Book Reviews

The Song of Roland: The Champagne Poem of Medieval France

 

        There was a magnificent time when men dressed in armor, drank ale in thunderous hallways, and courted the most beautiful ladies in the country. They slayed evil kings and knights and dragons, and swore to protect the innocent and helpless. This is a story of courage and merit; it is also a poem that is flavored with temptation and ridicule, new horizons and clandestine purposes as well as treachery and deception. Villains are dipped in the legacy of their readers while the heroes are tailored in drapes of eternity. Like most medieval epics, it is a hero’s poem and tragedy will color the end.

        Roland was a mighty leader of the Frankish army under Charlemagne. His literary reputation will evolve in the Carolingian cycle of medieval poetry, most notably in this work which was quite popular in chivalry France. However for the purpose Roland is to be accounted for, his adventures are mentioned in a romanticized version of the Battle of Roncevaux. Charlemagne and his army have been at battle with the Muslims of Spain; they have grown tired after have been fighting there for seven years. King Marsile, who is threatened by the might of the Frankish army, is growing worried about the fate of his Muslim kingdom. In order to reach an agreement, he promises Charlemagne unimaginable riches if he agrees to take his army back to France.  Charlemagne accepts his offer and sends a messenger to his court. Enter his nephew Roland. Roland is a powerful and fearless leader. It is believed and recorded that he has been blessed by the Virgin Mary and God’s angels. He given three divine gifts that will, purportedly, ensure his conquests and exploits. The first one is a horse named Veillantif that he will ride in battle. It exchanged through oral dialogue that this horse has magical powers to protect Roland in danger; the second one is his sword Durendal. This magical sword was originally given to Charlemagne by an angel

who gives it to Roland. There is also a tradition that mentions that this was also the sword that was once owned and used by Hector of Troy; the third one was a magical horn called Olifant. This horn possessed charmed properties, that, when blown, Charlemagne would hear its sound and rescue Roland from danger.

        While the poem is dressed in elegant chivalry and heroics, it ends in tragedy, like all astute medieval traditions. However, there are also a number of conflicts that need to be mentioned. First, this poem introduces France to Islam. Islam, at the time, is a grossly misunderstood religion. It is filled with singular  beliefs and Jesus Christ is not God, a thought that is inconceivable in medieval Europe. It is also the time of the Crusades, where Holy Wars are being raged across Europe to rescue Jerusalem from Muslims who claim the sacred city as their own. It is a time when political upheaval is replete across the European kingdoms and a struggle for identity ensues the races and cultures of Medieval aristocracy. It comes as no surprise that one of the main protagonists, Ganelon, an urbane knight of Charlemagne, is a Judas who betrays the army of the Franks to the Muslims. The poem is filled with colorful treachery, mistaken religious obsession, in my view, one of the most powerful heroic scenes demonstrated in medieval poetry. As Charlemagne’s army grows weary and accepts the terms of King Marsile, the battle continues with thunderous rage and determination, especially when Roland enters the scene. Not to Ganelon’s surprise, Roland will lead the charge against the Muslims because of Ganelon’s deceit by informing the Muslim army of a way to encircle the Franks and ambush them.

        As Roland becomes fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, he is advised to blow his horn so that Charlemagne can rescue the rest of the truncated army. However, Roland, at first, sees this action as an act of cowardice and does not apply himself. However, by continuing not to seek aid, Roland’s army is quickly and violently perishing. In a scene of desperate elegance, he blows his magical horn so loud and hard, the his temples burst and he dies a martyr’s death. When Charlemagne finally does arrive, he sees that Roland’s army has perished and that Roland himself is dead.

        Charlemagne continues his quest for revenge on the Muslims by pursuing them at the Battle of Roncesvalles, where Christians are mourning and burying their dead; Charlemagne takes up arms against an ally of Marcile named Baligant.

        Although both sides fight bloody and heroically, the Franks win the battle and discover Ganelon’s treason and put him in chains. As the plot thickens, Ganelon is compelled to perform in a ‘trial by combat,’ where, by an act of divine intervention, it is revealed that Ganelon is a traitor. By his sentence, Ganelon is torn apart by horses that are tied to his limbs and dies.

       

The first page of La Chanson de Roland written
in 1098.

        Interestingly, the poem and all of its actions move swiftly throughout the epic. The author appears to possess a bias against the Franks in that he portrays them as violent and brutal, while the traitors are colorful but treacherous. The poem, in its most purest composition, was well advanced in its own time; it mimics that of a film where the sequence of shots are fast and theatrical so that new and fuller details emerge to flavor the plot. Unlike later Renaissance poetry, this composition is highly concerned with the actions of the character rather than what they think or feel. It is also a time when the fate  of Europe was attempting to establish itself as Christian. Muslim invaders were plundering Spain and France with the spread of a new and conflating set of beliefs in a time when Christianity itself was still attempting to form a solid unification of its own doctrine and church. In the likelihood of it vanishing, Christian heroes and valiant knights were heavily depended upon to keep the faith of Jesus Christ and his Disciples the religion of all the kingdoms and monarchs. It is not a surprise, therefore, that such epics of heros and martyrs found their way into the inkwells of chroniclers and anonymous poets who preserved, on parchment, the legacy of tales of castles, magic, miracles, and divinity and tragedy. This work also suggested the importance of stanzas, repetition, didactic, and parallelism. These techniques that would be employed into the semantics of poetry would continue for generations and foresee the development of modern meter and rhyme.