Song of Roland
Beowulf and Roland: The Heroes Journey
Beowulf and Roland are two of the most well-known heroes found within literature. While many know their names and their stories few realize what it is that qualifies them as literary heroes and the ways in which their hero stories compare. Joseph Campbell in his book A Hero with a Thousand Faces illuminates the stages of a classic hero arc. This information is very useful for helping us to articulate the true value of these characters in their premodern societies. In describing his work one writer says, “Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions.” Campbell’s work in conjunction with literary analysis of the texts will help us to understand whether or not Beowulf and Roland can be considered fallen heroes. For both heroes we will be looking at two particular stages of their heroic journey: the belly of the whale and supernatural aid. We will start by taking a look at Campbell’s belly of the whale stage and where it can be found in the timeline of Beowulf and Roland.
Campbell describes the belly of the whale stage as, “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would have appeared to have died (74).” This stage is represented in many hero stories and it conjures up images of Jonah in the literal belly of a whale or in a more modern context the Millennium Falcon from George Lucas’s Star Wars being reeled in by the tractor beam of the Death Star. In this stage the hero seems to be totally surrounded and trapped within a hostile area or situation and it seems unlikely they will be able to escape. For those familiar with Beowulf and The Song of Roland this may sound familiar. In Beowulf this stage occurs when the Nordic hero enters the lair of Grendel’s mother to fight the beast. The reader is told that Beowulf addresses his fellow companions before he enters the lair and instructs them on what to do if he should not return. This interaction immediately sets a gloomy tone for the scene in which Beowulf’s death is a very conceivable outcome. We know that this lair, at the bottom of a lake, is isolated from any potential help when we are told “it was the best part of a day before he could see the solid bottom (line 1495-1496)”. The lairs remoteness is matched only by Grendel’s mother’s savagery as we are told, “The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength, then heaved his war-sword and swung his arm: the decorated blade came down ringing and singing on her head. But he soon found his battle-torch extinguished: the shining blade refused to bite (1518-1524)”. Beowulf is isolated, surrounded by enemies, and struggling to overcome the odds against him. Even his companions believe him to be dead. This scene fits nicely into the parameters of Campbell’s belly of the whale. Beowulf does not actually die in the lair however, but rather defeats Grendel’s mother and emerges victorious. It can be argued that Beowulf is in fact changed after this battle. He has cemented his place as a mighty warrior and hero and emerges from the lair with the ambition and platform to become a ruler which he eventually does. Roland however, was not so fortunate and this fact marks a major distinction between the hero journeys of the two. Roland’s belly of the whale stage takes place when he is fighting the Saracens in the rear guard. Similar to Beowulf’s situation, Roland has no help coming and is utterly surrounded by enemies. Towards the end of the battle we are told, “as soon as Roland sees this outlaw race, whose members all are black than is ink and have no white about them, save their teeth, the count says: Now I’m absolutely sure, beyond a doubt, that we shall die today (1932-1936)”. Roland eventually succumbs to death from the wounds he received during the battle and thus it can be argued that he indeed does perish within the figurative belly of the whale.
While Beowulf outlives Roland, the two are similar in the fact that they are both seemingly recipients of supernatural aid. Campbell describes the stage of Supernatural aid saying, “Having responded to his own call, and continuing to follow courageously as the consequences unfold, the hero finds all the forces of the unconscious at his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task. And in so far as the hero’s act coincides with that for which his society is ready, he seems to ride on the great rhythm of the historical process (59).” For both Beowulf and Roland this is the case and the supernatural aid comes in the form of protection given by God. Both stories were written by Christian authors and the evidence of this is abundant. In Beowulf, there are numerous times when his seemingly incredible feats are attributed to the power and protection granted to him by God. When recounting his victory over Grendel’s mother to Hrothgar Beowulf states, “It was hard-fought, a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal (1653-1657).” Similarly The Song of Roland is littered with Christian references and themes. Throughout the battle Roland has seemingly supernatural strength and strikes down hundreds of Saracens with ease and it is strongly implied that it is his Christian faith that allows him this ability. Also when Roland dies we are told, “Then God sent his angel Cherubin and Saint Michael of the Sea and of the Peril; together with Saint Gabriel they came and took the count’s soul into Paradise (2393-2397)”. Upon Roland’s death God literally sends his angels and saints to deliver Roland’s soul. The faith of Roland and Beowulf, along with their impressive fighting abilities makes a strong case as evidence of supernatural aid from above.
While acknowledging a few of the hero stages Beowulf and Roland go through helps us to qualify them as heroes we are left with the question of whether or not they are indeed “fallen” heroes? A fallen hero can be defined in several ways but in the most basic sense it is a person who does something heroic and then dies. In this case Beowulf and Roland both fit that description. However the more interesting question is whether or not their fall or death marks the beginning of turmoil for their people and in a sense ushers in a larger sort of societal fall. Or do their deaths signify the beginning of further prosperity for their peoples? In the case of Roland I would argue it is the latter. While his death is one which causes much grief for all the people of France including Charlemagne it can be argued that his death merely cements the power and virtue of the French. In the immediate aftermath of his death Charlemagne feels a great sense of loss and also feels as if his Kingdom will now be susceptible to attack questioning, “Who’ll lead my armies forcefully enough when he who always guided us is dead?( 2926-2927)”. However Charlemagne quickly answers this question by defeating Marsilla and then killing Baligant in single combat. He puts to rest any concern about the loss of his empire with those resounding victories and in fact strengthens his claim to power and the security and prosperity of the French people. Roland is entombed in France and several of his items are deemed relics and become popular points of pilgrimage. In this way Roland can be considered a fallen hero but he leaves his people and his country ultimately in a better position. It is quite the opposite for Beowulf. Upon his death after fighting the dragon, there is heavy implication that things are about to get worse for his kingdom. Wiglaf immediately realizes that the death of Beowulf will open up the kingdom to foreign invasion saying, “They will cross our borders and attack in force when they find out that Beowulf is dead (3001-3002)”. This sentiment of impending doom is accentuated by the woman who sings at Beowulf’s funeral as she sings about her nightmares of invasion. While Beowulf died honorably in battle and is worthy of the title hero, it is heavily implied that his people are going to suffer in his absence.
In conclusion Beowulf and Roland share many of the same heroic stages and attributes but at the same time their stories differ in key ways. While they both receive supernatural aid and encounter the belly of the whale, Roland dies within this stage while Beowulf lives. Furthermore they both can be considered fallen heroes but for Beowulf the fall is not simply an individual fall like Roland’s, but rather textual evidence leads us to believe that it signifies the beginning of a greater societal fall for his people. Regardless both have interesting hero arcs that should be carefully considered when analyzing the works.
Propaganda in The Song of Roland
The First Crusade took place from the year 1096 to 1099. According to Robert the Monk’s retelling of Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont, the Pope describes the enemy as, “…a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God…” This description is meant to set the Christians, whom Pope Urban was addressing, apart from the pagans. The Song of Roland served a similar purpose for the French people at the time of the Second Crusade, nearly fifty years later. By manipulating the details of the actual Battle of Roncevaux Pass, The Song of Roland reveals a nation caught up in the hatred of foreign and pagan cultures in the midst of the Second Crusade.
The Song of Roland is based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass that took place in 778; however, the story’s author took many liberties in his retelling. The battle was originally between two Christian sides, the Franks and the Basques (source), and the Basque forces would not have equaled 400,000 men as is suggested in the fictionalized version. Charlemagne was also not 200 years old.
The distinctive difference between the factual account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and the version told in The Song of Roland is a curious one. The Song of Roland is thought to have been written somewhere between 1129 and 1165, nearly 400 years after the battle took place. The story would have been passed by oral tradition for those four centuries, and it is not a stretch to assume that many details would not remain the same. However, it is unlikely that the opposing force could have changed from the Basques to the Saracens naturally. Instead, the author of The Song of Roland may have made this change deliberately as a type of propaganda for the Second Crusade. A story that brought about the exact type of religious zeal that led to the Crusades in the first place.
Though they were partially involved, the First Crusade unfolded largely without France. When the Second Crusade came around, however, the French were eager to fight. The French Christians possessed a real hatred for the Muslims that they would eventually war against, and that hatred is portrayed, and perhaps even amplified in, The Song of Roland. Brewster Fitz says in his article, “Cain as Convict and Convert? Cross-cultural Logic in the Song of Roland,” that:
The narrative of the Song of Roland projects a new order of Christianity, which stands in relation to the pre-crusading order as the New Testament era to the Old Testament era. Such a narrative is guilt-driven. Its telos is to judge, convict, slay or convert all forms of the Other, whether within or without, while sacrificially absolving radical guilt. (Fitz 812)
This goal of Christianizing the whole world is precisely the line of thinking that sparked the Crusades, and The Song of Roland goes so far as to manipulate history in order to put forth a message supporting that line of thinking. Interestingly, the Second Crusade took place from 1147-1149, a three year span that fits nicely within the time frame in which The Song of Roland was supposedly written. This supports the theory that the Basques were transformed into the Saracens so that the battle could be viewed as a religious one, a clear instance of Muslim treachery in history that the French could draw from in their real life battle against pagan culture.
