Roland was my choice as Annual Epic this year for two reasons. Reason the First, I wanted to make this year's Annual Epic a readalong, and I thought this would be a reasonably quick and easy epic for everyone to join in on. Reason the Second, I've been busy researching the Crusades all year for OUTREMER, and I knew that The Song of Roland would be a good refresher course on two highly relevant medieval institutions: knightly chivalry (which it basically codified) and the long-standing struggle between Islam and Christendom.
When I first read this epic, I recall being somewhat bored and squicked by all the battle scenes. And while I hoped that re-reading the poem this year would reveal new depths, I never expected to love it as much as I did.
For seven years, Charlemagne and his knights have been making war against the Paynims in Spain. Both the king and his army are growing weary--so when messengers arrive from Marsilion, Paynim king of Saragossa, the last city to continue to hold out against the Christian warriors, offering to make peace, Charlemagne is eager hear him.
When Charlemagne's nephew and greatest knight Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon to travel to Saragossa as an envoy to the famously treacherous Marsilion, however, trouble erupts. Ganelon knows he's walking into danger, feels his honour insulted by the insinuation that he is expendable, and has never liked Roland anyway. So when he reaches Saragossa, he hatches a wicked plot to betray Roland, the Twelve Peers of France, and the rearguard of Charlemagne's army to the Saracens. Since Roland has spearheaded all Charlemagne's victories across Europe, Marsilion is easily convinced to commit to the attack.
As the Saracen trumpets sound in the hills, Roland's friend Count Oliver urges him to sound his horn to call for aid. But Roland refuses...
Chanson de Geste
The Song of Roland is primarily an epic war story. This was typical of the chansons de geste of this period, of which Roland was the earliest and the best. Nevertheless, when I read it first, I didn't think much of the genre. Unlike the romances of the High and Late Middle Ages, which I already knew and loved, there was no fantasy, very little magic, and very little surrealist adventure. There wasn't even a love story, unless you count Roland's rather spiritless fiancee who keels over and dies at the end when she hears the bad news.
Since it seemed to be missing everything I thought of when I thought of chivalry, I wasn't sure how The Song of Roland was supposed to be such a seminal medieval text on the subject. This time around, however, I'd learned enough about the time period Roland was written in (the late 1000s; most likely, from internal evidence, the 1090s-1100s) to realise that in fact, the chanson is about very little else. This is feudal idealism reduced to its barest-bones elements.
Those elements include all sorts of things, but primarily revolve around a whole series of strong, courteous, and loving covenantal bonds. You have the relationship between knight and lord (Roland and Charlemagne), the relationship between peer and peer (Roland and Oliver), the relationship between Christian and Church (Roland and Turpin), the relationship between Christian and God (as at Roland's death scene), and of course, the relationship between warrior and armaments (Roland's sword, horn, and horse are all characters in their own right). These close and earnest relationships, all revolving around a concept of virtue for Christ's sake independent of pragmatic success, are the soul of chivalric idealism.
And all of this is depicted with maximum battlefield mayhem and an infectious, almost shockingly youthful spirit exulting in colour, sound, speed, and defiance.
Roland Makes a Call
When I first read the poem and for a long time afterward, I felt quite positive that the central character was an idiot. The situation is spelled out quite clearly at the beginning of the second act. Roland has a legendary horn (the Olifant), his level-headed friend Oliver, and a modest force containing France's best warriors. The Saracen hordes suddenly ambush him with the vanguard of a much greater force. Oliver begs Roland to blow the Olifant and summon Charlemagne to their help. But although he guesses Ganelon has betrayed him, Roland refuses, right up until he is staring disaster in the face. When he does blow the horn, it's too late: Charlemagne returns, only to find his men slaughtered to the last man.
It seemed to me--and the poem certainly leaves that interpretation open--that Roland was acting out of pride. If he'd listened to Oliver to begin with, surely there would not have been such a senseless loss of life. Right?
As I returned to the poem this year, I was astonished to find my opinions changing. The reason for this is simply the sheer amount of study I've done into the history and feudal structures of this period. To my surprise, Roland's reasoning began to make sense to me.
(Explanatory interjection: The battle of Ronceveaux was a real historical event occurring in AD 777. However, The Song of Roland was written at least three centuries later, drawing upon an elaborate body of legend; it was not intended to be historically accurate, and tells us far more about the attitudes and accoutrements of the 1090s, when it was written, than it does about the 770s).
