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10 thoughts on “La Chanson de Roland

  1. J.G. Keely J.G. Keely says:

    It's not surprising that this work's greatest descendants are satires. It's often difficult to take the simplistic pro-crusade sentiment seriously. Each time one of the Knights yelled to some dead Muslim We're right, you're wrong! I laughed. When you're debate opponent is already slain, I guess you don't need to say anything else.

    Ariosto drew on this tradition for his Orlando Furioso , but each time a knight yells at Muslims in that book, the Muslims yell the same thing back. Though the Furioso is decidedly on the side of the crusaders (they win, after all), it reads like a Mad Magazine parody of 'The Song of Roland'. Ariosto clearly has a sense that both sides are fighting for the same reasons (not that he's unhappy to be on the winning side).

    Cervantes likewise made a parody of this work with his 'Don Quixote', by simply asking 'what if a man comported himself like a knight while making his way through the real world'. Consequently, Quixote spends the book yelling at people he thinks are wrong and trying to kill them. Apparently, its only a comedy if you don't succeed. The unspoken critique throughout the book is that if Quixote is behaving inappropriately for real life, then the knights of Roland are only appropriate for a pretend world.

    The Muslims have all the motivation of a Disney villain, desiring only to be treacherous and mean. The philosophical complexity is a long fall from Homer or Virgil. The work provides us with the clear sense that neither the author nor his culture have any real understanding of their foes, presenting the Muslims as worshiping Mohammad, Apollo, and popularizing the figure of 'Termagant'--long after referenced as the primary god of the Muslims.

    I found an interesting article which translated some of the terms in the book to Arabic, including 'olyphant' and the names of several horses and swords. According the the article, 'Apollo' and 'Termagant' are mis-translations of important religious figures; namely, Mohammad's uncle and son. They are no more gods than Moses, Solomon, or the Pope.

    I had to find another article to explain the meaning of one passage describing a knights impressive physical traits and ending with he had a large crotch. Apparently this is meant to signify the length of his thighs, and not anything particularly sexual. I guess long thighs just made you a bad dude back then (which does make sense if the primary war skill is equestrianism).

    The bumbling, mustache-twirling Muslims set a standard for unsophisticated villains to come, appealing to the lowest common denominator. This is hardly surprising, since the work was performed for the public by singing jongleurs. Like the Passion Plays, the work was half entertainment, half political propaganda meant to stir up discontent in the illiterate, uneducated man.

    In fact, the original battle described, in which Roland made his final stand, did not involve any Muslims at all--it was between Charlemagne's Christian French and Spanish Basques whose lands they were invading, who were also Christians. The whole anti-Muslim angle was tacked on later, just to rile people up.

    There are some passages where Muslims are described as mighty, attractive, and clever, but these passages do not exactly typify their portrayal in the work.

    Between the maniacal villains and the high death counts, this book clearly makes up a prototype for action movies to come, complete with the pithy lines delivered by the heroes to fresh corpses. In that sense, it's not hard to imagine the popularity of Roland, who was the John McClane of his time.

    Despite historical and cultural significance and a few moving descriptions, the work is overall rather childish, falling long after the height of the Roman authors, yet still remote from the coming Renaissance. European culture at the time was light on philosophy, but had a multitude of enemies and wars.

    Ironically, it was the Muslims who were currently at a philosophical and intellectual peak, translating and maintaining the Greek tradition. The Muslims had developed 'zero' three hundred years before, and in another three hundred, Ibn Khaldun would invent the social sciences in one fell swoop. It was only during the Crusades that Europeans began to learn things like mathematics and Greek philosophy from the Muslims, bringing these ideas back home and sparking off the Renaissance.

    The Song is certainly useful for any follower of the epic tradition or for historians, and is quite short, but overall it is merely a placeholder between great works of earlier and later periods.

    I read the Glyn Burgess translation, which is passable and has thoughtful footnotes.

  2. Vivian Vivian says:

    I am Oliver.

    I'm a big fan of heroic literature, but The Song of Roland is not my favorite. Honestly, this is very much 'For the Glory of God', a crusader's epic poem. Not a great fit for me thematically, but I really wanted to have this piece of the puzzle slotted in for my understanding of heroic poetry. This is so different than The Illiad, The Odyssey, Táin Bó Cúailnge, Y Gododdin, Mabinogion, Beowulf, and Gilgamesh.

