I return from my extended work-related hiatus of writing classic reviews at last! I’m energized (sort of), full of fresh ideas (sort of), and eager to get the (semi-) regular column rolling once again.
Between February and August of 2021, I wrote ten Classic Reviews covering everything from Homer to Ray Bradbury, and I very much want to continue that trend. I have some very big ideas for literature and poetry I want to cover this year, including Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude, T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, Apollonius’s Voyage of the Argo, and Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow before I eventually dovetail into much larger pieces on Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Plato’s Republic.
In the meantime, though, I need something a bit easier to chew on; something shorter and less comprehensive in its difficulty that I’ve already read and can use to explore more interesting questions of history and authorship. Thankfully, I’ve found that already in the work of Dorothy Sayer’s translation of The Song of Roland!
Spiritual Content: The book is explicitly Catholic and Christian and grapples with the implications of a Holy War with Islam
Violence: Excessive and brutal violence throughout, characters are gored and details of their twisted and destroyed bodies are described in detail
Language/Crude Humor: Minimal to none
Sexual Content: Minimal to none
Drug/Alcohol Use: Minimal to none
Other Negative Themes: Some chauvinistic implications, nationalism, and violence may turn off some modern readers
Positive Content: Themes of honor, chivalry, glory, and living according to God’s will
I’ve already covered two of the great medieval works of anonymous poetry for Geeks Under Grace: Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Both poems contain within them a certain pedigree. Both were written by religious scribes, have a distinctly Catholic view of the world, explore Pagan mysticism and legend through the lens of the new religion, and are meditations on death, honor, and glory. Both poems are also anonymous in their authorship. We have rough dates for when both poems likely arose, but the names of the poets are lost to history forever, victims to time.
This is just the reality of time. History may remember the names of Homer, Shakespeare, and Sir Thomas Mallory, but it doesn’t remember them with biographical detail, only through their surviving writings. It’s rare for a writer to have been such a celebrity that we retain a large amount of understanding of their lives, as we do with the likes of Virgil and Chaucer, but even then there are massive gaping holes in these people’s lives we just don’t understand.
It is a miracle enough that these writings survived at all, and thankfully many of them have because they’re a valuable testament to the times in which they were written. A case in point for this is The Song of Roland, the anonymously written epic poem from 11th century France that sings glories of the might of a fallen Frankish count during the Christian siege of Muslim Spain during the eighty century. Like many of its contemporaries, it languished for hundreds of years before being rediscovered in two manuscripts during the 1830s. These editions were released in 1837 and the poem immediately became a national epic for the nation of France.
The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving work of literature in the French language. Details of its creation are somewhat vague, but it is generally dated between 1030 and 1115, with the first surviving copy dating to the late 1100s. This timing loosely coincides with the events of the First Crusade between 1096 and 1099, where it is believed the poem was very influential.
What makes The Song of Roland different than its predecessors like Beowulf is it’s a poem written at the height of medieval Catholic civilization. It isn’t just a work of Pagan poetry reworked with Christian reflection; it’s entirely conceived as a Christian morality play from its conception. It is a work of incredible poetry but in other ways a work of crusader-era propaganda, a work brimming with the bravado and confidence of Christian civilization at its most strident, powerful, and authoritative. It is not sophisticated work. It lacks the brimming nuance of The Illiad‘s approach to the humanity of the Trojans or Mallory’s prickly inner moral world from Le Morte D’Arthur. It is an action story with very morally simple divisions between its heroic main characters and villainous foes.
Unlike propaganda, which requires a blind allegiance to the strength of the state, The Song of Roland is a work of tragedy. Its glory is undercut by melancholy and loss, the horrific realities of the Christian world where the good suffer and the evil triumph momentarily in this life. It must be evaluated as such, as a work of Catholic chauvinism but equally as a story of human folly and the cost of ultimate victory.
A Short Biography of Dorothy L. Sayers
Before we delve into the real-life historical events and the poem itself, we must begin with a short digression on this particular translation. There are many translations of The Song of Roland in English, but I chose what is generally considered the most historically and culturally significant one – the Dorothy Sayers translation.