Focusing now on the fictional account, The Song of Roland focuses on two particular groups: the Franks and the Saracens. The Franks are the “good guys,” the group that the reader is meant to associate with and root for. The Franks are Christians, God-fearing men who hold their religion dearly. They are portrayed as an upright and loving people, even going so far as to the pray for their enemies the Saracens. Though a minor detail, it is also worth mentioning that the Franks are a fair-skinned people as this is in deliberate contrast with the darker skin of the Saracens. Their leader, Charlemagne is described as mighty and righteous. In the very first stanza it says:
Charles the King, our Lord and Sovereign, Full seven years hath sojourned in Spain, Conquered the land, and won the western main, Now no fortress against him doth remain. (Roland 1.1-4)
Charlemagne is a sovereign ruler and a mighty conqueror. This bit of tribute would have immediately won the support of any twelfth-century Frenchmen.
If the Franks are a portrait of morality and reason, the Saracens are the opposite. The Saracens are pagans who do not worship the true God. Their king, Marsile, “feareth not God’s name,” (1.7) and he “invokes Apollin’s aid,” (1.8). Apollin most likely refers to the Greek god Apollo, a deity that the Franks would have considered pagan. If this contrast was not enough, the author says:
King Marsilies he lay at Sarraguce, Went he his way into an orchard cool; There on a throne he sate, of marble blue. (2.1-3)
Charlemagne travels, conquers, rules. In contrast, King Marsilies “lays” in his cool orchard where he sits comfortably on his throne. He is not a strong, inspiring leader like Charlemagne, but the opposite. Furthermore, the Saracens, as the antagonists, are simply construed as evil. Their only goal is to defeat the just and righteous Franks.
These Saracens are considered the cultural “other” in The Song of Roland because their culture is pitted against that of the Franks. Their differences are highlighted to display the contrast between the two races of people, and further cement the Franks as the indisputable “good guys.” Parallelism is used to draw quick comparisons between the Franks and the Saracens. The Franks are Christian, and the Saracens are pagans. The Franks are a loving people and the Saracens are not. The Franks are fair-skinned, and the Saracens have dark skin. This method creates two sides, one distinctly good and one distinctly bad, and helps the reader to become involved in the story quickly by placing everything, literally, in black and white terms. This practice is common in all periods of literature; however, it is especially important in The Song of Roland due to the historical context of the tale. This defining of the Saracens as the “other” is in keeping with Fitz’s analysis of the supposed “new era of Christianity” in which all “others” must be converted or destroyed. Andreas Kablitz says, with regards to religion and violence in The Song of Roland, that:
In this chanson de geste, Charlemagne’s fight against the Moslems appears to be a prototype of every crusade, to the extent that, despite all the odds, Christians-the French in this case-will win a decisive victory. The argument seems to hold that their unshakable belief in Christ will make the French strong enough to defeat the pagan enemy. That belief was succinctly expressed in the famous apothegm: “Paien unt tort et crestïens unt dreit” [“Pagans are in the wrong: Christians are in the right”]
The final line of that quote is the most important. The French sincerely believed that the Pagans were in the wrong and the Christians were in the right. This idea justified religious wars such as the Crusades in the minds of the Franks, and as the parallelism in The Song of Roland suggests, is the entire basis for Charlemagne’s fictitious war against the Saracens.
Further evidence of The Song of Roland as thinly veiled political propaganda is littered throughout the story, hidden in plain sight in the author’s word choice and obviously biased analysis. Seated in his orchard, Marsile declares Charles and the French forces to be superior. He says to his advisors:
My Lords, give ear to our impending doom: That Emperour, Charles of France the Douce, Into this land is come, us to confuse. I have no host in battle him to prove, Nor have I strength his forces to undo. (2.6-10)
Charlemagne displays chivalrous virtue and militaristic confidence by facing his enemy head-on. Marsile, on the other hand, believes his to be the weaker people, and relies on dishonorable tactics in order to get the better of the Franks. The treacherous Guene, or Ganelon, arrives in King Marsilies court to deliver Charlemagne’s message that the Saracens must “receive the holy Christian Faith” (33.7); however, Marsile will hear none of it, and soon Ganelon’s ulterior motives come to light. He suggests that Marsile should sneak up on the French company. His advice is as follows:
Five score thousand pagans upon them lead, Franks unawares in battle you shall meet, Bruised and bled white the race of Franks shall be; (44.9-11)
Marsile jumps at an opportunity to eliminate the Franks, rather than convert to their “true” faith, and in the process he disregards all honor and ethical dilemmas in a classically pagan fashion.
It is impossible to know for certain what inspired these particular changes to the story of The Battle of Roncevaux Pass; however, there are several indicators including the time period in which The Song of Roland was authored, as well as the shift from a Christian enemy to a Muslim one, that suggest these changes were intended to conjure up feelings of religious zeal and a strong hatred toward pagan cultures. The French people, along with several other Christian groups at the time of the Crusades, believed that it was their duty to cleanse the world of wicked pagans, and The Song of Roland acts as a perfect reflection of that imagined responsibility.
Fitz, Brewster E. “Cain as Convict and Convert? Cross-Cultural Logic in the “Song of Roland”” MLN 113.4 (1998): 812-22. Jstor. Johns Hopkins University Press. Web. 26 May 2015.
Kablitz, Andreas. “Religion and Violence in the Song of Roland.” MLN 126.4 (2011): S115,S158,S181. ProQuest. 26 May 2015 .
Moncrief, C. K., trans. The Song of Roland. Gutenberg.org. Project Gutenberg, 20 July 2008. Web. 24 May 2015.
“Urban II (1088-1099): Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095.” Medieval Sourcebook. Dec. 1997. Web. 11 May 2015.