    Roland desired goal of martyrdom requires the sacrifice of tens of thousands of his men for NO REASON. I test as Field Marshall or Architect on the Myers-Briggs, to give some perspective of where I'm coming from reading this. Hence, I'm Oliver. Dutiful, yet pragmatic. It's not that I don't understand dying for a cause. If you don't know what you're willing to die for, then you don't have any idea how to live; it's stumbling around in the dark. That said, while I know why I'm willing to die, and even that which I would condemn others to death who have sworn like goals, this is moronic. Roland didn't need to be martyred to achieve victory; therefore, it was a phenomenal amount of resources squandered. Forget Roland. What about all the other men who followed him? To what purpose?

    Even if you say death and awaiting paradise is far better than here and now, an early exit is the easy way out and not heroic.

    Heck, I understand Tierris, Charlemagne's proxy against Pinabel to avenge Roland's death and condemn Guenes for his treachery. All that aside, this was very repetitive with never-ending descriptions of the next warrior to fall, golden hauberks and helms galore. Add on that Roland dies about 50% of the way through and then we get to go through round two made it a bit slow. Think Charge of the Light Brigade at 1/50 speed.

    I think I had a very outdated version so forgive the oddities in spellings.

    Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage / Roland’s a hero, and Oliver is wise

    It did inspire a haiku review, so there's that.

    Cry 'Monjoie', gallantly
    Broken hauberk, gold helm falls
    Red poppies, Roland

  3. Jan-Maat Jan-Maat says:


    Historical clash between Charlemagne's rear guard and rapacious Basques transformed into a medieval epic of betrayal, loyalty and duty against a backdrop of warfare between Muslim Spain and Christian France. Hugely influential - causing the name Ganelon, here associated with the blackest treachery, to drop out of documented usage as a given name! Demonstrating that the power of literature to change society was already nascent evn at the dawn of the Middle Ages.

  4. Bruce Bruce says:

    This is a work of legend, events that actually happened during the Carolingian Era having been distorted and magnified so as to become myth. The epic, an example of the poetic form chanson de geste, is based on the Battle of Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. After seven years of trying, Charles the Great (Charlemagne) had really not been very successful in his attempt to cross the Pyrenees and expel the Muslims from Spain. His beloved military leader Roland, the hero, is clearly impetuous, brave, arrogant, and stubborn. The fundamental motivation of all the French characters in the poem are chivalric ideals. Reputation, especially after death – ideally death in battle - is all-important.

    The poem was apparently first written down in about 1150 CE and was based on oral versions that had existed for some time and were performed by the jongleurs of southern France; Charlemagne himself lived in the late 8th and early 9th centuries CE, and the battle herein celebrated occurred in 778. W.S. Merwin, the noted contemporary poet and translator, deliberately avoided translating the Chanson into English verse. His English prose is nonetheless very poetic. It contains many recurrent passages, consistent with its sources as oral poetry. There is much use of parallelism and other mnemonic devices. In tone the work reminds one of the Homeric writings, filled with repetitive blood and gore, singling out individual knights by name, interpolating speeches and dialogues improbable during an actual battle. Yet the poem also contains perceptive psychological subtleties. So many cultures and civilizations have had their epics. Each pits its own prowess against an identified foe, Greeks against Trojans in the Iliad, for example. In La Chanson de Roland the foe is the Saracen, the pagan, in fact the forces of Islam that have occupied Spain and whom Charlemagne has been trying to dislodge. The language of the work is explicitly Christian, if the behavior of the protagonists is arguably not, but it must be remembered that the knightly ethos was an amalgam of Christianity and chivalry, each reinforcing the other. The idea that the defeated pagans – one hundred thousand of them! - become “true Christians” (in order not to be hanged or burned) is an example of literary hyperbole.

    By the middle of the poem Roland himself, tricked by his traitorous stepfather into leading the rear guard as Charles and his army head home across the Pyrenees, is dead, along with his twenty thousand companions. Roland’s horn, his frantic blowing of which has contributed to his heroic death, inexplicably continues to be available and is used by Charles to rally the French forces, despite the horn’s having been described as being destroyed when Roland was killed. The second half of the work is about the revenge of the French against the Saracens and the later events back in France when Charles deals with the treachery at the root of Roland’s defeat.