Sayers is a writer I look forward to returning to again for this series, as she is one of the most interesting forgotten writers of the 20th century and one of the great unsung Christian writers of her era. At one point, she was a murder-mystery novelist whose popularity rivaled Agatha Christie but, like many of the great English artists of her era like T.S. Elliot and C.S. Lewis, her respectability dissolved the moment she publically converted to Christianity. She became a close personal friend of C.S. Lewis and developed a reputation as one of the most accessible and controversial evangelizers in Europe, mostly because of her approach to making the text accessible.
She is most well known now for three works: a radio drama that adapted the gospels into vernacular English called The Man Born to Be King; a theological text that explored the relationship of creativity and imagination with creation called Mind of the Maker; and her late in life translation work. Sayers ended her career by becoming a world-renowned scholar of Dante, translating two-thirds of the Divine Comedy into English before her death in 1957. Much of her Dante commentary is still in wide circulation today among academics who study and teach poetry.
Her translation of The Song of Roland remains one of the most popular ones to date. It’s still widely available, in print, and respected as a work of poetry in its own right (I am using the Penguin Classics 1975 reprint paperback edition of the text).
The History: Count Roland, Charlemagne, and the Saracens
Sayers begins the introduction to her translation with a short history of the real-life historical events the poem is loosely based on: “In the year 777, a deputation of Saracen (Muslim) princes from Spain came to the Emporer Charlemagne to request his assistance against certain enemies of theirs, also of the Moslem faith. Charlemagne, who was already engaged in a war against the Saxons, nevertheless accepted their invitation, and, after placing garrisons to fortify his frontiers, marched into Spain with all his available forces. He divided his army into two parts… [against Gerona and Pampeluna]. Both cities fell, and the two armies joined forces before Saragossa, which they besieged without success. A fresh outbreak of hostilities by the Saxons obliged Charlemagne to abandon the Spanish expedition. As he was passing the Pyrenees, the rear-guard of his army was set upon by a treacherous party of Basques… In the action were killed Eggihard the king’s seneschal, Anselm count of the palace, and Roland duke of the Marches of Brittany, together with a great many more.”
There are two historical figures one must wrestle with in order to understand The Song of Roland: Charlemagne and Count Roland, the latter of whom is a historical anachronism. Sayers makes it very clear everything we know about the real-life Count Roland is mythologized by the poem itself. The poem — which emerged nearly three centuries after the event — is what is known as a chanson de geste, or a French “Song of Deeds.” It was one of a number of Frankish epics told in the centuries after these events that mythologized them, of which Count Roland was an extremely minor figure. The poem uses his meager story and blows him up into an Achilles-style superhuman with incredible strength and abilities.
Charlemagne, also known as Charles the Great, Charles I, King of the Franks, and the Father of Europe, is another story. He lived from 747 to 814, but his legacy stands as one of the most important figures of European history. He was a great warrior and a military strategist who took the throne in 768 over a kingdom that covered much of modern France and Germany. Fighting against Pagan and Muslim kingdoms on his borders, he became renowned as a leading figure in the formation of Christianity in Europe.
He was extremely educated, helped standardize religious practices and texts across the continent, spoke multiple languages fluently, and helped translated prominent religious texts into Latin. He is even regarded in some Catholic traditions as a Saint and is beatified within the current canon of the Catholic Church. He united Western Europe under a common kingdom and was crowned Emperor of Rome in 800 by Pope Leo III.
As the historian, Tom Holland, writes in Dominion, “Not since the vanishing age of the Caesars had anyone in the west commanded such resources. Prodigious both in his energies and in his ambitions, he exerted a sway that was Roman in its scope.”
He was age 66 when he died, but in the poem, he is presented as a 200-year-old grey-bearded wise man. That alone should speak to the air of mythology that formed around Charlemagne in the centuries following his reign. He was both a great Christian warrior and a great emperor, a man whose power and influence spread across dozens of kingdoms and cultures and who unified the Christian world in a way never before seen. It is no wonder Europe appealed to him when writing about the Crusades.