The Purposes of Symmetry and Asymmetry in the Song of Roland
Lines from the first laisse of the epic, The Song of Roland express the focus of the poem: the demise of paganism and the victory of the superior, Christianity through the will of God. “Saragossa . . .held by King Marsiliun who does not love God. Marsiliun serves Mohamed and prays to Appolin. But he cannot prevent harm from overtaking him” (3). Here, in the very first lines of the epic, the poet has already clarified the outcome of one who does not love God – harm will overtake him. In The Song of Roland, the poet uses the symmetries and asymmetries of those who are good and those who are evil to illustrate the God’s justice and the superiority of Christianity.In order to show the power of God and superiority of Christianity, the poet first presents the pagans and Christians as parallel. The only difference between the two groups is that the Christians are depicted as good and the pagans as evil. The parallels between the Christians and pagans are first illustrated prior to the first battle. The Saracen society is portrayed as mirroring the types of knightly virtues the Christians have. For example, Blancandrin is described as, “well endowed with the kind of courage that befits a knight, and he had shrewdness and judgment to bring to the aid of his lord” (4). This symmetry is also illustrated in more subtle ways throughout the poem; Marsiliun’s throne, like Charles’ is placed beneath a pine. There is also symmetry in the result of the first battle. Though, because of Ganelon’s treachery, the Christians lose this battle; the losses Charles and Marsiliun suffer are mirrored. Roland cuts of Marsiliun’s right hand, and Charles loses his metaphorical right hand – Roland. Because the poet sets up the Christian and Saracens so symmetrically, any instances of non-symmetry draw the reader’s attention, evincing some significance.Charles and Marsiliun’s nephews illustrate a significant example of symmetry changing to asymmetry. Both nephews prove to be equally bold and proud. In response to Charles offering him more troops Roland says: “I will do no such thing. God confound me if I shame my ancestors! I will keep with me twenty thousand Franks . . . and you may go on your way through the pass in utter confidence, and fear no man as long as I am alive” (26). Marsilun’s nephew, Aleroth, echoes Roland’s brashness and pride: “King I have served you long and have known suffering and hardship, and battles fought and won on the field. Grant me on favor: the first blow at Roland. I will kill him . . .Charles will lose heart . . .you will have no more war as long as you live” (29). Aleroth and Roland both use equally prideful language to assure their Kings that they will be victorious. Their pride is also the cause of both of their deaths: Aleroth because he charges forward to make an attempt on Roland’s life and Roland because he is too proud to blow his horn for help. However, the poet treats their deaths noticeably differently. The mirroring that the poet has used up to this point causes any difference between narration about the Christians and pagans to stand out clearly. The poet spends little time on Aleroth’s death, giving it just a mention, but during his description of Roland’s death the narration slows down dramatically. The moment when Roland dies is held out over three laisses, which all describe the same scene. The first ends with, “he offers his glove, as a token of his sins, to God,” the second with, “he has held out his right glove to God. Angels descend out of heaven and come to him,” and the third with, “he offers his right glove to God, and Saint Gabriel takes it from him” (72). Roland’s offering of his right glove to God indicates that Roland is a vassal of God, and God’s acceptance of it through Saint Gabriel acknowledges God as Roland’s ultimate lord. The fact that the moment of Roland’s death is suspended in much narration draws the reader’s attention, just as the poet’s deviation from the typical symmetrical structure evinces its significance. What is significant here is that Roland is saved, as God’s acceptance of his glove illustrates. This evinces the goodness of Roland as a member of the Christian army, and thus, the favor God gives to the Christians.To continue with the theme of symmetry, the poet balances out Roland’s death with Charles’ vengeance. The poet also creates symmetry with the Christian army led by Charles and the pagan army led by the Emir, Baligant. The poet presents the Emir as a pagan counterpart to Charles. For example, like Charles, Baligant is impossibly old: “[he] has survived both Virgil and Homer” (79). The mirroring between the two also results from Baligant’s effort to imitate Charles. For example Baligant names his sword “Precieuse” because it rhymes with the name of Charles’ sword: “Joyuse.” Because an imitation is usually considered inferior to the original, the poet can maintain the symmetry between Charles and the Emir, while leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind that Charles, and thus Christianity, is superior. The mirroring between Charles and Baligant continues when they battle each other, and this time, unlike in the case of the swords, their actions seem to be simultaneous. The language the poet uses to describe the fight illustrates this: “[they] exchange heavy blows . . .nothing can separate them and the fight cannot end without the death of one or the other” (106). The language the poet uses to describe their battle evokes the idea that the two are evenly matched in skill and strength. The poet does this to construct the need for some divine intervention, which comes when Charles is badly hit: Charles staggers and almost falls, but it is not God’s will that he should be killed or beaten. Saint Gabriel comes to his side asking: “Great King, what are you doing?” When he hears the holy voice of the angel, Charles loses all fear of death, and his vigor and clearness of mind return. (107)The poet uses symmetry between the Emir and Charles to create a situation in which God must intervene to end the battle. God, of course, chooses to save Charles. It is an angelic vision, rather than Charles’ strength that turns the battle. This evinces the idea of the justice of God and supports the idea that the morally good will receive victory. There is a final time in the epic in which not symmetry, but asymmetry in those who are good and evil, is used to illustrate the power of God. Ganelon’s trial is a trial-by-combat. Unlike the case of Charles and Baligant, the poet indicates that the men that will fight, Pinabel and Thierry, are asymmetrical because they are not equally strong. Thierry who fights for the Emperor is described as, “gaunt of limb, and wiry, and quick . . .he is neither very tall nor very short,” while Pinabel who fights for Ganelon is, “tall and strong and brave and quick, and if he strikes a man a blow, the other has come to the end of his days” (114). The poet describes Pinabel in a way that makes it seem as if he will surely win the fight against “gaunt,” “wiry” Thierry. The great difference in the strength of the two once again constructs the need for a Godly intervention; in fact, Thierry says, “may God this day show which of us is in the right” (116). This could be the general cry of the Christians throughout the poem. The poet emphasizes Pinabel’s strength over Thierry’s to make clear that it is the good man and not merely the stronger that wins, and to evince God’s justice for those who are morally good. God’s justice for the good Christians is illustrated time and time again in the Song of Roland. The poet of The Song of Roland uses symmetry and balance to structure the epic. Ganelon’s treachery is balanced with his trial and death, and Roland’s death is balanced with Charles’ vengeance. Symmetry is used in the descriptions of the Christians and pagans and Charles and Baligant, allowing God’s intervention decide the outcome of combat. The poet also uses instances of asymmetry, such as in the death of Roland versus the death of his counterpart Aleroth. These instances draw the reader’s attention since they deviate from the general structure of the epic, and in the case of Thierry and Pinabel’s combat, the asymmetry constructs a need for the intervention of God to help the good man and not the stronger man win the fight.
Themes in Song of Roland
In Song of Rowland, the author tells the story of Charlemagne’s attempted takeover of Saragossa, a land controlled by the Muslim king, Marsilla. The poem covers the feud between Rowland and his stepfather Ganelon, as well as the disastrous consequences that come from that feud, including the betrayal of their lord and kinsman, Charlemagne. Through characterization and plot, the author is able to convey the overall theme of the work—that of loyalty. Over the course of the poem, three characters are introduced to show varying degrees of loyalty. One of those characters is Ganelon, a vassal to Emperor Charlemagne and stepfather to the title character, Roland. After being nominated by his stepson for a suicide mission as a messenger to Marsilla, Ganelon travels to Saragossa and, acting disloyally to Charlemagne, betrays Roland to Marsilla. He tells the Muslim leader that Roland is the reason that they continue to fight, and that they will not have peace while he still lives. Ganelon even gives Marsilla the location where Roland is likely to be when they return to France, saying “The king will reach the main pass at Sizer, while having left his guard deployed behind him. His nephew will be there, the rich Count Roland, and Olivier, whom he relies on so. They’ll have a force of twenty thousand Franks. Send out a hundred thousand of your pagans…” (Roland, 583-588).Marsilla then prepares to ambush Roland and his men as they return to France with the gifts of the Muslims. Although it is debatable whether or not this move is disloyal, as Ganelon had issued Defiance to Roland, there can be a strong case made that Ganelon was acting disloyally. Ganelon first acted disloyally to his family. Roland was his stepson, so trying to harm or kill him would be seen as a disloyal act, as they are kin, if only because Ganelon was married to Roland’s mother. However, Roland was carrying out Charlemagne’s orders, so not only did Ganelon betray Roland, but by default he also betrayed Charlemagne, a person that Ganelon swore an oath of loyalty to. Ganelon’s first duty was to his lord, not his feud with Roland. Also, Ganelon’s act of disloyalty affected more than just Roland, as he was not the only person to be killed as a result of it. Ganelon’s disloyalty led to the destruction of nearly 20,000 men. Therefore, Ganelon is the most obvious character to act disloyally, as he betrayed both his family and his lord. However, Ganelon was not the only one to act disloyal to Charlemagne. At first glance, Roland appears to be the perfect example of a model vassal. In court, he speaks against sending a messenger to negotiate a peace treaty, as the previous messengers have all been killed. He says “…some fifteen pagans he dispatched, each carrying an olive branch; they said the very same words to you then…you sent two of your counts out to the pagans (Basan was one, the other one was Basil) who promptly took their heads near Haltilie.” (Roland 202-209) While he is being loyal to Charlemagne by having the best interest of the Franks at heart, Roland is inadvertently disloyal to his fellow vassals, as he speaks out of turn. As Roland was a younger vassal, he should have waited to speak until higher ranking vassals had done so. He also proves disloyal while under attack by the Muslim forces at the pass at Sizer. After seeing the size of the Muslim army, Olivier asks Roland to blow the horn and call for aid, as they are outnumbered severely. However, Roland refuses to call for assistance, saying “May God forbid…that it be said by any man alive I ever blew my horn because of pagans! My family shall never be reproved. When I am in the midst of this great battle and strike a thousand blows, then seven hundred, you’ll see the blade of Durendal run blood.” (Roland 1073-1079) Roland refuses to surrender his honor, even if it means the loss of his men and even his own life. This is clearly disloyal to Charlemagne, as a loyal vassal does not get 20,000 men killed, simply because he does not want to lose honor. Therefore, while Roland was loyal for the most part, he allowed personal honor to interfere with that loyalty. Also, the loyalty to his family is called into question, as he nominated Ganelon to be the messenger back to Marsilla. As Ganelon was