    Even in translation it is hard not to be impressed by the epic as a work of poetry, the poetic beauty coming across clearly, a tribute to Merwin and his skill. Just as I finished the reading, however, I discovered on my own library’s shelves an unread copy of the epic in French, on the left hand pages the Oxford manuscript (the most complete and thought to be the most authoritative, from the late 12th century) in Old French, and on the right hand pages a translation into modern French from 1937 by Joseph Bédier, again in very poetic prose. What a find! I immediately began the epic again, reading the modern French and comparing it with the Old French original, not a hard task at all. What a magnificent work of literature this is, and what a thrill it was to read it twice in succession, in English and in French.

  5. David Sarkies David Sarkies says:

    Charlemagne's Rear Guard
    17 September 2013

    In her introduction Dorothy Sayers compared the Song of Roland with Homer but in my opinion that is like comparing a graffiti artist with Pablo Picasso. Yeah, they're both painters, but they simply exist on two completely different levels. Granted, the Song of Roland is an epic poem in the traditional sense in that it chronicles events that occurred four hundred years before the poem appeared in its final form and was no doubt handed down by word of mouth for at least a bit of that time, but the structure and complexity of the Homeric epics simply leaves this rather scrappy piece of work for dead.

    The Song of Roland is set during the reign of Charlemagne, and while Charlemagne was off beating up the pagan non-Christian barbarians up north, Spain was being invaded by the Muslims (who, in this poem, are pagan non-Christians). In response, Charlemagne crosses the Pyranees and launches an attack against the Muslim invaders and has the upper hand, so the Muslim king proposes a truce. Charlegmaine then returns back across the Pyranees to continue to beat up on the Pagan non-Christians to the north. However, the Muslims hatch a plot to weaken Charlegmaine's army and as his rear guard is crossing the Pyranees, the Basque ambush them and slaughter them to the man. In response, Charlegmaine returns and enacts vengeance on the Muslims, and kills the instigator of the ambush by tying him to four horses and then whipping them so they all run off in four different directions.

    The poem itself is good, and it is an enjoyable read, but as I said it is nowhere near as structured as Homer. The poem was originally written in a very old form of French which was actually closer to Latin than the French we know today. In fact the French of this period still declined its nouns (meaning that the noun would change based on the position that it took in the sentence, something which it doesn't do these days – German still does it, but only with the articles).

    What is interesting is that the Basque were still very independent back in those days. In the poem it sounds as if the Muslims encouraged them to attack Charlemagne's rear-guard, however it is suggested that they actually didn't really need all that much encouragement. What I noticed though is that the civil war that the Basques are raging against the Spanish government today is not anything new – it has been going on for over a thousand years (and possibly even longer).

    The other interesting thing that I noticed is pretty much how little Medieval Christianity knew about Islam. We are told here that the Muslims were pagans that worshipped idols and had multiple gods (and that is ignoring that fact that the writer blatantly says that the Muslims worship Satan). In fact they are referred to throughout the poem as Paynims (which is medieval for pagan). These days we know that that is nowhere near the truth. They do notice that they have their own book, but it is suggested that the reason they say this is because the writer is trying to portray them as being the antithesis of Christianity. Maybe they suggest this because the Muslims conquered Spain so quickly (which was a bit of an embarrassment – especially since the counter-attack took four hundred years).

    However, it is unlikely that the writer, or many of the people in Christendom at the time, would have done all that much to try to understand Islam. Simply put, they were not Christian therefore in the eyes of the writers, and the audience, they were bad. However it is also suggested that it worked both ways – the Muslims pretty much saw Christianity in the same light, and I am told the misunderstanding of what Christianity is about is evident in Muslim literature of the time such as the Tales of the Arabian Knights.