Roland argues that he would be dishonoured if he asked for help. This is not convincing to us moderners because we have such a low regard for those who let their actions be influenced by the opinions of others. We idealise self-deprecation, real or feigned. However, realistically, Roland has a job to do: Protect Charlemagne's vulnerable rear, allowing him to retreat to safety in France. More than that, Roland is obligated to Charlemagne under a complex web of familial, ecclesiastical, civil, and spiritual bonds. And finally, he literally has one job. He is a man of war and of nothing else. If he fails as a rearguard, it's not as if he can take up carpet-laying or lawn tennis and make a meaningful contribution to society in some other way.
In other words, Roland will indeed look bad if he recalls Charlemagne, and for very good reason. The whole deal is that he is supposed to be guarding the retreat at the cost of his life. In his eyes, any circumstances short of utter disaster cannot justify disrupting his liege lord's retreat and embroiling him in a whole new battle.
And the circumstances when Roland and Oliver first discuss the matter are, in fact, far short of utter disaster. Roland is massively outnumbered, it's true. But although one might call Oliver's position the more realistic one, the fact is that in the military history of the Middle Ages it was commonplace for very small forces to utterly rout very large armies. And Roland's men are not mere mortals: they are paladins, the Twelve Peers of France, renowned in story and song, practically superpowered, and they have God on their side ("the paynims are wrong, and the Christians are right" is the poem's refrain). If Dorothy Sayers is correct in believing that The Song of Roland was edited into its final form during or shortly after the First Crusade, then the 1098 Siege of Antioch, which culminated in a crushing victory waged by the outnumbered, starving, disease-ridden, exhausted, underequipped and besieged Crusaders against the Turkish hordes of Kerbogha, was still headline news. That Roland hoped to fight off a vast Saracen army is less shocking than the fact that Godfrey, Raymond, and Bohemond actually did.
Now Oliver's arguments in favour of calling for help certainly have weight. His advice is sound, and is meant to sound convincing, all the more so since circumstances prove him right. His disagreement with Roland causes both of them sincere grief as the disaster unfolds--Oliver can't resist saying, "I told you so" and bewailing the defeat; Roland must watch his dearest friend perish by his bad choice. And yet, desperately as we feel for them, the whole point of the poem is that, right as Oliver may be, Roland's choice is by far the nobler. Even though it leads him to defeat, it allows him to die well, fulfilling his feudal obligations to king, companions, church, and Christendom.
War for Christ's Sake
In addition to doing a really splendid translation of the poem, Dorothy Sayers has also written an Introduction which is worth its weight in gold. I am tempted to summarise the whole thing (with its insightful comments on feudalism, courtesy, the contrast between the constitutional, limited monarchy of Charlemagne as compared with the totalitarian rule of the Muslim rulers, and so on), but it would be better for you to read it all yourself. I do, however, want to quickly sum up Sayers's evaluation of the larger themes of the poem.
The first thing we learn about Roland as a character is that he loves fighting perhaps a little too much. Marsilion is easily convinced to kill him in hope that without his firebrand influence Charlemagne will weary of fighting and go home. And it's certainly this love of fighting that influences him to fight it out with the Saracens at Ronceveaux. Again, this is a real ambiguity within the poem, intended to add nuance to the issue: when Roland insists that they cannot make peace with Marsilion at the first Christian council scene, does he have a point, or is he just a war-hawk, hawking war? Does it better fit a Christian knight to turn the other cheek when struck, or to hit back twice as hard?
And this ambiguity is an ambiguity that the medieval world felt deeply, if Roland himself did not. Of Tancred of Hauteville, a prince of the First Crusade, it was said that he was tormented by the irreconcilable tension between the ruthless actions required of him as a knight and the charity commanded of him by the Lord. The noble class was devoted to war and was supremely good at it. They loved it, they and their people survived a thousand perils by waging it, but they had not yet nailed down a theological justification for it, and they often felt themselves irretrievably sinful for engaging in it (especially against fellow Christians). Though St Augustine had roughed out the doctrine of just war centuries prior, it actually took centuries more, and multiple wars for survival against Islam, for the doctrine to be nailed down. By the time of the Reformation and of Cromwell's disciplined and godly New Model Army, it had been determined that turning the other cheek was an appropriate response in private quarrels, but that Scripture allowed for just war to be waged in public quarrels, under certain circumstances and according to certain Scriptural principles: that it was right and would in some cases be a sin not to resist Nazis, ISIS, Ned Kelly, and the like with lethal force in defence of innocent lives.
But this actually took centuries to reason out. We see in The Song of Roland a turning-point in this history (another of the reasons why I believe it was written partially in response to the First Crusade), because it so confidently argues for the necessity of just war. The discussion is nuanced: Roland's love of fighting is certainly problematic--but so is Charlemagne's wish for peace.
