The Song of Roland: An Evaluation

There is something special about reading old literature. It is almost as if we were given a window into the past, a glimpse of a world that existed long ago. Those who lived in that era have passed on, but what they believed impacted the generations to come. One of the main ways that civilizations pass on information is by literature. The work of an author can communicate more than he ever intended. It shows how he thought and how his culture thought. The presence or absence of certain ideas can say volumes about his worldview. This evaluation will analyze such a piece of literature, specifically an epic poem written in the Middle Ages.

The Song of Roland was a popular and influential medieval poem written at the end of the 11th century. It was probably used as a recruiting document for the crusades. It has memorable moments and characters, but it also contains glaring discrepancies which can affect the reader’s understanding of the story. The poem’s glorification of brave Christian knights and warriors fighting Muslims is intentional, with the aim of gaining popular support and participation in the crusades. The plot is weak in some areas due to discrepancies and unlikely events which can confuse the plot. Nevertheless, the poem contains a moving story of fearless, fiercely loyal knights committed to fighting for their king, their country, and their beliefs.

The Song of Roland was written around the time of the first crusade. The crusade was promoted by Pope Urban II in an effort to regain the holy land and protect Christian lands from invasion by Muslim warriors. Thousands of trained warriors as well as untrained peasants swarmed to the Middle East to fight against Muslim forces, resulting in the taking of Jerusalem. Several other crusades followed, with less success than the first. The crusades ended, unsuccessfully, at the close of the thirteenth century. (http://www.lordsandladies.org/end-of-medieval-crusades.htm)

The Song of Roland emphasizes the spiritual dimension of fighting for Christendom against Muslim forces. The poem portrays Charlemagne and his nobles as holy figures who are visited by angels and receive divine intervention on their behalf (e. g. stanza 185 and stanza 261). One of the most prominent French fighters in the poem is the archbishop Turpin, a symbol of church support for the crusades. In stanza 89 of the poem, the French knights are told that they can be martyrs by dying in battle with the Muslims by Archbishop Turpin. The author of the poem tried to demonstrate to his listeners what the spiritual importance and spiritual rewards were of participating in a crusade through a poem based on an event in French history.

The poem is based on The Battle of Roncevaux Pass. This battle occurred in the year 778 during the reign of the French king Charlemagne. In this battle, the French rearguard was annihilated by Basque warriors while Charlemagne was returning from conquest in Spain. (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/roland-ohag.asp) More than 300 years later, Charlemagne has become a legendary figure with an age of two hundred years (stanza 40), and the enemy is the Muslims of Spain instead of the Basques. The author of the poem either did not know the true facts of the battle, or he intentionally edited the history of the battle to fit the message of the poem.

The poem also contains a few notable discrepancies. When the Muslim forces advance on Roland, they blow 7,000 trumpets (stanza 112). Charlemagne and his traveling forces were not able to hear them. When Roland blew his horn near the end of his battle with the Muslim forces, Charlemagne could hear it. It is hard to imagine that a single horn, no matter how hard it was blown, would be louder than 7,000 trumpets.

In stanza 191, the emir Baligant of Babylon (who is said to be older than Virgil and Homer) arrives at Saragossa. Then, in stanza 194, he tells his messengers to ride on a journey to Saragossa, even though they had already arrived at the city three stanzas ago. In stanza 201, he rides with four dukes to Saragossa to visit King Marsilie. This is obviously an error and could be distracting to someone reading or listening to the poem.

The Muslims also called themselves “the heathen” several times in the poem, which is unlikely. One example of this is stanza 116, where Climborin exhorts the Muslims to break through the French ranks, calling them “the heathen.” This is also seen in stanza 118, where Valdabrun says, after killing Duke Samson, “Strike, heathen; for we shall surely conquer!” I do not think that calling your army “the heathen” would inspire your soldiers to conquer the enemy.

Muslim theology is greatly misrepresented in the poem. However, this probably would not be noticeable to an audience in 1100, as they probably would have had the same information on the subject as the poet himself. The representation of Muslim theology would probably seem strange to the modern reader, and perhaps amusing.

According to the poem, Muslims worship three different gods: Mahomet (Muhammad), Appollin (Apollo), and Tervagant (stanza 194). True Islamic theology does not instruct the worship of Muhammad, but of Allah. Muhammad is, however, said to be the prophet of Allah. Islamic theology does not contain the worship of Apollo and Tervagant at all. Islam is also strongly monotheistic, which contradicts the poem’s assertion that Muslims worship three gods.

