Close Reading for the Song of Roland

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The Song of Roland

An epic poem estimated
to have been written
between 1130 and 1170, The Song of Roland relates the latter part of Charlemagne's conquest of Spain from a Christianized point of view reminicent of the Crusades. The author's (or copyist's, as some argue) name is given at the end of the epic as Turoldus, most likely a monk or member of the clergy, though no one knows for sure (Roland, pg 14).

Translated by Glenn Burgess, this verion of the poem contains 298 stanzas. It gives a detailed, though not necessarily historically accurate account of the betrayal of Roland, a knight of King Charles, by his stepfather Ganelon as the Frankish campaign in Islamic Spain came to a close. King Marsile of Saragossa, the only city yet to be conquered by King Charles, strikes a deal with Ganelon to save his land from Frankish control by eliminating Ganelon's rival, Roland. As Charles and his army return to France, Marsile attacks the rearguard, captained by Roland at Ganelon's insistance, and kills all twenty thousand of Roland's knights. Roland, the last Frank on the battlefield, dies most spectacularly in a scene beset with religious symbolism and clear exemlification of the values of knighthood.

In stanza 171, Roland has been injured in the battle. He has climbed to the top of a hill with four marble blocks and a tree, and there prepares for his impending death. Pale from blood loss due to numerous battle wounds, he uses the last of his strength to attempt to destroy his sword, Durendal. He strikes ten blows with it on a stone, fearing that it will be taken for spoils and given to a less worthy man. However, the sword will neither notch nor break, and the knight's anxiety mounts. He appeals to Saint Mary, saying "May you never be owned by a man who flees in battle!" (Roland, line 2,309) He is justified in his anxiety, as just two stanzas prior the sword was nearly looted from him while he was in a faint, presumed dead by a straggling Saracen. In stanza 174, after realizing that he is unable to shatter the sword, he lies down on his stomach beneath a pine tree, placing Durendal and his oliphant horn beneath his body, turning his head towards the Saracen host. He feels his death upon him and repents his sins. Memories of Charlemagne and France pass through his mind, and he weeps. Finally in stanza 176 his soul accends to heaven, accompanied by the Cherubin and the angels Michael and Gabriel.

This passage presents Roland as the epitome of perhaps the most vital personality of the time period: the christian knight. While the Song of Roland is plagued with historical inconsistencies (Roland was a Breton, not a Frank, and the Basques, not Muslim Spaniards, attacked the rearguard) (Roland, pg 10), passages such as this can provide some insight into the value system of the times without actually being reputable accounts of history.

The first important theme appearing in this passage is that of the weapon as a legacy. Roland tries to destroy his sword by bashing it against a rock, fearing that it will be taken up by a lesser man. He bestows heavy praise upon the weapon, recounting the battles it has won him and its many admirable physical attributes.

" ‘Oh Durendal, how fair and clear and white you are!
How you shimmer and sparkle in the sun!
Charles was in the Vales of Maurienne
When through his angel, God on high told him
to give you to a captain count.' "
(Roland, lines 2,316-20)
Roland next gives a rather detailed account of 17 places where the weapon prevailed in battle, including such farfetched boasts as the conquering of Constantinople, which did not ‘pay homage" (line 2,329) to any western ruler until it fell in 1204 during the fourth crusade (Christianity Faces Islam, lecture 7), and the conquering of England, Ireland and Scotland, which did not fall within Charlemagne's empire at any point in time (Hunt, pg 309). However, to the less educated listener of the Middle Ages,...
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