The Song of Roland

The medieval era was the era of epic poems. The English have Beowulf and the Spanish have The Poem of the Cid. In France, there is The Song of Roland. This poem has all the elements of a great story. It’s got betrayal—Roland, the main character, is betrayed by his stepfather, Ganelon. It has plenty of battles, which take place across the lands of Spain and France. It has medieval knights and chivalry and horses and armor and swords. It is, in every way, an epic.

The Christian author Dorothy Sayers once published an edition of The Song of Roland. In her introduction, she writes, “So, the grand outline of the poem defines itself—a private war set within a national war and the national war, again, within the world war of cross and crescent, this small circle center shakes the whole web.”

Sayers goes on to compare this epic to the great epic poem Iliad. She says, “Looked on, thus, as a whole, it has a much greater theme than that of the Iliad. This does not mean it is a greater poem; it is not by a long way. In style and technique it is primitive and has nothing to compare with Homer’s music and accomplishment. But in depicting, as both poems do, a struggle between two civilizations, the Christian poet is much more conscious of a serious purpose and the main spring of the action is something more important than the recapture of a wife or a quarrel about booty.”

Well, this main spring of action in The Song of Roland is, in fact, the battle that was taking place in medieval times between Christianity and Islam. And Roland finds himself in the center of this conflict. Having achieved some victories, he is on his way back to France when he is betrayed by his stepfather. The rearguard of his army is attacked by King Marsillion, who is the leader of the Muslim forces, and Roland is fatally wounded. The poet picks up the story:

The count Roland lay down beneath a pine,
his face to the land of Spain he’s turned as he lies,
and many things he begins to call to mind,
all the broad lands he has conquered in his time
and fairest France, and the men of his line,
and Charles, his lord, who bred him from a child.
He could not help but weep for them and sigh,
yet of himself he is mindful betimes,
he beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries,
“Father most true in whom there is no lie,
who didst from death St. Lazarus make to rise
and bring out Daniel safe from the lion’s might,
save thou my soul from danger and despite,
of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ
and from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign,
straightway his head upon his arm declines
with folded hands he makes an end and dies.
Roland is dead and heaven, God, hath his soul.

There it is, The Song of Roland, from an event that occurred in August 778, an epic poem.

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