The Song of Roland contains a black-and-white depiction of the world. It portrays two opposing forces in history: The Christians and the non-Christians. The Muslims are the main representatives of the non-Christian side. The mention of Apollo, a pagan god worshiped in ancient Greece, in connection with Islam displays a lumping of all non-Christian elements into a single category of heresy. This is also seen in stanza 108, where the Greek god Jupiter is mentioned in connection with one of the Muslim fighters.

The Muslim warriors are often described as “cowards,” “felons,” (stanza 239) “heathen,” (stanza 260) or “outlaws” (stanza 108) in the poem. They are also associated with the devil several times in the poem (like stanza 114). They are contrasted with the courageous French, who are fiercely loyal to their emperor, their religion, and their God. The Muslims and all heretics, as well as all who associate with them (Ganelon), are considered to be enemies of the Christian faith and a threat to all Christians.

The poem contains an interesting plot and some good characters. Ganelon is a good villain characterized by hate and deception. At the beginning of the poem, he is a respected baron in the army of Charlemagne (stanza 20). But, Ganelon becomes a villain when he tries to get revenge on his stepson Roland for having him appointed a messenger on a dangerous errand. In the process, Ganelon sides with the enemy to have Roland killed (stanza 29). This throws the entire French army into a crisis and Roland dies soon after the battle (stanza 177). Ganelon is a representative of a traitor to the Christian faith due to his alliance with the Muslim forces against Roland.

Roland, the main character, is also quite outstanding. He is fearless, selfless, faithful, and proud. He is more concerned about his honor than his personal safety. His pride prevents him from calling for help when he is first attacked by the Muslim army (stanzas 83-85). He is dedicated to serving his king and his religion in battle. He is a good representative of the ideal crusader.

Oliver is another excellent character in the poem. He is wiser than Roland and is more concerned about victory against the Muslim forces than about personal honor and pride (stanzas 83-85). He is also more practical than Roland. Oliver suggests blowing the horn to Roland to summon the aid of Charlemagne when they are attacked, but Roland refuses because he thinks that it would taint his honor to ask for help. Oliver is the wiser of the two, but he is equal to Roland in courage and dedication to Charlemagne.

The French king Charlemagne is a figure of legend in the poem. He is a long-standing king of two hundred years and immense power. His knights serve him faithfully (except Ganelon) and he has many possessions. He is famous for his many successful wars and conquests. He also receives visits from angels with messages from God. He is seen as a representative of Christendom.

Some may say that the characters in The Song of Roland are shallow and do not communicate any important messages to the reader; but, we must remember that the author was writing to a medieval audience. The poem’s emphasis on the strong religious convictions, faithfulness, and courage of the knights fighting the Muslims would doubtless impress a medieval listener. Many of the secondary characters have little background, but that is expected in almost any story. The characters in the poem were intended to establish the crusades as a worthy endeavor in favor with God, and characters such as Roland, Oliver, and Charlemagne are good examples of the ideal crusader.

So, what does The Song of Roland tell us about the era of the crusades? It presents a worldview of Christianity vs. Islam (along with all other heresies). It communicates the message that the crusades are a holy endeavor and that a good crusader is in favor with both the church and with God. It does this by using a heroic, tragic tale of the deaths of twenty thousand knights fighting for Christianity and their country against Muslim forces. The characters are good representatives of different ideologies and institutions and are used to get across the message of the story. A person living in the middle ages would probably be affected by the poem’s message of a unified Christendom fighting against outside forces. A modern reader, 900 years later, would not be affected in the same way. We can appreciate the heroic story and dedication of the knights, but we would not be inspired to join a crusade by listening to it. There are some discrepancies in the poem which have the potential to confuse the reader, but the overall message of the poem is not blunted in any major way. The poem gives us insight into the worldview and motivation behind the crusades as well as European understanding of Islam during the late 11th century. The Song of Roland was an effective recruiting document for the crusades, using good characters and an interesting story to communicate its message.

Works cited:

Unknown, “The Song of Roland,” Trans. Jessie Crossland, yorku.ca, Web. 20 Sept 2017.

Unknown “The Song of Roland” (Introduction) Internet Medieval Sourcebook. fordham.edu Web. 20 Sept 2017

Unknown “The End of the Medieval Crusades,” The Middle Ages for Kids. Web. 20 Sept 2017

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