The Song of Roland must be said to be primarily a work inspired by the greatness of Charlemagne. He is its most important character, the center of moral and emotional gravity in the story, and the driving aspect of its themes. When Roland dies, Charlemagne becomes the central protagonist, the avenging soul whose wrath drives the events of the finale, whose craving for justice centers its motivation, and whose vision creates the world the poem foresees by its final cantos.
It is a work of historical revisionism, but the Medieval peoples who wrote and listened to The Song of Roland must’ve been aware of this fact. They know well that Muslim Spain hadn’t fallen to Charlemagne’s forces. It is hard to imagine the average Knight, who is by rite a nobleman and a prince, riding into battle would’ve been so uneducated as to know the history of his culture, especially with a figure as mythic as Charlemagne.
On the opposing side, the Saracens were Europe’s name for the inheritors of the rise of the early Muslim conquests across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Upon its foundation by the prophet Mohammad, Islam spread quickly across continents. When Mohammed died in 632, several empires spread out of his armies, eventually conquering the Holy Land, the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, sacking Constantinople, driving armies up through Hungary, and invading as far as the gates of Vienna in 1683. Their goals were more political than religious – to create a great Muslim Empire, but one that initially tolerated its Christians and Jews (even if they ended up slaves or second-class citizens). Similarly, they invaded Spain in 711 and conquered most of the peninsula. The Spanish Muslims would later infamously be expelled in 1609.
Again, the poem contains more anachronisms in its portrayal of Islam. It depicts the religion with a holy trinity consisting of Mohammed, Termagant, and Apollon. This is extremely apocryphal and a bizarre oversight by the poet who clearly knew nothing of Islam. The Quran wasn’t widely available in Europe though for several centuries and, because of this, early Christians considered Islam a heretical Christian breakaway sect. Islam is unitarian in its theology, regarding the Christian Trinity as a polytheistic heresy.
The Story of The Song of Roland
As the story of The Song of Roland begins, we’re introduced to the courts of both Charlamagne and Marsilion, the Muslim ruler of Saragossa. The war for Spain in this story has been ongoing for seven years and both sides are deliberating the fate of their rule. Marsilion is contemplating surrender, converting to Christianity, and keeping his throne under the supervision of Charlamagne’s empire. Similarly, the Spanish forces are contemplating a peaceful resolution to an exhausting war. “There you’ll submit unto the Christian law, and be his man by faith and fealty sworn. Hostages too, if for sureties he calls, you’ll let him have, ten maybe or a score.” (52)
Charlemagne considers the offer but his nephew, Count Roland, contests the idea and warns his uncle not to trust the treacherous Marsilion: “This war you’ve started wage on, and make no cease; to Saragossa lead your host in the field, spend all your life I need by in the siege, revenge the men this villain made to bleed!” (59) Roland is loyal and heroic, but he is also prideful, vain, and naive. Charlemagne ends up rejecting Roland’s suggestion and further rejects Roland’s offer to represent his army to Marsilion’s court, on the grounds he is too “high of heart and stubborn” and he’d “land [himself] in some feud.”
Instead, Charlemagne chooses Roland’s step-father Ganelon to deliver the message. The cowardly Ganelon, fearful for his life and resentful of Roland, ends up deciding to seek revenge on his family for supposedly putting his life in danger by making him face a foreign and hostile court. Ganelon ends up telling Marsilion that Charlemagne seeks further conflict, but it would be possible to ambush Roland and the 20,000 French soldiers in the rearguard defenses protecting Charlamagne’s army and serving as a critical moral and emotional loss to the Frankish morale. Marsilion agrees and a Saracen army is dispatched the attack Roland’s forces.
The forces are led by Count Roland, his close friend Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin. When the Saracen forces (notably not the Basque forces in the real-life story) do attack, Roland is determined to hold off the force without calling for help. Even as he’s being overwhelmed, he turns down the offer to sound the horn and call for Charlemagne’s main force to descend on the rearguard and save them. As the brutal battle rages on and on, Turpin eventually appeals to Roland to sound the oliphant for help and he reluctantly agrees. He blows the horn and Charlemagne’s forces begin to march.