Roland's sacrifice at Ronceveaux ensures the happy ending, because it obliges Charlemagne under the feudal structure to take revenge. In a totally awesome epic duel at the end of the book, Charlemagne faces the emir Baligant, a kind of Mahometan overlord from Egypt. In accordance with the poet's conception of just war, Charlemagne uses a lull in the duel to offer to make peace if Baligant will convert to Christianity. When he refuses, Charlemagne vows "Never to Paynims may I show love or peace." Sayers argues that this is the decision the king should have made when Marsilion first sent envoys to sue for peace (unlike Baligant, Marsilion had already established himself as lacking in honour and unlikely to keep his promise to convert). Ganelon and Marsilion's plan was to bring about false peace between Christ and Termagant by depriving Charlemagne of both Roland and the will to fight. Their plan fails: Charlemagne comes to realise his mistake, and the end of the poem finds him being roused from sleep by the angel Gabriel to ride out on yet another campaign against the Saracens.
The ultimate war in The Song of Roland, Sayers argues, is between Christ and Termagant, between Christ and Mahound. As long as those two shall be at war, so their true and faithful vassals must also war. Only genuine conversion--which we see in the case of Marsilion's queen, Bramimond--is capable of bridging this antithesis.
Of course, then we also see the forced conversions of the commoners of Saragossa. They certainly didn't have their theology all ironed out there, did they!
The Fighting Archbishop
One of my favourite characters this time around was the fighting Archbishop, Turpin. The poet goes to some pains to make sure we know what an awesome fellow Turpin is: a fierce fighter (he's given pride of place as the third most deadly Christian warrior), as well as a charitable and wise churchman (who dies doing a good deed). Before the battle starts, Turpin gives a sermon to the troops:
"Barons, my lords, Charles picked us for this purpose;This was one of the most fascinating parts of the whole poem to me. Now, it's easy for Protestants and modernists to skip to the last two lines of the poem and say (as many have said to me), "See, this is the problem I have with the Crusades: religiously-sanctioned violence, the Church telling people that killing paynims is a one-way-ticket to heaven."
We must be ready to die in our King's service.
Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.
Battle you'll have, of that you may be certain,
Here come the Paynims--your own eyes have observed them.
Now beat your breasts and ask God for His mercy:
I will absolve you and set your souls in surety.
If you should die, blest martyrdom's your guerdon;
You'll sit on high in Paradise eternal."
The French alight and all kneel down in worship;
God's shrift and blessing the Archbishop conferreth,
And for their penance he bids them all strike firmly.
And just a few days ago, someone suggested that perhaps the medieval church actually picked up that idea from Islam, which does have a theology of entrance-into-Paradise-via-holy-war.
Well, not so fast.
For one thing, the medieval church knew incredibly little about Islam. The Roland poet actually believed Muslims worshipped three gods: Termagant, Mahound, and Apollyon. He even missed the memo about the Muslims not worshipping images. So I'd be surprised if Urban II, the pope who called the First Crusade, even knew about jihad.
Let alone incorporating it into his preaching. The Crusades were a movement that lasted two hundred years as a visible phenomenon and then continued to haunt the western imagination right up to Henry VIII (who planned to go on Crusade with the king of France until they fell out), or some say Napoleon. Ultimately, the Crusades gave birth to the indulgences, which were granted for the very first time ever to those who would go on Crusade; but this wasn't until the 1200s or so, at least a century after this poem reached its final form. At the time of the Roland poet, Crusading appeal had more to do with assisting the Eastern Church, visiting the great relics and shrines of the "Holy" Land, and exercising your talents for mayhem in a way that you didn't have to feel guilty about afterwards. This of course did result in some pretty ghastly behaviour, but it was not actually a "kill a Paynim, get a hundred years off Purgatory" deal. Even in the 1200s, many crusaders never actually saw military action; they fulfilled their oaths simply by mobilising.
The actual attitude at the time of the First Crusade is the one depicted in Turpin's speech above. Take a closer look. Turpin does not promise that everyone who fights in the battle will go straight to Paradise on condition of fighting in the battle. The condition is not fighting, but repentance. This is not a works-righteousness deal. It's grace and hope: so long as you are repentant, you can be confident that if you die today you will go to Paradise.
But yes, there is something more, and that something is a condensation of just-war theory. Killing Paynims is not a neutral action; at this stage the medievals had no concept of neutrality, barely even a sacred-secular distinction. Nor is it depicted as an evil action: Turpin tells them to go and do it as their penance. It is, of course, therefore depicted as a positive good. Why? Because there is no peace between Christ and Termagant. Marsilion has sworn to take no prisoners. It is kill or be killed. There is a context, the poet argues, in which war becomes a positive good deed (it was "for the love of Christ", the chroniclers say, that their princes set out on crusade). It was possible to be a knight for Christ; to make war, and to keep Christ's commandment. That, it seems, was a turning-point in western thought.