his stepfather, it was both disrespectful and disloyal to his family for Roland to suggest that Ganelon travel to Saragossa. Ganelon acknowledges this disloyalty, saying “They know quite well that I am your stepsire—yet you name me to go out to Marsilla. If God should deign that I come back again, then I shall stir up such a feud with you that it will last as long as you live.” (Roland 287-291) Roland, knowing that the messenger to Marsilla would most likely be going to his death, nominates Ganelon, acting disloyal to his family, as the death of Ganelon would be detrimental to the entire family, not just Ganelon himself. The most loyal character in the poem is Olivier, Roland’s best friend and a vassal to Charlemagne. He shows his loyalty to Charlemagne, offering to go with Blancandrin back to Saragossa, saying “But if it pleases the king, I’d like to go.” (Roland 258) Charlemagne, however, refuses, as Olivier is one of the twelve peers, and Charlemagne refuses to allow any of the twelve peers to serve as the messenger. However, Olivier is not only a loyal vassal. He is a loyal friend as well. At the battle at the pass at Sizer, he suggests that Roland sound the horn and call for help, as they are outnumbered. Having seen the number of pagan soldiers that they are up against, Olivier advises Roland, saying “There are many pagans, and, it seems to me, we Franks are few. Companion Roland, you should sound your horn so Charles will hear and bring the army back.” (Roland 1049-1052) He was loyal to both Charlemagne and Roland, as he offered Roland advice in times of trouble and suggested that Roland try to avoid the deaths of 20,000 men. He also stands by Roland, rather than leaving, even though he knows it will ultimately lead to his death. Roland, seeing that Olivier has died in the fight, acknowledges his loyalty, saying “Olivier, fair comrade, you were the son of wealthy Duke Renier, who ruled the frontier valley of Runners. To break a lance-shaft or to pierce a shield, to overcome and terrify the proud, to counsel and sustain the valorous, to overcome and terrify the gluttons, no country ever had a better knight.” (Roland 2207-2214) Olivier can be seen as the model example of a loyal vassal not only because of his loyalty to his lord, Charlemagne, but also because of his unfailing loyalty to his friend, even until death. Loyalty is not confined to the Christian side, however. Blancandrin, the Muslim vassal of Marsilla, is described as “Among the wisest pagans…very chivalrous and dutiful and able in the service of his lord.” (Roland 24-26) Blancandrin advises Marsilla to tell Charlemagne that he will accept the Christian faith, become a vassal of Charlemagne. He also advises that they offer many gifts, including hostages, in exchange for the Franks leaving Spain. He goes as far as to offer his own son as a hostage, saying “If he [Charlemagne] should ask for hostages, then send them to gain his confidence—some ten or twenty. We’ll send the sons of our own wives to him; though it will mean his death, I’ll send my own. Much better that they should lose their heads up there than we should lose our honor and our lands and let ourselves be brought to beggary.” (Roland 40-46) Blancandrin knows that his son will be killed, as he does not actually intend for Marsilla to to convert to Christianity or become a vassal to Charlemagne, but merely promise to do so to get the Christian king out of Saragossa. That Blancandrin is willing to offer his own son as a sacrifice goes to show just how loyal he is to King Marsilla. Loyalty also comes into question during the trial of Ganelon for treason against Charlemagne. Thirty of Ganelon’s kinsmen are present to show support for Ganelon. One of these kinsmen is Pinabel. Pinabel places his loyalty to his kinsman, Ganelon, above his loyalty to his lord, Charlemagne. In court, he convinces the barons who decide Ganelon’s fate to let him live. The barons then tell Charlemagne “Sire, we pray that you will call it quits with Ganelon—he’ll serve you then in loyalty and love—and let him live, for he’s a well-born man. (Count Roland’s dead; you’ll not see him again,) and death itself cannot return that lord, nor will we ever get him back with wealth.” (Roland 3808-3813) However, Charlemagne declares that they are all traitors. Thierry places his loyalty to Charlemagne above any other loyalty. Out of loyalty to his lord, he argues that Ganelon should be punished, saying “Your service should have guaranteed [Roland’s] safety. Betraying him made Ganelon a felon; he broke his oath to you and did you wrong. For this I judge that he should hang and die and that his corpse should be thrown [out to the dogs] like that of any common criminal.” (Roland 3828-3833) The following battle that ensues not only determines the fate of Ganelon, but also which loyalty should come first: loyalty to kinsman or loyalty to lord. During the battle, each attempts to persuade the other to act disloyally. Pinabel asks Thierry to reconcile the king to Ganelon, while Thierry tries to persuade Pinabel to forsake Ganelon and surrender without fighting. However, both refuse. In the end Thierry defeats Pinabel, resulting in the death of Ganelon and all thirty relatives who had shown up to support him. The reasoning behind this was “A traitor kills himself as well as others.” (Roland 3959) The triumph of Thierry over Pinabel did more than decide the fate of Ganelon. It can also be seen as a symbol that the duty and loyalty to the lord always outranks the duty and loyalty to the kin. In the epic poem Song of Roland, the theme of loyalty is explored thoroughly. Loyalty and the lack of loyalty can be seen through several characters, including Ganelon, Roland, Olivier, and Blancandrin. The poem also uses the trial of Ganelon to show that loyalty to lord always trumps loyalty to kin. Characterization, plot, and symbol served as means through which to show the theme of loyalty.Works Cited: Harrison, Robert L. “44.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 583-88. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “14.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 202-09. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “85.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 1073-079. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “20.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 287-91. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “18.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 258. Print.Harrison, Robert L. “82.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 1049-052. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “163.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 2207-014. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “3.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 22-26. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “3.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 40-46. Print.Harrison, Robert L. “276.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 3808-813. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “277.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 3828-833. Print. Harrison, Robert L. “288.” The Song of Roland. New York, NY: Signet Classic, 2002. 3959. Print.
Christian Duty and Religious Doubt in The Song of Roland and The Canterbury Tales
The Middle Ages were marked by religious upheaval in Europe. Two new major world religions were coming to power: Islam and Christianity. The rapid success of Christianity led the Roman Catholic Church to become the dominant religious force in most of the western world, and as with any powerful institution, it became increasingly corrupt (Swanson 409). As Lillian Bisson writes in Chaucer and the Late Medieval World, “[the] Medieval church . . . was a collection of competing factions with often contradictory agendas” (49). The church’s internal conflict led to public mistrust in religious authority (51-53). Expanding on Bisson’s observations, this paper will describe the development of religious doubt in Medieval Europe and note how it characterizes the literature of the period. Comparing two of the foremost texts of the Middle Ages – the anonymous epic The Song of Roland and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales – I argue that the latter work registers a profound mistrust of religious authority that is not present in the former. The different images the two texts present of the church, I suggest, distinguishes The Song of Roland and the Canterbury tales as, respectively, early-Medieval and late-Medieval works.Three developments contributed to the rise of Christian doubt in the Middle Ages: the persecution of heretics, the Black Plague, and The Great Schism. As Bisson describes, the Catholic Church became increasingly powerful as it became inseparable from government. When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the church gained influence rapidly and a new doctrinal hierarchy began to develop in place of the former communal character of the church (52). Individuals who did not accept Catholic doctrine were either dismissed as subhuman, or – if they lived in what came to be called Christendom – persecuted as heretics. Eventually, the laity and especially the middle and lower classes developed a sense of distrust for the church. Members of the clergy who became church leaders for money and status rather than religious conviction routinely abused their power. The general public noticed these abuses and so began the downfall of the previously ultimate trust in religious authority. The Black Plague, a tragedy that killed countless numbers of people in Christendom, also contributed to public mistrust in the church because the people realized their clergymen’s prayers were useless against the illness. Faith in God’s power and God’s benevolence came to an all-time low as people helplessly watched their loved ones die. Many members of the clergy fled their positions in fear of the work required of them with the morbidly ill (50). A third major problem with the church resulted from what is known as the Great Schism. When two different men claimed the right to the papacy, immense scandal and internal conflict threatened the future of the church (56). During the same period, Oxford scholar John Wyclif began to criticize the church publicly. Not only did he challenge fundamental beliefs and practices by denying the possibility of transubstantiation, but he also attempted to diminish the priests’ power. He translated the Bible to English for the first time in history, which made it much more available to the common person (58), and he claimed that any good Christian was a priest. This claim, along with the newly translated Bible and a growing lower class literacy rate, led to the decrease in a need for priests in order to worship. Suddenly, the common person could be religious without the intervention of the church. This shift in religious power is registered in the literature of the time: while early Medieval writings emphasize the higher ranking of monks and nuns, later works place more emphasis on the religious importance of poor preachers and even the laity. With the church weakened by both internal conflict and diminishing credibility among the public, many Christians began to seriously reconsider church values and doctrine. Accordingly, the literature of the period reflects profound reservations about the church, reservations that are not present in earlier texts. The anonymous French national epic, The Song of Roland, written before Wyclif’s criticisms and before the Black Death wreaked its havoc on Christendom, is unambiguously supportive of church authority. Written as a piece of propaganda for the necessity of Holy Wars, The Song of Roland demonstrates the intolerance of the church in the Middle Ages. Although The Song of Roland describes events that occured in 778, it was composed in 1095: the year the first Crusade against the Muslims was launched. In reality, however, the battle the text deals with was not part of a holy war. In fact, it had nothing to do with Islam. The Basques, not the Muslims, had massacred the rear guard of the Frankish army. The writer of The Song of Roland uses extensive creative license to develop the story into a reductive allegory about the triumph of Christianity (good) over Islam (evil). The writer “gives religious significance to secular acts, appropriating the campaign of 778 not only as holy war but as war between God and Satan” (Dominik, 2). Within the allegorical framework of the text, Roland’s tale is also the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Roland is a