The Song of Roland The "Song of Roland," is represented in art as part of the stained glass of what is known as the Charlemagne window of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Chartres. This is the same cathedral that has the labyrinth pattern in its floor. This poem is the best known example of the chansons de geste, or songs of deeds, that were very popular at the time it was written, which was about AD 1100. These songs in fact dominated literature during this first half of the twelfth century. It’s also an example of "literary license," because the story of Roland as it appears in the poem is nothing like the actual historical facts of the situation. The following notes are synthesized from George K. Anderson and Robert Warnock, The World in Literature, New York: Scott, Foresman, and Co., 1967. What actually happened was as follows: In 777 some Saracens (Muslims) of Spain, irritated at what they saw as their unrewarded fealty to the Caliph of Cordova, offered to transfer their allegiance to Charlemagne. Charlemagne wanted to make the most of this opportunity, so the following year he advanced into Spain to the River Ebro. Having satisfied his expansionist desires for the moment, he and his troops turned around and headed back through the Pyrenees. On his way back his rear guard was attacked, not by Saracens but by Basque mountaineers, known as Gascons. To quote Einhard: "In the struggle that ensued, the Gascons cut them off to a man; they then plundered the baggage, and dispersed with all speed in every direction under the cover of approaching night . . . Eggihard, the King’s steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany, with very many others, fell in this engagement. This ill turn could not be avenged for the nonce, because the enemy scattered so widely after carrying out their plan that not the least clue could be had to their whereabouts." For whatever reason, Eggihard and Anselm, who also fought valiantly, have been lost to history, but Roland has become a great epic hero, in spite of, or perhaps because of his mistaken pride in not blowing the horn to summon Charlemagne back to assist the rear guard in warding off this attack. Anderson and Warnock suggest that maybe Roland just had a better PR agent than the others. Or maybe the idea of his pride in his own valor allowed for a moral lesson about the requirements and rules of vassalage. Again we’re looking at something that was a part of oral tradition long before it was written down; there was more than one cantilene, or epic lay composed about Roland before this poem wound up in written form. These lays were circulated and elaborated by a number of bards, and finally collected by an interested party, probably a cleric, who brought them together in an orderly arrangement. There are references in the poem to England’s being under Charlemagne’s rule; this was not literally true, but it may have been suggested by the Norman Conquest of 1066, which would have been an event contemporaneous with the writing of the poem. Also, in the poem a reference is made to Jerusalem being in heathen hands, and this would have been the case before the First Crusade established the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem in 1090. Some things to note about the poem: It is a national epic, with many references to France the Douce, or "sweet France." So here we see the transformation of the Frankish kingdom into the actual national union known as France. Roland is an epic hero, in the tradition of such larger than life figures as Achilles and Aeneas. Modern readers may be irritated by his excessive pride, but to the readers of the Middle Ages, he was an example to follow. Vassalage, and the debt one owes to one’s lord, even down to one’s hair and skin, is definitely a part of the poem and a part of the tradition of the time in which the poem was written. Charlemagne is given a fictitious old age; his reputation is not based on his own deeds in this poem but on his mighty comitatus, or knightly retinue. There is a general absence of female characterization or any love interest, so this is not a part of the chivalric code that involved "courtly love," which we’ll be looking at with the Arthurian legends below. The tradition from which this song arises is feudal and military. The poem expresses the aggressive intolerance of medieval Christianity; the chivalrousness it does possess is directed toward Christians only. Note in this context that the Archbishop Turpin of Rheims is the character who survives longest other than Roland himself, so that there is a leader still available to offer the Christian viewpoint. Roland does not die from the blows of Saracen warriors; he wounds himself mortally in blowing the ivory oliphant to summon Charlemagne. Roland suffers from excessive pride, which we learned was called in Greek "hubris." He thinks he can handle the situation all by himself when it is actually overwhelming. The (Nonhistoric) Plot of the Poem History has here been rewritten in the following structure: Charlemagne has become master of all Spain, except for Saragossa, whose king, Marsila, vows revenge on the Franks. Marsila sends envoys to Charlemagne, ostensibly seeking peace, but actually to prepare for an assault on the Franks. Charlemagne offers Marsila peace, provided he converts to Christianity. Roland suggests Charlemagne send his terms to Marsila via Ganelon, Roland’s step-father. Ganelon is envious of Roland’s sway with Charlemagne, so he plots with Marsila to attack the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, commanded by Roland. Roland, being too prideful to call for help in spite of the urging of his friend Oliver, refuses to blow his ivory horn, the "oliphant" (. . . and where do you think this word came from? What’s gray and has a trunk?) until it is too late. Finally he does so, apparently rupturing his temples in the process! His blood flows out of his mouth and his brains flow out of his ears. Hence, he may have been the first hero to "blow his brains out." However, he fights on for several pages afterward. In an interesting irony, considering it was supposed to have been the Archangel Gabriel who gave Muhammed the words of the Koran and it is supposedly the Saracens (Muslims) whom Roland is fighting, this story ends with God sending His cherubim, and Saint Michael of the Seas, and with them Saint Gabriel to carry the soul of Roland to Paradise. 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