Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Storytelling: The Song of Roland

Sunday Storytelling is a new selection of free-write space here in the No Kayfabe Zone. Rather than reviews or discussions about anything specific, Sunday Storytelling seeks to either be a (semi-regular) place to talk about favorite books and characters from the past or provide sample chapters of our own fiction.

A beautiful piece showing the entirety of The Song of Roland

Today, we're talking about the first great poetic chanson de geste epic, The Song of Roland, also known in its native French as La Chanson de Roland. More specifically, I want to talk about the main character and why I feel that Roland himself is one of the most magnetic pieces of medieval heroism.

There are many traits that exemplify a hero.  Strength, courage, loyalty, and skill are some of the things that make up a hero.  Every hero must also have a flaw in their character.  Roland of The Song of Roland satisfies each of these characteristics.  He is renowned for being a great warrior in battles.  Roland will enter battle even against great odds.  He will obey his king’s orders no matter what he is sent to do.  Also, his talent in battle is matched by no other.  His character has its flaws as well.  He is proud and sure of himself.  He has an extremely close relationship with his uncle, Charlemagne, yet his relationship with his stepfather, Ganelon, is very hateful.  Although Roland is prideful and does not give all his glory to God as the medieval poem wishes he did, he is still an honorable man and a heroic character.

Roland is a strong warrior and well known for his skill in battle.  Friend and foe are both amazed by Roland’s prowess in battle.  While speaking with Charlemagne, Roland speaks of the battles that he led and succeeded in:
I won Noples for you, I won Commibles,
I took Valterne and all the land of Pine,
And Balaguer and Tudela and Seville. 
(Song of Roland, Stanza 14, Lines 157 – 159)

 This obviously is to show Charlemagne that he is a strong warrior that has fought and won for him several times.  Only a powerful man could go through so many battles and gain victory every time.  His strength is far above average.  When he battles against the Saracen army, he begins battle against Marsilion’s nephew, Aelroth.  Aelroth insulted both Charlemagne and Roland, and Roland struck him with his lance and instantly tore him in two.  His power was so great that even another proud warrior was immediately destroyed when he opposes Roland.  As the battle went on, Roland became soaked in the blood of his enemies and called to Charlemagne for help.  His temple burst in his forehead and he continues to fight, despite the immense blood loss and pain that he is suffering from.  Marsilion attacks him and Roland answers:
“You kill my companions, how you wrong me!
You’ll feel the pain of it before we part, 
You will learn my sword’s name by heart today”; …
He has cut off Marsilion’s right fist;
Now takes the head of Jurfaleu the blond –
(Song of Roland, Stanza 142, Lines 867 – 872)

Only in his final moments does Roland call for help.
Dude has more pride than Vegeta

Even while he was losing blood rapidly, Roland continued to fight and cut off the hand of Marsilion and killed his son, Jurfaleu, with one swing of his sword.  He pushes himself afterwards to continue onwards, fighting and defeating his enemies.  He proves his strength by continuing on as he had promised to Charlemagne long before: 
“There was one thing that I heard Roland say:
he said he would not die in a strange land
before he’d passed beyond his men and peers,
he’d turn his face toward the enemies’ land
and so, brave man, would die a conqueror.”
farther ahead than one could hurl a stick, 
beyond them all, he has gone up a hill.” 
(Song of Roland, Stanza 204, Lines 1098 – 1104)
He continues on even though he suffers from mortal wounds so that he would be remembered as a strong man beyond any other.  Roland’s strength is unsurpassed.

Roland is a brave and loyal man in many ways.  When he is elected as the captain of the rear guard by Charlemagne, Roland does not dispute it.  He does not care about putting himself in danger, he only wishes to do whatever he can for Charlemagne, his king.  Roland has done everything he can to help Charlemagne succeed:
…and in his hand he held a bright red apple:
‘Dear Lord, here, take,’ said Roland to his uncle;
‘I offer you the crowns of all earth’s kings.’
(Song of Roland, Stanza 29, Lines 243 - 245)

Roland lived and died for Charlemagne,
but Charlemagne must mourn his friend.

