Song of Roland ends, a weary and mourning Charlemagne is summoned by the archangel Gabriel to undertake yet another crusade.
The Song of Roland's central themes are heroism, bravery, and honor. Many critics interpret Roland's refusal to call for help in the course of his last battle as overweening pride. Sarah Kay and other scholars, however, maintain that Roland is improperly judged when his behavior is evaluated by modern standards and that his behavior was beyond reproach according to the ethos in his own time. Critics use the story as a means of studying the history of ethics and its evolution over the centuries.
Much attention has been focused on study of the surviving texts of the tale. The manuscript housed at the Bodleian Library at Oxford is the oldest and is generally considered the truest and most beautiful rendition of The Song of Roland. The twelfth-century German adaptation, the Rolandslied (circa 1185), is frequently studied as well, as are Norse, Welsh, Dutch, Franco-Italian, Latin, and other French versions. Eugene Vance has written of the evolution of the work through the centuries, beginning as oral poetry with portions improvised in various retelling by various reciters. What The Song of Roland reveals about the development of Christianity is taken up by E. Zimroth, Gerard J. Brault, and Laura Ashe, among others. Dating the work has always been problematic for scholars and historians. Among those offering their insights on this question are Dorothy L. Sayers and Hans E. Keller. Keller explains why assorted experts, using dialectical studies and histories of legal procedure to help them, have come up with so many different dates for composition, ranging over more than a century, from 1086 to 1170. The question of authorship is equally vexing. Some scholars believe that no single author can be credited with its creation, but that generations of poets revised and embellished The Song of Roland over many years. They do not believe the Oxford text is definitive, but simply representative of many different texts which have not survived. Opposed to this traditionalist view are the individualists, who declare that at some particular point during the telling of the legend of Roland, an individual deliberately set it to paper as an act of individual genius. The Oxford manuscript ends with a reference to Turoldus, but scholars cannot agree on whether it means that Turoldus is its author or merely a scribe. As is always the case with translations, especially of archaically written poetry, there are unsolvable problems and compromises in every edition, but there is a wide range from which to choose. The numerous translations reflect the universal critical acclaim and popularity of The Song of Roland.