Christ figure who dies a martyr’s death; the parallels between the two characters re-inforce the dogmatic nature of the text. Roland has Twelve Peers (Roland 1259), much like the Twelve Disciples of Christ. Ganelon, Roland’s downfall, is figured as Judas. He betrays Roland by telling the Saracens (pagans and therefore enemies of Christianity) how they can ambush and kill the skilled warrior. Interestingly, Ganelon betrays Roland for reasons of pride rather than money. In his conversation with the pagans, Ganelon remarks: “If someone can bring about the death of Roland, / the Charles would lose the right arm of his body” (1266). The author draws a parallel between Roland and Jesus Christ, who in Christian mythology is often described as the “right hand” of God. Roland’s death re-enforces the allegorical character of the epic. Attempting to alert his supporters that his army has been ambushed, Roland blows his horn so hard that he dies of sheer effort. Almost immediately, his soul is taken directly to Heaven by angels. Accordingly, the language used in the death scene recalls the Biblical episode of The Passion: “Roland the Count feels: his sight is gone; / gets on his feet, draws on his final strength, /the color on his face lost now for good” (1301). Christian allegory is used to justify not just the church, but the particular Crusade the church was promoting at the time of the epic’s composition. Insofar as Roland’s death is presented as noble, the scene reminds readers of the Christian value of sacrifice: holy war is justifiable because its warriors must suffer as Jesus Christ suffered for the common good of the people. The Song of Roland is used to promote the idea of Holy War as a necessary sacrifice that elevates the warrior to the status of Jesus Christ. Written somewhere between 1386 and 1400, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a late-medieval text, and as such, marked by the serious conflict surrounding the Catholic Church during this period. Lee Patterson, in his introduction to Chaucer in the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, underestimates the importance of religious doubt in Chaucer’s writing. “Oddly enough”, he writes, “[most] of these events [within and surrounding the church] find only the barest mention in Chaucer’s poetry” (1697). As other critics have noted, however, Chaucer’s texts often deal extensively with religion on a subtextual level. Bisson notes that Chaucer had friends in common with John Wyclif and thus extensive connections to the critics of the church (58). Similarly, Helen Phillips argues that much of Chaucer’s writing can be characterized as “anticlerical fabliaux”, a common literary technique of the late Middle Ages that satirized, and thus undermined, church authority (104). Phillips also notes the subversive gesture of Chaucer’s choice to write in vernacular English, as opposed to Latin, the official language of Roman Catholicism and, as such, a marker of the elitism that characterized the Medieval church. Well aware of the growing literacy among the people of the lower classes, Chaucer’s use of vernacular English made his works – unlike the Bible – accessible to everyone across a wide class stata. His particular sympathy for people in the lower strata of the social hierarchy is registered throughout his writing. As Phillips argues, Chaucer’s depiction of peasants “[…] is empathetic, unpatronising, and respectful”. He contrasts “their sound moral judgement, sense of fair play and disgust with rogues [with] the arrogant clerical predators” (106). Aligning himself with the critics of the church, whose skepticism was frequently directed at its most powerful members, Chaucer presented the upper members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as hateful and corrupt, and his few examples of good religious figures are of the lowest status (107). Religious issues permeated many aspects of Chaucer’s writings, even those texts dealing only indirectly with the church. In The Canterbury Tales, his most famous work, Chaucer uses characterization and imagery to subtly critique the corruption and tyranny of church authority. For example, the Miller, a character seemingly unassociated with the church, is among Chaucer’s most potent vehicles for voicing religious doubt. As the Miller prepares to tell his tale, he says, “I’ll tell a golden legend and a life,” which, as Nicholas Watson notes, is a common phrase used to describe the stories told of saints’ lives in the time. Chaucer is “stripping [Christianity] of its pretensions,” by describing the Miller’s vile tale of adultery with language of a holy text (52). The Miller thus announces his tale as a satire of the seriousness with which people at the time approached religion, and the authority it had over them. The content of the Miller’s tale also has a subtext of religious doubt. The Miller tells the story of Alison, a young woman who is married to a carpenter named John. Alison is having an affair with Nicholas, an Oxford student, and is also the object of the clerk Absolon’s unrequited affections. The sexuality and crudeness of the tale establishes it as a profane story that is inherently at odds with Christian doctrine, which legislates against sins of the flesh. However, the Miller’s tale has numerous religious references. Introducing Nicholas to the reader, the Miller sings “Angelus to the Virgin,” an ancient prayer that, when used to describe adultery, becomes sacriligious(1720). Similarly, after Nicholas and Alison decide to trick John in order that they can become lovers, Chaucer writes: Now in her Christian duty, one saint’s day, To the parish church this good wife made her way, And as she went her forehead cast a glow As bright as noon, for she had washed it so It glistened when she finished with her work.(1722)Chaucer uses juxtaposition here to sacriligious effect. The images of cleanliness and purity “bright”, “glow”, “glistened”), as well as the fact that Alison goes to church “in her Christian duty”, establish the character as a hypocrite. Alison is incriminated by her zeal for the church, and vice versa. If this is a woman who upholds her “Christian duty”, Chaucer suggests, then Christianity leaves a lot to be desired. The trickery that Alison and Nicholas create in order to prevent her husband from discovering their adultery also takes a blatant jab at Christianity. The lovers use the story of Noah and the Great Flood from the Bible to coerce John into believing another flood is coming. The exchange of Biblical scripture for sexual gain suggests that Chaucer felt the church was often used as a means to an end (usually sexual or monetary) rather than as a path to spiritual fulfullment. Similarly, in a later episode, Absolon tries to woo Alison from outside her bedroom window by using images and language from the Biblical “Song of Songs”. What is interesting about the “Song of Songs” is that while it is a love song in the Bible, it is interpreted by clergy as a representation of the pure love between God and humans. Here, however, Absolon uses it to attempt to woo a married woman, an act that reverses the official purpose of the text. The many perversions of Biblical scripture work together in the Miller’s Tale to form a sort of comedic interpretation of the hypocrisy of the authority and actions of the Medieval Christian church. While there are many religious figures portrayed in a negative light in The Canterbury Tales, the most deplorable is the Pardoner. A pardoner’s job was to sell papal indulgences, pre-written slips of paper which gave forgiveness to a sinner in exchange for an act of retribution and a donation of money to the church. The pardoner became an important figure within the church in the 13th century, when the full doctrine of purgatory was established (Phillips 105). This doctrine defined purgatory as a place of short-term punishment for sinners who were not completely absolved at death, but who had not committed sins bad enough to be banished to hell for all eternity. Indulgences could be bought either for a living person or for a deceased loved one, to decrease the amount of time spent in purgatory. Naturally, these indulgences became a large source of corruption in the church. Some pardoners falsified the documents in order to earn extra money for themselves, and laity felt free to indulge in sin because they could simply purchase forgiveness. Even within this corrupt profession, Chaucer’s Pardoner is particularly despicable. In the first paragraph of his Prologue, he announces that his sermon is always based on the phrase, “Radix malorum est cupiditas,” or “Avarice is the root of all evil” (1757). He then immediately begins to describe how he uses religion for his own material gain by selling false relics and forged indulgences. Directly contradicting his own sermon, the Pardoner reinforces the subtext of religious doubt that runs throughout The Canterbury Tales. His hypocrisy is further compounded by the content of his tale, which is presented as a moral lesson and involves three men who die because of their own greed. In the General Prologue, the description of the Pardoner suggests what Phillips calls his “spiritual barrenness” (149). He is described as having long blonde hair, no facial hair, and a high-pitched voice, qualities that suggest he is effeminate. He is also described as being very fashionable, also a feminine trait. Accordingly, the narrator observes: “I think he was a gelding or a mare,” (1715). The implication is that the Pardoner is either a eunich or a homosexual, both figures who would have represented complete fruitlessness and barrenness during the Middle Ages. His own physical infertility suggests his even greater spiritual infertility (Phillips 149). In contrast to the Pardoner, the Parson in The Canterbury tales is portrayed sympathetically. The Parson is of the lowest class of clergy, and his positive characterization suggests Chaucer’s religious criticism was directed at the upper strata of the church. He is described in the General Prologue as “a good man of the priests’ vocation, / A poor town Parson of true consecration, / But he was rich in holy thought and work” (1710). A man who truly cares for his congregation, the Parson hates to discipline someone who has not been able to pay tithes. Accordingly his tale is structured less as a story than as a sermon. The parson’s tale suggests that his piety is sincere: indeed, a pious religious figure would not waste time telling light-hearted stories when he could instead be spreading the word of God. Unlike the Pardoner, the lower class Parson truly follows his own preaching. As a comparison of two Medieval works indicates, the intense conflict surrounding the Catholic church in the latter half of the period distinguishes early Medieval literature from later works. In the Song of Roland, which was composed before the major problems of dissent, disease, and corruption led to public doubt in religious authority, the church is depicted as the ultimate good triumphing over the ultimate evil, which is figured by Islam. The author does not appear to question whether Holy War was truly holy. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, however, the author voices serious skepticism about the church’s influence and motives. Chaucer, himself a man of faith, does not attack Christianity as a belief system, but rather as an organized religion. He reserves his harshest criticism for the corruption and hypocrisy of the clergymen in the upper strata of the church hierarchy. As The Song of Roland reflects the success of Christianity’s rise to power in the early Middle Ages, so The Canterbury tales registers the beginning of the church’s internal fragmentation and diminishing credibility among the public. Works CitedBisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Theodore Morrison. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Heather James et al. New York: Norton, 2005. 1696-1759.Dominik, Mark. “Holy War in The Song of Roland: The `Mythification’ of History”. Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal 2 (2003). 2-8.Patterson, Lee. “Geoffrey Chaucer”. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Heather James et al. New York: Norton, 2005. 1696-1701.Phillips, Helen. An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales. New York: Palgrave 2000.”The Song of Roland”. Trans. Frederick Goldin. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. New York: Norton, 2005. 1247-1316.Watson, Nicholas. “Christian Ideologies”. A Companion to Chaucer. Ed. Peter Brown. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 75-90.