Ever since that day, Roland has been conquering lands for Charlemagne to help make Charlemagne’s empire the greatest the world would ever know.  Even when he was elected to lead the rear guard, he refuses extra men from Charlemagne to make sure that Charlemagne would be kept safe.  He takes, instead, only twenty thousand men with him.  He is attacked by the Saracens, who greatly outnumber him with four hundred thousand men, and still does not call for help.  Instead he proudly yells:
I will strike now, I’ll strike with Durendal,
the blade will be bloody to the gold from striking!
These pagan traitors came to these passes doomed!
I promise you, they are marked men, they’ll die” AOI.
(Song of Roland, Stanza 83, Lines 547 – 550)
He orders his men to cry out, “Munjoie!” and enter battle.  Each man bravely follows orders and fights without fear.  Their belief in Roland is superb, since Roland has no fear, they are encouraged to fight and just as bravely enter the battlefield.  Roland is brave and loyal to the very bitter end.

Roland is an extremely proud man.  He believes in glory and honor above all else, even if it means his death.  When his fated battle with the Saracens is about to begin, he had the opportunity to call to Charlemagne on his olifant, but declined:
Now let each man make sure to strike hard here:
Let them not sing a bad song about us!
Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!
They’ll make no bad example of me this day!” AOI.
(Song of Roland, Stanza 79, Lines 525 – 528)

He will enter battle with pride and honor.  Roland, likely unknowingly, slips his feelings in this speech.  He speaks about all the men not being dishonored later on and about how Christianity is the right religion, but his true intent comes out when he says that they will not make a bad example of him.  He is so proud that dishonor is his greatest fear.  His pride is shown in many other ways as well.  When Oliver says that Ganelon had betrayed them and was a rotten traitor, Roland defends Ganelon: 
“Be still, Oliver,” Roland the Count replies.
“He is my stepfather – my stepfather.
I won’t have you speak one word against him.”
(Song of Roland, Stanza 80, Lines 537 – 540)

Roland will not even allow his hated stepfather to be ill spoken of in his presence because that can relate back and be a stain on Roland’s honor.  Later in the text, Roland had climbed atop a high hill facing Spain and defended his sword from a thief.  Blood was spilling from his ears and he drew his sword and struck the rocks with it ten times in attempt to shatter it:
The steel blade grates, it will not break, it stands unmarked.
“Ah!” said the Count, “Blessed Mary, your help!
Ah Durendal, good sword, your unlucky day,
for I am lost and cannot keep you in my care.
The battles I have won, fighting with you,
the mighty lands that holding you I conquered,
that Charles rules now, our King, whose beard is white!
Now you fall to another: it must not be
a man who’d run before another man!
For a long while a good vassal held you:
there’ll never be the like in France’s holy land.”
(Song of Roland, Stanza 171, Lines 1020 – 1030)

Durendal loosely means "To endure" and the
amazing blade will not shatter, even under Roland's strength

Roland wants to shatter his great blade, Durendal, because he knows that no man that comes to possess it will ever be as great as he is.  His sword was with him through all of his battles so if it fell into a weak man’s hands then it would be a disgrace to his sword and himself, so he would rather break his sword and have it die along with him.  Roland is very prideful and it is his main flaw.

Roland proves that he is a hero all throughout The Song Of Roland.  He is a brave warrior that will not tremble in the face of adversity.  He is a strong man of battle that strikes down everyone that opposes him.  He is a devoted man to his king, Charlemagne, and to a lesser extent to God.  Roland is also extremely proud and seeks glory wherever he can find it.  He is obsessed with the fact that when he dies, he and everything around him will be sung of as respected heroes.  Roland is a great hero, but his prideful flaw leads to his ultimate downfall.

As one of the first pieces of French literature and one of the oldest examples of propaganda (as it was likely made to drive men to fight for the Crusades), The Song of Roland bursts with such a shining example of battle and honor.

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