Challenge #5: A classic originally published before 1800- The Song of Roland

(Note: while this poem was published in 1837- under the title La Chanson de Roland ou de Roncevaux- it was written down long before that time, during the twelfth century. )

The Song of Roland was one of those Salvation Army finds, and I was excited to have it.  But I was also intimidated to read it.  Old histories and ballads fascinate me, and yet there is usually something inside them that makes me melancholy.

Roland set the Oliphant to hi s lips.  He takes a firm grip of it and blows with all his might; the hills are high and the sound travels far.  A full thirty leagues they heard it echo; Charles heard it and all his companions. 

The style of The Song of Roland was interesting.  I wished I could hear it from the lips of an actual minstrel (or shennachie!).  Repetitious paragraphs and constant switching of tenses didn’t quite feel right when in print, but I’m sure a master story teller could use these to his advantage- with now a hushed voice, then a rushed voice, drawing his audience into the scene.   There was also something in it that reminded me vaguely of Beowulf.  Characters are portrayed as larger than life, deeds and possessions described with a sense of awe.  Also like Beowulf, this is a book of battle and blood.  The narrator does not shy away from the gory details.  Oddly enough, I chose to read the book at the table.  I managed to still keep my appetite, but it’s not something I recommend for everyone.

The battle is terrible and now joined by all.  Count Roland is no laggard; he strikes with his spear, while the shaft still lasts.  With fifteen blows he has broken and destroyed it; he draws for Durendal, his fine, naked sword, and spurs on his horse to strike at Chernubles.

This is a story of loyalty and determination.  There is an emphasis on themes such as faithfulness, and being a worthy vassal to Christ and Charles.  We see these themes played out large scale with the battle at the Pyrenean pass, and on a smaller but still intense level with the face-off between Thierry and Pinabel.   There are brotherly bonds and last stands despite the odds, as is fitting for a good war story.   I imagine that the Song of Roland must have been an inspiration the crusaders.  Sadly, it has the opposite effect on me.

When Count Roland sees them approach, he becomes so strong, so fierce, so alert.  As long as he remains alive, he will not yield to them; he sits astride his horse name Veillantif and urges it on well with his spurs of pure gold.

By the end of the poem, Charles (Charlemagne) is weary of war- and so am I.  I’m aware that the Christian life is full of opposition and struggle, but I’d prefer to change battle strategies.  While I approve of defending a belief, I don’t approve of fighting another person for it.  I’ve taken up my ‘sword’ and used it on other people.  I’ve mimicked Roland’s cry ‘the pagans are wrong and the Christians are right!’  But whenever I’d fight in this way, I’d quickly lose sight of why I was fighting, and for Whom.  I’m ashamed of that, and it’s something I still struggle with.  In this way The Song of Roland wasn’t the inspiring story for me that it is for some.

Count Roland sees the heavy losses of his men: He calls to his companion Oliver: ‘Fair lord, dear companion, in God’s name, what is your view of this?  You see so many fine knights lying on the ground.  We cannot but lament for the fair, sweet land of France; of how many men it now stands bereft!”

There are still many points I could mention, but my overall impression of this book was a sad one. I’m not saying that this book shouldn’t be read; only that I think it is best taken as an interesting look into the past and as a caution for the present.

4 thoughts on “Challenge #5: A classic originally published before 1800- The Song of Roland

  1. I had a lot of fun reading this one out loud to my younger sister during my first year of high school. We just loved the characters–Roland’s blind overconfidence made us laugh and sigh many a time. Fond memories! 🙂

    I agree with your thoughts on “battle tactics.” While I admire Roland’s willingness to lay down his life for the truth (and think a dose of his enthusiasm is direly needed in our world today), lopping off Paynim’s heads is emphatically NOT the way to go about evangelization. The part where Charlemagne has a city baptized at sword-point has always bothered and saddened me.

    Out of curiosity, which translation did you read?


    1. That’s awesome- I enjoy reading aloud to my younger brother, but he prefers modern epics like the Wingfeather Saga and Tales of Goldstone Wood.

      I had further thoughts on this topic, and there are other books I’ve read this year that brought up similar things. But I suppose that’s another blogpost.

      This was the Glyn Burgess translation.


  2. Good review, Blue! I recently read a Browning poem called ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’, taking lines from King Lear, which was an epic poem about a knight called Roland. I guess he was a famous, oft-reinterpreted figure.


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