More Similar Than They Perceive
In our modern world, the frequency of terrorist activity and the ubiquitous threat of attack has greatly affected the way Western culture has come to regard the religion of Islam. Skewed by the media, society’s perceptions have reverted to the views of its European predecessors. It seems the negative attitude toward Islam that so defines today’s political landscape stretches as far back as the High Middle Ages, and with this being such a prevalent and powerful force, it is important to examine the roots of this idea as it pertains to evil. Much like today, though to a generally far lesser extent, the Western Europeans in The Song of Roland and the Muslims in the Koran believe their doctrines to be so different that a peaceful coexistence seems impossible when in actuality their beliefs, particularly regarding the notion of evil, are very similar. To both cultures, evil is defined as rejecting the will of God; however, in examining the intricacies of their notions of evil, further similarities will be revealed. This essay will discuss how the Islamic and Western European cultures conceptualize evil in their respective texts, which will enhance the understanding of the long-time rivalry that has existed between these cultures, in that their misunderstood notions of one another obscure the fact that many of their beliefs are alike. Both Islam and Christianity focus on the notions of deception, namely hypocrisy and trickery, and bartering of one’s soul for material goods and personal glory as sources of evil; therefore, their values are not as different as they misperceive, rather they are essentially one in the same. In the Koran, evil comes in many forms, one of which is deception, which is constituted by three actions: accepting then renouncing the faith, falsely representing oneself as a believer, and trying to hide God’s revelations. The Koran censures the people who commit such acts as these by saying that those who “break His covenant after accepting it, and put asunder what He has bidden to the united…these will surely be the losers” (2.12). Also to be guarded against are “those that hide the clear proofs and the guidance We have revealed” (2.25) because they try to steer believers away from the path of God. All of these prohibited actions may cause followers to be corrupted, which seems to be what the Koran fears most about the practice of deception. This statement is less applicable to the Koran’s notion of hypocrisy, which says that the hypocrites “deceive none save themselves, though they may not perceive it” (2.11). Here the Koran expresses two notions regarding hypocrisy: that the faithful are strong enough to discern truth from fiction, and that this evil dulls one’s sense of perception, an outcome elaborated on in the likening of hypocrites to “beasts which, call out to them as one may, can hear nothing but a shout and a cry” (2.26), deafened and blinded by their evil. Under the same realm of hypocrisy, those who pretend to be faithful for personal benefit are also evil, as God “will not forgive those who do evil and, when death comes to them, say: ‘Now we repent'” (4.62)! From the negative consequences for such deception described, it is obvious that such actions are condemned. Insincere proclamation of faith for personal benefit is evil as well in The Song of Roland. In this text, evil is identified with the Saracens who refuse to submit to Christianity; therefore, any of their actions may also be considered evil. This holds true for the pagan king Marsile, who dispatches ten envoys to tell the Christian emperor Charlemagne, “that before a single month has passed, I’ll bring to France a thousand of my men, there be converted” (Roland.82-81) when in reality he has no intention of keeping this promise. This is not the first instance Marsile has shown treachery; as Roland recalls, he once sent a message of peace, but when Charlemagne “sent two Counts as envoys to the King…they left their heads on a hill near Haltilies” (207-9)! With this history of deception, it is fitting, even imperative, that a pagan be made an example and punished for his kinsmen’s crimes. This comes when a Saracen feigns death and tries to rob Roland, who “strikes the helmet…smashes the skull and bones; he puts both eyes out of the pagan’s head and sends the body crashing into the ground” (2288-91). This gruesomeness shows that trickery is not only unprofitable but detrimental to one who commits such a crime. As deception is reproved in both The Song of Roland and the Koran, so is the act of bartering, namely one’s soul or morality for material goods and personal glory. Written in a world where evil is equated with the love of the material obtained by trade over God, the Koran says of these infidels, “Evil is that for which they have bartered away their souls” (Koran.2.18). Here the term “barter” is introduced as a manner in which one may obtain evil. It continues, denouncing “those that barter guidance for error and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they seek the fire … [and those who] cast the Scriptures over their backs and sold them for a paltry price…Evil was their bargain” (2.27-3.59). Examining these quotes in the historical context in which they were written, it is appropriate that barter be seen in this negative light. Mohammed, the chief preacher of the Koran, was a social critic born into a Meccan trading family. Unhappy with his wicked society, he attributed its evils to the very barter which ran it. Mirroring these thoughts, the Koran says “They sell God’s revelations for trifling gain and debar others from his path. Evil is what they do” (9.134), reproaching the evil traders. In The Song of Roland, bartering is also condemned as the two symbols of evil, Marsile and the traitor Ganelon, put their own countrymen at stake for personal glory. Marsile does this twice. First he offers twenty pagan hostages to Charlemagne saying, “We’ll have to yield the sons our wives have borne – it’s certain death but I will send my own” (Roland.42-3). Then he trades his people and land to the pagan Baligant to fulfill his own personal quest to defeat Charlemagne, saying “Baligant has rights in Spain; he’ll have my kingdom” (2747-8). This bartering is not exclusive to the ruler of the pagans; his subjects share this susceptibility to exchange evil for material wealth when Marsile promises, “If you persuade the King, much gold and silver shall be your thanks from me, fiefdoms and land” (74-6). The pagans’ reply of “That’s all we require” (77) shows they care only about their reward and not the evil means they must use to achieve it. Ganelon also succumbs to the lure of barter when he trades the lives of twenty thousand Franks for land and the recovery of his honor by killing Roland, who caused him to “suffer such pain he nearly splits with rage” (304-5). From this description of such intense anger, Ganelon’s motive is most obviously the humiliation he endured at the hands of Roland. Because both these men are evil, their actions are also considered evil by the texts. Although both these religions in their own works agree about the pitfalls and sinfulness inherent in deception and barter, it may be argued that the texts’ notions of evil diverge at the treatment of evil-doers, who in this instance are the nonbelievers. The Koran teaches a blind-eye policy, saying “do not make friends with any but your own people” (Koran.3.52). It continues that “It is no concern of yours whether He will forgive or punish them” (3.53), which means the nonbelievers are to be ignored. Even their monotheistic cousins are not to be trusted, as they are to “take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another” (5.85). Not only are they to shun them, but they are to doubt them, for “if an evil-doer brings you a piece of news, inquire first into its truth” (49.363). One of the most telling statements, “If God afflicts you an evil, none can remove it but He” (6.94), demonstrates why Muslims are not to try to convert other religions’ members. They should not waste time trying to achieve the impossible but rather make sure that they themselves are completely submitted to God’s will. On the other hand, The Song of Roland takes place during the Crusades, at the end of “seven long years [of] war in Spain” (Roland.2), when the active spread of Christianity was a prevalent and guiding force. Talking to his comrades, the hero Roland outlines the ideal knight, “crushing vile pagans, who cannot see the light” (2211-4), meaning that those who refuse to convert are to be destroyed. However, if they allow themselves to be baptized, action is mitigated to peaceful conversion, which is shown when Marsile tells Charlemagne that a thousand pagans will be christened. Judging by Charlemagne’s joyful reaction to the prospect of a society where “no pagan now remains who isn’t dead or one of the true Faith” (101-2), it is inferred that this world where all nonbelievers are either dead or converts is the Christian ideal. The argument that these religions differ in this way applies only under peaceful circumstances. When the evil-doers wage war against God Islam converges with Christianity once again. In this case, Muslims are instructed to retaliate, to “fight valiantly for His cause, so that you may triumph” (5.83). As demonstrated earlier, Christianity employs a similar remedy: a “convert or be destroyed” policy which often ends with the destruction of the pagans. Moreover, in the Koran the infidels are to be “slain or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the land” (5.83). The Song of Roland instructs an equally violent action by saying, “The Franks of France have struck with a mighty force; enormous numbers of Saracens are slain…no king on earth can boast of better men” (1438-42). By lionizing such actions, the book applauds the merciless destruction of those who refuse the faith.By examining the notions of evil as represented in these texts depicting two seemingly different religions, it has been revealed that although tension between Islam and Christianity has existed for over a thousand years, the two faiths take similar standpoints on the notion of evil. While the authors of The Song of Roland and the Koran attempt to vilify and discredit the other religion, the views expressed by these texts are in actuality essentially one in the same when compared. Born from the same Abrahamic tradition, Christianity and Islam unite in their beliefs, and out of this revelation these two long-standing rivals may learn to peacefully co-exist.