    Once again, nothing much has really changed in all that time. Fundamentalist Muslims see Christians as a debauchuous lot that run around in bikinis looking at porn and living hedonistic lifestyles, while fundamentalist Christians simply see Muslims as being a violent lot that run around blowing up people that do not believe their strict doctrine. While I tend to be very traditional in my faith, that does not give me the excuse not to befriend Muslims or try to understand where they are coming from, and it certainly does not give me the right to make baseless assumptions about what Muslims are like (I have some very good Islamic friends) or make inflammatory statements about their faith that only exist to inflame tempers (even though, like most religions, there are some really bad apples).

  6. Sharon Barrow Wilfong Sharon Barrow Wilfong says:

    Poetry is not my favorite genre but this is a superb translation by Dorothy Sayers, the writer of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

    Before the poem, she devotes several pages to a thorough and interesting history of knights, lords, lieges, etc.. and their relationships with each other. I think this helps the reader to better understand the characters in the poem and also the Moorish invasion during Charlemagne's reign.

  7. Trin Trin says:

    Pagans are wrong: Christians are right indeed.

    Wow, thanks for that stunning piece of religious thinking, Roland!

    If you like sophisticated metaphysical analysis such as that, as well as lavish descriptions of bowels and brains spilling out onto the ground, then boy howdy, is this the book for you! Man. Okay, some works are classics because they're really amazingly good—beautifully written, incisive, profound. Others are classics because they're super old. The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving piece of French literature, is definitely the latter and solely the latter. It is so bad. So bad it's at times deeply hilarious: the MST3K crew would have a field day with this thing. I'm almost tempted to rent the 1978 French film to see if it can attain the same level of ridiculousness, but Klaus Kinski and Co. probably actually tried to make it good. Mistake!

    The basic plot of The Song of Roland is this: the Franks are fighting the Pagans—a motley crew whom the author(s) seems to think worship both Muhammad and Apollo. Accuracy! Anyway, Charlemagne—whose luxurious white beard is discussed to the point where one begins to fear that the author(s) wants to do something seriously inappropriate to it—leaves his nephew to guard a parcel of land in Spain that those pesky pagans have faux-surrendered. The pagans then attack Roland and his vastly outnumbered group of men. Roland refuses to blow his horn to call for reinforcements. Then a bunch of his dudes are beheaded and Roland's BFF Oliver is all, Hey, maybe calling for those reinforcements would be a GOOD IDEA? So Roland blows his horn. Of course, it's too late. We are told in detail how he and what feels like every other man in his army dies. Many of their deaths, such as Oliver's, cause Roland to swoon and pause the battle several pages in order to mourn, tear at his hair, etc.

    When all of the Franks are dead, Charlemagne shows up and finds the body of his nephew. Up until this point, I thought Roland was a pretty good swooner. But it turns out he's no match for Charlemagne. When Charley swoons, Five score thousand Franks swooned on the earth and fell. That is some champion swooning. No wonder he's king.

    The rest of the book follows Charlemagne as he proves to the pagans that you wouldn't like him when he's angry. Then, in the last lines of the book, he rends his beard and sobs. Medieval French knights apparently cry more than Project Runway contestants. Who knew?

    I almost gave this book a second star because it amused me so much. But no: it's total shit. Racist, intolerant, repetitive, and melodramatic enough to deserve its own Lifetime Original Movie. Uncle, May I Joust With Danger?: The Baron Roland Story. If another eleven-odd centuries pass and we somehow manage to lose this one, I won't be all that sorry.

  8. Linette Soberay Linette Soberay says:

    This is an exemplary piece of epic literature that I really enjoyed reading. It was interesting to really see how flawed the European view of the Saracens of the Middle East was during the crusades. It really shows how not only were the views of the Europeans skewed, but it also relates to the views of many people today. When you ask a person about their view of Christianity, their answer will vary depending on where the person is from. We as people are often forced to make the same assumptions as those Europeans, thinking that if something is different from you (the other), it is inherantly evil. I think the Song of Roland illustrates this fact and so much more, and I thouroughly enjoyed what it had to provide.

  9. Rachel Rachel says:

    After finishing The Song of Rolland, I am struck with how many arguments it raises for war and the justifications it seems to give for it. While there is much to point out from the text, I think the clearest examples of this process is found in the Christian symbols, defending the Franks position as “right,” and in dehumanizing the enemy.