I think they were right there, but I also think the "being-killed" option should have been explored more fully. It was perhaps the great downfall of the Crusading movement that with a few perishingly rare exceptions (St Francis of Asissi, and...um...), the Christians refused to consider getting martyred preaching the gospel to Islam as a viable option. All the same, there's a good Scriptural case to be made for taking up arms in the physical defence of Christ's Church. Certainly this was something the Roland poet has no doubts about. When Turpin shish-kebabs a Paynim knight, the French cheer him on with a shout of, "Right strong to save is our Archbishop's crook!" To the Roland poet, Turpin is simply the opposite of the proverbial Christian who is "too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good". Shepherding the flock includes defending them physically.
Living with Violence
One of the many fascinating things in this poem which struck me this time round was the attitude shown by men of war towards their profession. I'm interested in this because our generation is so much, much more insulated from real-world violence than was the generation of the First Crusade--even as the violence decorating our TV and cinema screens becomes progressively more fantastical and outrageous. A friend recently summed up my thoughts on this pretty well when he said:
In modern America, we are less familiar with martyrs, but crowds of people still flock to movie theaters to be entertained by fake blood and fake death. Today’s children have probably seen more murders than the ancient Romans, but are also more sheltered and isolated from real death than any generation in history. This is a problem, because regardless of how well we protect our children from images of violence, we must prepare them for actual violence.This was why I was so interested to see how the Roland poet would handle this topic. I'm also fascinated by the fact that according to contemporary scholars studying war, the average man can only take 100 days or so of combat before he becomes psychologically incapable of continuing. And yet the noble medieval classes started at 15 and saw combat pretty regularly, in some cases into their 50s and 60s. Many of them would have seen more than 100 days' worth. How did they cope?
Well, perhaps those that lost their nerve met a sticky end in battle. But by and large, they seemed to be pretty psychologically toughened to it. Even if the Roland poet was not a trained warrior himself (and he almost certainly was), he was writing for a warrior class that would have known if he was making stuff up. His heroes commit feats of rather graphic violence against their enemies--and their enemies (also "good knights and gallant", because there is no glory in defeating a mean foe) respond in kind. No one has PTSD, least of all Roland, who genuinely loves his job. But at the same time,
They search the field for their maimed and their dead,The acts of violence are not as perverse as some I've read of in modern YA fantasy, in which authors straining for gritty authenticity overreach themselves and achieve only buffoonery. Rather, "Grim is the battle and terrible and rude." Violence may be these people's business, but they acknowledge that it is a terrible business.
With grief and sorrow the eyes of them are wet,
With love and pity for their kindred and their friends.
Blubbering Like Schoolgirls
And it elicits a terrible emotional toll. When Charlemagne discovers Roland's body on the hilltop, he tears his beard and weeps without restraint. Then he faints. Then a hundred thousand of the French also faint. Perhaps the most vivid thing you'll learn about medieval knights from this chanson de geste is the fact that they did not exactly have stiff upper lips. As Sayers says in her Introduction,
There are fashions in sensibility as in everything else. The idea that a strong man should react to great personal and national calamities by a slight compression of the lips and by silently throwing his cigarette into the fireplace is of very recent origin. By the standards of feudal epic, Charlemagne's behaviour is perfectly correct. Fainting, weeping, and lamenting is what the situation calls for.This is something I've witnessed in studying the real-world history as well, and I've wondered if this ability to display grief so freely was perhaps part of the secret of their mental toughness. Certainly, a Roland, or a Lancelot, who mowed down his enemies with the sang-froid of a modern-day film star, would be a terrifying person, a sociopath. But you could break down into hysterics back then, and everyone would be cool with it. As a friend pointed out, CS Lewis noticed it too:
"By the way, don't 'weep inwardly' and get a sore throat. If you must weep, weep: a good honest howl! I suspect we - and especially, my sex - don't cry enough now-a-days. Aeneas and Hector and Beowulf, Roland and Lancelot blubbered like schoolgirls, so why shouldn't we?"
Thus far my rambling thoughts on The Song of Roland. Re-reading this story was a wonderfully rich experience which I can't hope to recapitulate. I feel I've hardly touched upon some of the most basic aspects of the poem; but I hope I've been able to illuminate some less well-known corners.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. It has an infectious enthusiasm, a vivid youthfulness, and some of the most epic death and duel scenes I've ever read. For a thrilling tale of knights and honour, you can't possibly do better!
What were your thoughts on The Song of Roland? Share them via the linkup by February 1!
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