The Effect of Feudalism on its Contemporary Texts
The French epic The Song of Roland (ca. 1100) loudly echoes the feudal values of its time. As it describes the transformation of France into a Christian nation united by loyalties to the king and country, the epic embodies the spirit of loyalty between a lord to his vassal. Although “Aucassin and Nicolette” is also an anonymous piece written in the same French vernacular at approximately the same point, it seems to be moving in an alternate direction. As a medieval romance, it also describes the same feudal society, yet appears to treat the situation more satirically. Nevertheless, despite the satire in “Aucassin and Nicolette”, it remains alongside The Song of Roland as a chronicle of the age of feudalism, and thus both reinforce values promoted at the time. By the twelfth century, feudalism, which began in France during the eighth and ninth centuries under Charlemagne, had captured the governmental principles of much of Europe, including England, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Sicily and Byzantium. The Feudal system changed according to time and place, yet adhered to the two main principles of warfare and land. The lord and the vassal swore allegiance (fealty) to each other, and thus the feudal ties relationships of loyalty and mutual trust were established. The lesser warrior-landholder (the vassal) would ensure a personal army to the greater warrior-landholder (the lord) in exchange for individual security and land (fief) which was guaranteed as hereditary possession if all promises were met. Even land held by the Church was considered feudal land, and archbishops, bishops and abbots were granted fiefs in exchanged for their reciprocal allegiance with the dukes, princes and kings. The relationship between the lords of certain countries to their rulers mirrored this model, and the feudal monarch was considered holy and divinely chosen. The Song of Roland resonates with the feudal values that typified Europe at the time of its composition. Roland, the great warrior, is the perfect vassal to his lord, the emperor Charlemagne, the head of the Holy Roman Empire, responsible for defending and expanding Christendom. Charlemagne, “two hundred years old”(l. 539), is described as almost god-like, proving his divine status as the feudal monarch of “sweet Francethe right arm of his body.” (l. 1194-5) Roland, “a fighter, there¹s no vassal like him under the vault of heaven” (l. 544), is courageous, even foolishly so. When Oliver begs him to blow the horn to enlist help in what seems to be a futile battle, the warrior values intrinsic to Roland as a vassal propel his refusal. Instead, he answers, “may it not please God and his angels and saints to let France lose its glory because of me – let me not end in shame, let me die first. The Emperor loves us when we fight well.” [my emphasis](ll. 1090-1094) As leader of the rearguard, his job is to protect the army and the king, and thus to call for help would be a betrayal of his commitment. He finally agrees to blow the horn when it is too late.As Roland senses his imminent death, he attempts to break his sword that encompasses holy relics, lest it fall into pagan hands. As he breaks it against a stone, he recounts all that he has done for Charlemagne and the many victories he has won for him. “For a long while a good vassal held you: there¹ll never be the like in France¹s holy land.” (l. 2311-2) He prepared for his death by confessing his sins and remembering “Charles, his lord, who fostered him.” (l. 2381) This exemplifies the relationship of reciprocity between the lord and vassal, epitomizing Charlemagne as the perfect lord, and Roland as the perfect vassal. Roland as the perfect vassal is emphasized in the thematic sub-climax of the epic. When Ganelon is chosen to an emissary to King Marsilion, which he will subsequently take as an opportunity to betray the Frank forces and his stepson, he drops the glove that Charlemagne hands him as an investment of his authority. Roland, however, upon his appointment as rearguard, unwittingly stepping into the trap that Ganelon has treacherously placed before him, makes a show of not dropping the lance handed to him by Charlemagne. This proves their positions when it comes to their lord. Roland would do anything for Charlemagne. He refuses to call for help until its too late because he wished to defend his king. Even when he senses his death, he attempts to break his sword so that the pagans will never take over the Christians. In contrast, Ganelon, fueled by a personal hatred of Roland, proves treacherous to his lord. As the feudal compact requests, the vassal must have absolute loyalty to his lord in return for the lord¹s favor. Ganelon betrayed Charlemagne, yet until his end, Roland maintained his absolute devotion.Unlike The Song of Roland, “Aucassin and Nicolette” does not glorify the feudal system. Although Aucassin, the heir of Count Garin of Beaucaire, is instructed by his father to “take up [his] arms, mount [his] horse, defend [his] land and help [his] vassals” (II), Aucassin rejects the entire system of values, affirming instead that he would rather be with his “sweet friend” Nicolette. His, and later her, rejection of patrimony, a value integral to feudal society, gives hint to the author¹s approach to the context in which the story was composed. The very fact that Nicolette is called his “sweet friend” implies equality in their relationship, whereas women were not even mentioned in The Song of Roland. In general, the role of women in feudal society was that of the maiden in need of savior, not as an equal. “Aucassin and Nicolette” cannot escape the standards of its time, and Nicolette does require saving, yet she shows her independence as she escapes from her own prison and made her way through the forest alone. Nevertheless, “her beautiful hands and feet, which had never been accustomed to [walking across the bottom of the moat] were scratched and torn”(XVI), and Aucassin, “his mind so firmly fixed on Nicolettefell so hard on to a stone that his shoulder was dislocated”(XXIV). The gender reversal in Torelore, where the king is in “childbed”(XXIX, 9) and the queen leads the war with “A supply of fresh cheeses/ Rotten crab-apples/ And large mushrooms from the fields”(XXXI, 6-8) further exemplify the author¹s satire on the treatment of women in the feudal society.In addition to the gender reversal in Torelore, the community¹s attitude towards war also greatly differs from The Song of Roland and feudal society in general. Aucassin, raised to be a knight, attempted to help the war effort by striking “right and left, killing many”, yet was admonished by the king, because it was not their “custom to kill each other” (XXXII). To the feudal society, the role of the warrior is optimum, yet in Torelore, war is being treated as a game. The inhabitants give rule to the king, food is used as ammunition, and victory is not worthy of death. Yet despite its satirical costume, the story is unable to free itself of the values of its time. Nicolette must gain status as a princess in order to marry Aucassin, and even if that is another vehicle to parody the standards of status by revealing her true origin when it was needed, the fact remains that it was necessary in order to complete the story successfully. Even as a satire, it succeeds in imitating exactly that which it is satirizing. It becomes the ultimate medieval romance, because through all the tests given to both Aucassin and Nicollete they maintain their love for one another and the result is one of “happily ever after”. Even though the author might have been attempting to mock the typical feudal society, he was nevertheless unable to escape the context surrounding the parody. Certain values may seem inherent, and even as one realizes the absurdity of their current situation, many things remain logical until viewed in retrospect. Though “Aucassin and Nicolette” is a satire of the feudal society, often mocking the very values intrinsic to the social order, in contrast to The Song of Roland, which glorifies that very order, it nonetheless fails to escape several innate values of its circumstance. However, as a genre, The Song of Roland illustrates the feudal compact and the reciprocal relationship of the lord to his vassal wholly, while “Aucassin and Nicolette” attempts to do just the opposite. Since both were written from a French perspective of feudal society, they are both case in point analyses of the period that they represent.
