I read the Song of Roland recently, and of course I liked it, so this post will mostly be some of my favourite lines.
Roland and Olivier are good friends, the brotherly kind of friends who get ignored so much in modern fiction, or worse yet, turned into a love story. The story has to take care of other things than telling about friends, but their interactions make up quite a bit of the poem — things like Roland weeping for Olivier, or each cheering the other on to fight. And in the beginning, when HRM Charlemagne is asking for volunteers to go to the Saracen court, and Roland offers:
“You won’t, that’s sure,” says Count Olivier,
“your heart is acrimonius and proud;
I fear that you would get into a squabble.
But if it please the king, I’d like to go.”
At first I thought it didn’t make any sense: someone telling a man like Roland this to his face, in the presence of the king (in whose court you’d think a little more dignity would be the rule), and moreover someone who’s supposed to be on the same side? Not to mention that even the Saracens’ impression of Roland’s qualities doesn’t sound like this. But as I read more of their interactions I began to think it was just Olivier teasing his friend — yes, in front of the king. Who, by the way, sounds like he’s used to it, since his answer is simply “Be quiet, both of you!”
Later the poet describes the appearance of the approaching Saracens, as they looked to Olivier when he went up to higher ground to see what was going on, which is done in colourful detail, and then:
“He cannot even add up the battalions —
there are so many there he loses count —
and privately he feels quite disconcerted.”
This isn’t the only place the poet seems to have been really good at using understatement. Later, on the Franks’ fifth charge, Roland kills twenty-five of the best Saracens, and Turpin tells him
“You’re doing rather well!
Such gallantry a chevalier should have,
if he’s to carry arms and ride a horse.
He must be fierce and powerful in combat —
if not, he isn’t worth four deniers —
should be instead a monastery monk
and pray the livelong day for all our sins.”
(As a bit of a side note — I don’t think Turpin is saying it’s bad to be a monastery monk — I think he’s making allowance for different professions, and saying the kind of man suited to the contemplative life shouldn’t waste his time pretending at an active, and probably vice versa, knowing his vocation.)
A point in the battle where Marsilla, the Saracen king, sees that he’s losing a lot of men and orders a charge, might be my favourite part:
“Before them rides a Saracen, Abisme:
in all the troop there was no fouler man —
defiled by heinous crimes and evil deeds,
he doesn’t trust in God, Saint Mary’s son.
This man is just as black as molten pitch,
and treachery and murder he prefers
to having all the gold that’s in Galicia.
No man has ever seen him laugh or play,
yet he is very reckless and defiant:
for this he’s wicked King Marsilla’s pet.
He bears the dragon rallying his men.
The archbishop never will be fond of him.
On seeing him, he feels an urge to fight,
and very quietly he tells himself:
“This Saracen’s a heretic, I think.
It’s best by far that I should go and kill him;
I’ve never cared for cowardice or cowards.”
And so he does.
“He spits his body through from side to side
and throws him dead upon an open spot.
The Frenchmen all say: ‘Here’s a valiant man!
Salvation lies in our archbishop’s crook.’ “
(Turpin may be my favourite character.)
Someone, either Ganelon or one of the Saracens, says early on that the fighting will never stop until Roland is taken care of, because Charlemagne is not the one being warlike all on his own, it’s Roland’s egging him on that has been the main cause of this endless war. It’s true that Roland’s job is fighting his king’s enemies, and he doesn’t have a place at court apart from that. But Charlemagne’s words when he finds Roland’s body make it seem more as if Roland were a moderating influence on the army, rather than the opposite.
“Friend Roland, God be merciful to you!
No man so chivalrous has ever lived
to undertake great battles, and to end them.
My honour is beginning its decline.”
(Also, HRM has a very nice beard — people and the poet keep mentioning it.)
And then Charlemagne and the emir have a single combat, which is good in many ways. They take time to talk during it, each begging the other to stop, for various reasons. But one thing they both know is that “This battle cannot ever be concluded / till one of them confesses he is wrong”. For that alone I’d like to go back in time to see this battle. But wouldn’t it also be tremendously inspiring to see a 200-year-old king, whose beard is streaked with white, fighting on foot with a worthy enemy?
The emir proposes peace if Charlemagne becomes his vassal and comes and serves him in the East, to which the emperor replies:
“I owe no pagan either love or peace.
Accept the law that God reveals to us,
the Christian faith, and I’ll soon be your friend;
then serve the King Almighty, and believe.”
Says Baligant: “You preach an evil sermon!”
With the swords they girded on they now attack.
That sounds just a bit like an unpopular opinion these days. But look how unequivocal Charlemagne is! He doesn’t stop at “the law God reveals” and leave it vague so people can interpret that to cover both sides’ ideas. And Baligant takes him seriously.
A note about villains and antagonists: the poet makes it very clear to us how despicable Ganelon the traitor is, but allows him some good qualities, such as courage (which we see most notably when he’s alone in the Saracen camp and being threatened) and good looks. Also how the Saracens can be chivalrous. And look at Pinabel, who fights on Ganelon’s side in the trial by combat. This poet knew what very few writers of “Christian fiction” know, that to make your heroes look good you must give them worthy opponents. And by “worthy opponent” we mean not just a perfectly-evil-for-evil’s-artistic-sake kind of guy who only ever wears black and rubs his hands and chuckles evilly and says “Well, well, well, what have we here?” (I’ve got a protagonist who does all of those things, if I remember right), but someone who matches the good guys in whatever skill they clash in — fighting, whether with swords or words, for example.
The Franks aren’t perfect, though: they go a bit excessive with executions at the end, and there’s a brief mention of forced conversions. And I suppose one could argue that their joy at feats like Turpin’s is excessive, considering the souls lost. But they’d tried negiotiations before, we’re told, and when that failed and the Saracens kept coming, to refrain from battle would be wrong.