    It is difficult to leave Sunday school in our 21st century LDS paradigm and reasonably see how Rolland could be portrayed as a Christ figure. For me, the major problem I had with that image initially was that he seems to have so much pride that he is blinded from reason and cannot even stoop to ask for help when his life, and also the lives of the ones he loves, are in jeopardy. Even Charlemagne admits that Rolland’s great pride is a “wonder that God has stood it for so long” (1774). Yet, the important thing to realize here is that if we were to be living during the time when this text was written we would have very different ideas of what an ideal Christ should be. I could not help but notice the many similarities found in Beowulf. Because of the prevalence of war, portraying Christ as a warrior type figure was seen as the ideal to society. Beowulf frustrated me a great deal because of his pride issues from my perspective, yet he was revered for it. It is texts like these that allow us to see what society was like back then and what their values were. I think here with Rolland it is the same case. Pride is not what we would think of it in our paradigm today.

    More Christian symbols that seem to justify the war against Spain are all over this text. We have the swords, which resemble the cross, the Bishop’s weapon, and also the pretense itself. The whole reason why Charlemagne is in the right to go an invade countries like Spain is that he is bringing about Christianity and a higher law to the “pagans.” Constantly the text defends this position by showing God’s favoritism on the Frank side. We see places where God’s will is done, or when angels come and give aid, but then we see nothing but frustration on the pagan side. In addition, we see multiple exclamations of the whole “I am right and you are wrong” argument. This, I believe, is necessary to ensure us that the Franks are justified in their war. Sure Rolland is killed, and they pray in order to properly revenge him (which does not seem to coincide with the Sermon on the Mount), but there were sons and brothers and other loved ones lost on the Spanish side that we are not to give notice to (3109). In order to keep us doubtless on the good side, we are given messages like “you well know that I am in the right against the pagans” (3412) and “we are right, but these wretches are wrong” (1211).

    And last, in order to properly defend the Franks as in the right, it is necessary to dehumanize the enemy. The description of their homeland is a place “where the sun does not shine…rain does not fall,” the land is black, and it is a place where “some say that the devil lives,” presenting a dark image of what we are to believe is innately bad (980-983). The people are constantly referred to as “pagans,” yet anyone with any basic background knowledge of world religions knows that “Muhammad” and “Apollo” are never going to be found in the same sentence coming from a Muslim (2580-2590). Yet, the text throws all of these other religions into that “other” category, assuming that they are blatantly wrong, and that there is no need to separate them out. Ironically, I could not help but see that when Charlemagne says, “you can avenge yourself of this criminal race,” it sounds an awful lot like the jihad most people understand from Islam that defends violent behavior if it is at a great moral cause. Granted I am not an expert in Islam and I think our general notion of what the jihad means in our society could use some clarification, but in this case I think we are shown a striking similarity between the good and the bad sides of this story.

    Of course, all of these justifications come to nothing when at the end of the story Charlemagne is called to battle against some other pagans, though having “no wish to go” (3999-4002). Yet he will ride off again in defense of yet another war, and the cycle will start all over again. This exposes the fallacy in Ganelon’s argument to King Marsile, that if you engage in this war “you will have no more war as long as you live” (595). Based on this text, I am left to believe that war is not a means to bring about peace.

  10. E. E. says:

    The Song of Roland is the most unintentionally hilarious epic I have ever read. I kept trying to imagine how its original audience would have received it--possibly the way we respond to testosterone-driven action movies today. The main difference, aside from the medium, seems to be that in modern action movies, directors have to vary the way people are killed, or the audience gets bored. In Roland, people are usually stabbed through the chest or split in half (entirely or partially) from the crown of the head downward. The latter form of death happens so much that it's even depicted on the front cover. I don't know much about medieval warfare, but I'm relatively sure that few swordsmen, no matter how well trained, could easily split someone in that direction in the middle of a battle. And that isn't the only thing that didn't make sense. Also, the author seems to have repeatedly lost track of details (Olifant is being blown? wait, I thought Roland laid the broken pieces underneath him...). Then there is the massive misunderstanding of Islam--the author seems to have been under the impression that Muslims worship three gods, one of whom is Muhammed, and employ sorcerers. Maybe the epic reads better in French. In English, I spent of lot of time giggling.