Roland: Death by Ego
In the Song of Roland, the protagonist, Roland, faces his death as the end consequence of his self-conceited and prideful actions. In the beginning of the poem Oliver indicated the consistent prideful behavior of Roland in the past. Roland then proves Oliver’s point by fighting with only his own intentions in mind. In the end, Roland pays for his pride by the defeat of his army and his personal death. Therefore, the actions of Roland throughout the poem that are consistently completed out of pride lead to his imminent death.
Oliver, the close friend of Roland, presents Roland’s past behavior as prideful. King Charlemagne asks for a volunteer to deliver the message to Marsile, the Muslim emir, to which “Roland replies: ‘I am prepared to go.’/ ‘You certainly will not,’ said Count Oliver, / ‘Your temperament is most hostile and fierce, / I am afraid you might pick a quarrel / If the king wishes, I am prepared to go’” (254-258). In this section, Oliver tells Roland of how his temperament would get him in trouble if the king were to send him to Marsile. Roland’s temperament is prideful by always finding a way to start a fight. Roland wanting to “pick a quarrel” is the result of him always believing he is right, showing his pride. Oliver warns his best friend about his temperament, saying that it could lead to a squabble which would lead to a battle. If Roland’s temperament is described being “hostile” and “fierce”, it will not provide the stability that an army needs to win a battle. In a way, Oliver not only is giving a glimpse into the past, saying it is Roland’s typical nature to be prideful, but also is foreshadowing Roland dying by result of his prideful temperament. Oliver, a very close friend of Roland, gives a history of Roland’s behavior, saying it would not be unlikely for him to stir up trouble out of his own pride. Also, Roland himself shows this by stirring up trouble in battle by fighting for himself.
The next point is that Roland fights with only his intentions in mind, not focusing on the big picture. Oliver suggests to Roland that he should blow the oliphant to signal Charlemagne to help in battle against the overwhelming Muslim force coming up upon them. But then, “Roland replies: ‘That would be an act of folly; / Throughout the fair land of France I should lose my good name / Straightway I shall strike great blows with Durendal; / Right up to its golden hilt the blade will run with blood. / These treacherous pagans will rue the day they came to this pass. / I swear to you, they are all condemned to death’” (1053-1058). In this quote, Roland is refusing to blow the horn because it will make his reputation go down in the eyes of all the Franks. He is so focused on his good reputation, he completely misses the magnitude of the Muslim army. Instead of focusing on the outcome of the battle, he focuses on making sure that he looks good to others back home. He does not show even the slightest consideration for his soldiers’ lives, amplifying his own skills in the battle. His narrow-minded frame of the battle puts his men’s lives on the line, which leads to devastating consequences in the end.
Roland’s prideful actions lead him to his imminent downfall in battle. Just as the tide turns on the battlefield and the Franks begin to lose men left and right, Oliver gives his honest opinion of Roland’s decision to not blow the oliphant. “For a true vassal’s act, in its wisdom, avoids folly; / Caution is better than great zeal. / Franks are dead because of your recklessness / Charles will never again receive our service. / If you had heeded me, my lord would now be here; / We should have fought this battle and won it. / Roland, we can only rue your prowess” (1724-1731). It was too late for Roland to call for help since Charlemagne could not come to their aid before the battle ends. According to Oliver, Roland putting his army in a weak position by not calling for help was extremely reckless. Roland is responsible for the lives of his men that died as a result of the battle. Roland is not able to sacrifice his pride and ego for the safety of his men, but waits until all hope was lost in order to try to change the battle.The consequence of Roland’s action shows his prideful intent. Roland’s characteristic flaw is his pride, consistent before the poem begins up to his death. Oliver tells of Roland’s pride from a time earlier than a poem and warning him to be on the watch so that his pride will not lead to his death.
Roland’s pride is not a characteristic he recently picks up, but rather part of his personality. By fighting with his own intentions in mind and not blowing the oliphant, he proves Oliver’s point by performing this prideful action. The very same action causes him to lose the battle and his own life. Therefore, Roland displays self pride throughout the poem which affects his decision to not blow the horn, concluding with his defeat in battle and his own demise.
When Men Cry: Grief and Masculinity in the Song of Roland
Masculine identity in The Song of Roland is grounded in emotional experience. From knights on the battlefield to King Charlemagne, men throughout the poem frequently weep or faint because of the intensity of their emotions. Contrary to expectations of medieval gender roles, male expressions of grief in The Song of Roland are crucial in defining and constructing acceptable forms of manhood. Performances of strong emotion during times of war are central to the male-dominated feuding culture—these descriptions provide a model of honorable conduct for knighthood and a method of legitimizing political acts of violence.
Stephen D. White’s essay “The Politics of Anger” from Anger’s Past: Social Uses of Emotion in the Middle Ages provides important historical context for the analysis of emotion and masculinity. He asserts that men operated under “well understood conventions about when it was proper to display emotion” (White 137). Emotions typically expressed in the home differed from those considered appropriate among other nobles or on the battlefield. For Roland and his men, grief is especially crucial while at war, because a lack of emotion could be considered an insult to king and country. White also explains that emotion had “a well-defined place in political scripts” and could serve as a catalyst for political action (152). Grief was a means of garnering sympathy during conflicts, particularly among the male nobility. Descriptions of emotions had the power to “inspire pity for the alleged victim and provoke anger and violence at the victimizers” (144). In this way, displays of anger or grief acted as a public demonstration of the wrongs that had been suffered and the injury towards one’s honor. Medieval emotion for men was inextricably associated with the politics of the nobility. Representing emotion in literature was not a neutral act, rather these portrayals were used as a strategic tool to moralize conflicts or regain social power.
Due to the lack of significant female influence in the narrative, The Song of Roland establishes a form of masculinity that allows for a much broader range of emotional expression. The two named female characters, Aude and Queen Bramimonde, are sidelined from the main conflict and have little agency. Masculine elements of violence, warfare and brotherhood dominate the core of the story, and the manhood of its characters is rarely brought into question. Even the horses are described in exaggerated and competitive terms: “There is no falcon who’d beat him in a race” (60). This transforms the narrative into a space where male is the cultural default and masculinity is defined in relation only to other men. Because The Song of Roland establishes the masculine identity in a purely male-dominated space, extremes of emotion are deemed more acceptable and natural than if there were female characters to compare it to.
Masculinity in The Song of Roland emphasizes an emotional code of conduct that applies to knighthood, suggesting that grief—displayed through physical acts such as crying and fainting—is an honorable response to suffering on the battlefield. Grief is directly tied to the role of knighthood when Roland weeps for his fallen men “as a true knight would do” (72). In this scene, mourning is shown to be the essential response to tragedy and the ultimate expression of male devotion. The weeping, fainting and suffering of men demonstrates a heightened sense of loyalty to the king and the nation of France. Rather than being a sign of weakness, the emotional sensitivity of Roland, Charlemagne and their knights is shown to exemplify the loyalty and honor of knighthood. Although strong emotion is associated with honor on the battlefield, Ganelon’s portrayal as a dishonorable figure indicates the vital role that context plays in defining acceptable standards of emotion. When Roland laughs at him during a meeting with the King’s closest barons, Ganelon “suffers such pain he nearly splits with rage” and “comes close to falling in a faint” (13). He is directly contrasted with Roland in terms of emotional states: Ganelon’s feelings seem to border on hysterical when compared to Roland’s rationality and self-control. While Ganelon demonstrates extreme emotion and its physical manifestations, he does so in a way that is outside the context of war. In this way, Ganelon’s emotions are set apart from those of the characters who exemplify honorable knighthood. His outburst ultimately serves to introduce his most dishonorable act—betraying Roland and his men to the Saracens. By expressing and acting upon his emotions outside of the framework of war, Ganelon is characterized as unmanly both through his lack of honor and his emotional performance outside the acceptable limits of masculinity.
Beyond the social implications of honor and knighthood, male demonstrations of grief in The Song of Roland also serve an essential political purpose. Upon witnessing the deaths of many of his men, Roland is described as “grieving and filled with bitter rage” (79). This direct contrast, as well as the consistent use of sorrow to motivate violent acts against the Saracens, indicates that grief and violence are closely connected in the narrative. The most explicit connection between grief and revenge occurs as Charlemagne prepares his men for the final battle by telling them to “avenge your griefs and thus relieve your feelings and your hearts” (135). While the Pagans must be tempted with material gifts such as “wives” and “fiefdoms,” the Franks are shown to be compelled towards violence by a deep loyalty and sympathy for their fellow knights (126). Not only does this legitimize the violence of the Franks, but it paints Roland and his men as the righteous heroes of the narrative.
Despite the fact that women were typically characterized as the more emotional sex in the Middle Ages, The Song of Roland redefines traditional manhood to include expressions of powerful emotions. Even as men faint and weep on the battlefield, they strengthen their sense of loyalty, brotherhood and honor and rationalize the use of violence to achieve political ends.