The battle itself runs for almost a third of the poem, and documents in a great deal the miniature episodes of warfare with each moment and regiment of Roland’s forces as they’re slowly picked off one by one. Finally, when the day is lost, Roland blows the horn once more as a call for vengeance against the men who utterly decimated the rear guard: “Count Roland’s mouth with running blood is red, he’s burst asunder the temples of his head; he sounds his horn in anguish and distress, King (Charlemagne) hears and so do all the French.” (120)
The severely injured and dying Roland stumbles across the bloody battlefield, surveying the utter desolation of his men and the loss of his two most dear comrades who are utterly maimed in the fighting. Feeling death encroach, he confesses his sins one final time and an angel descends down upon him as he lies down to die. “Now Roland feels his time is at an end; on the steep hill-side towards Spain he turned his head, and with one hand he beats upon his breast; saith: “Mea culpa; thy mercy, Lord I beg, for all the sins, both the great and the less, that e’er I did since first I drew my breath unto this day when I’m struck down by death…” Roland is dead, in Heaven God hath his soul.” (142)
The armies of Charlamagne arrive too late, only to see the utter waste that had been laid to his forces and to his beloved nephew by the forces he had just attempted to appeal to for peace. Heartbroken, the king seeks revenge, diverging from the historical Charlemagne’s exit from Spain and saying, “King Marsile shall be avenged this day, and head for hand I’ll give him in exchange.” (158) The entire army of Charlemagne, warriors, and knights from dozens of cultures, gathered together to avenge the great French warrior whom they all loved and respected to “make these Arabs repent the e’er they came; for Roland’s death, I think they’ll dearly pay. Duke Naimon answers: “God grant it so, I pray!’ (166)
The forces descend on Saragossa, laying siege to the city and drawing the Muslim king out to personally face Charlemagne in battle who is leading his forces from the front. The siege takes its toll and Marsilion loses his son and brother to the fighting. He faces the king, saying, “Bethink thee Charles and see that thou repent what thou has done to mee, my son is slain: I know it was by thee and on my lands thou wrongfully hast seize.” Charlemagne demands his opponent to confess the faith of God, but he is instead met with the end of a sword. Marsilion is utterly defeated as his skull is split down to the jaw by Charlamagne’s blade.
Christian armies seize the city, smash its mosques, shrines, and synagogues, convert the city to Christianity, and take the former Queen of the city as a prisoner. Charlemagne returns to France, converts the Queen to Christianity, sentences Ganelon to be tortured and have his limbs tied to horses and torn apart, and laments “how weary is my life” as the archangel Gabriel calls upon him to lay siege to another enemy force.
On Poetry, the Crusades, and Christian Civilization
It goes without saying The Song of Roland is a historical non-entity, but one can see the shades of real history baked into the layers of the poem. We see Christian identity, European identity, European unity in the face of destruction, and mythopoetic tragedy all drawn into the story. These are the legends Pope Urban II would appeal to when he launched the First Crusade: the belief in Christian civilization and its rightful place in ruling the world and defeating its brutal imperialist enemies.
I can’t speak to the structure of the original French poetry, but Sayers does an extremely impressive job bringing the language to life in English. She labored to preserve the structure of their stanzas and loose rhyming structure. “The final syllables of the lines in every laisse are not rhymed but assonanced together – i.e. they all have the same vowel sound, but no regard is paid to the following consonants… Any full rhymes that occur are merely accidental,” she said. (38) In that, The Song of Roland is a beautiful sounding poem and her translation highlights the flow of its semi-rhythmic structure.
Politically though, I suspect modern readers would find the poem controversial. The modern reader may look upon The Song of Roland and shutter a bit, as it is a thoroughly anti-modern book. It reeks of a kind of premodern tribalism, violence, and cultural chauvinism that is out of style in modern writing and politics. There are traces of vague but latent anti-Semitism (190) beneath the text, and at one point the unnamed author compares the skin tone of the Muslims to the color of their soul (125).
