Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Reading The Song of Roland

 I picked up a copy of the French epic poem "The Song of Roland" to use as research for a project I was working on. Since I had the book, I figured I might as well read the whole poem (in English translation, though the book also has the French original). As someone who loves Renaissance Faires and finds Medieval history fascinating, I thought it sounded interesting and would perhaps give me some insights into the Medieval world. What I did not expect was how much insight it gave me into the modern world.

The Song of Roland is beautifully written, full of action and interesting characters. Yet it thoroughly reflects a set of values so ancient and foreign that it took me by surprise. For example, its depictions of masculinity. Throughout the poem, men, including and even especially manly, idealized men, show the type of intense emotions that modern men are supposed to forgo. Charlemagne, the wise, great emperor, one of the greatest Christian knights, falls to the ground in a faint and openly weeps when he sees how his most gallant knights have been betrayed and slain. Indeed, all the poem's heroes, including Roland and his noble companion Oliver, weep and mourn in a way that modern society too often frowns upon. Clearly, Medieval warriors did not believe that "boys don't cry."
The strong contrast between men's expected behavior today with the Medieval ideals shows just how unnatural the modern "stoic" ideal is. In the past, men were expected and encouraged to show strong emotions, including crying and mourning.
The poem seems strangely modern in other ways. The enemies that Roland and Charlemagne face are Muslims, though they're called pagans in the poem and shown worshiping a variety of gods, from Apollo to the made-up god Termagent. What's even stranger, the original battle that inspired "The Song of Roland" wasn't against Muslims at all, but against Christian Basques in the Pyrenees. The choice of Muslims as the enemy, despite its historical inaccuracy, and the complete lack of understanding of their religion, is all to common of the ignorance people express towards other religions even today. At least the poem depicts the Muslims as brave warriors and noble knights, despite their lack of the "true" faith. Still, it's easy to see how this poem reflects the deep roots of Islamophobia in Western culture.

I'd recommend this poem to anyone interested in understanding the perspectives and worldview of Medieval France. Its gripping depictions of brutal combat and the idealized versions of feudal life make it a compelling read, though there are long sections of descriptions that can get a bit tiring. 


  1. So many people will never read the Song of Roland - and miss its story and worldview.

    I have used it to create a fictional movie, called Roland, in my debut novel, Pride's Children. I did so with a combination of love and trepidation (I am a reader of the poem in parts, not a scholar), but there were real people behind the legends, and the poem fit the themes of the novel so well.

    If you are at all interested, let me know, and I can send you an electronic Review Copy. I'd love to know what your perspective might be. (I looked for a contact form - didn't find it - hope you don't mind me leaving this here. Alicia)

  2. No problem, I'm happy to read your ARC. I'm reading a lot of books right now, so I can't guarantee I'll get to it quickly, but I'm happy to take a look when I get a chance. My email is alexislantgen at gmail dot com.