We, after all, fancy ourselves as a post-colonial civilization, a world that has given up the petty superstitions of the past, that no longer feels the confidence to declare a Holy War. The word “Crusade” itself has become dirty, at least insofar as it became associated with the politics of the War on Terror of the 2000s, which was against Al Quida, Iraq, Afghanistan, ISIS, Syria, Libya, and the subsequent waves of migrants flowing into Europe sparked massive conversations about Islamophobia and militarism.
In short, we as a civilization are not confident in our ability to express ourselves and our way of life. We don’t want to enforce our values on others anymore. We don’t believe in liberal democracy in the same way Charlemagne believed in Roman Civilization – that it was God’s vision for the world that needed to be spread against the threats presented by the Saxons and Saracens. When America sends its soldiers to fight against militant Islamists, we shudder at the thought of the poor civilians caught in the crossfire. Charlemagne and the crusaders saw the city of God and all of the cities he converted to Christ.
Violence is a regular feature of Christian civilization and many have appealed to God for the right to do so. Christians regularly appealed to the Old Testament to justify such wars, citing Joshua, Judges, and Samuel as evidence Christian civilization had the right to use violence against its enemies. Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms Baptism by Blood, saying, “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.”
As Holland writes about Charlemagne’s war with the Saxons, “Settlement after settlement was wiped out. Entire populations deported. These were atrocities on a Roman scale… In 782, Charlemagne ordered the beheading of 4500 prisoners in a single day.” (208)
Such conflicts though must be understood contextually. Christianity is contented now to relax our relationships with our former enemies specifically because western civilization doesn’t feel threatened by them. It is a mark of considerable cultural evolution that the cultures that once expelled Jews and Muslims now import Muslim refugees by the boatload as a matter of national policy. Such a situation was not a possibility between the 8th and 12th centuries. The wars with the Saxons and Saracens were real wars, with existential implications. Civilizations hung in the balance and the lives of millions were shaped by bloody wars of conquest on both sides.
As the theologian Augustine of Hippo wrote in City of God, there are just and defensible wars. “They who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ … But, say they, the wise man will wage Just Wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.”
The Song of Roland is oft denounced as a nationalist poem, but its resolution comes not in French nationalism but in the unity of the Christian worldview to avenge the martyrs of God. Charlemagne’s armies consist of the entirety of Europe, a collective force against which the armies of heresy and treachery quake. In the face of existential destruction, that is not a sin. As Sayers writes: “it has a much greater theme than that of the Illiad. This does not mean that it is a greater poem; it is not, by a long way. In style and technique, it is primitive… but in depicting a struggle between two civilizations, the Christian poet is much more conscious of a serious purpose, and the mainspring of the action is something more important than the recapture of a wife or a quarrel about booty.”
Chivalry and Modernity
The Song of Roland honors the best of Christian ethics as well, bound in chivalry. The principles of chivalry, initially created to reign in the excesses of unruly warriors and nobles to keep them from pillaging the European countryside, evolved into the code of honor of Europe. We see this embodied in the poems of the 10th through 14th century, in the Arthuriana of Britain and France, and the Songs of Deeds. The Song of Roland was born into the same tradition that created poems like The Knight of the Cart and Parzival.
Caught between Roland and Ganelon are the tensions of chivalry, the honorable knight who stands his ground versus the selfish nobleman who betrays others for his own gain and protection. Roland dies a martyr, and Ganelon dies a pathetic traitor’s death. Knightly honor comes in the willingness to die for one’s faith, to die for Christ. Cowardice is Luciferian, destructive, and utterly destroys all that is good in the world.
As the essayist Paul Krause writes, “Ganelon’s betrayal of Charlemagne echoes the biblical testament of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver by the ‘thirty of his relatives’ that died with him. Moreover, just as Judas hung himself and lost life and limb, so too will Ganelon be hung and lose life and limb in the process. Treachery is a most serious crime and sin. In fact, it is the worst crime and sin. The poet reinforces the depiction of Ganelon as a Judas during his trial scene near the conclusion of the work. Charlemagne declares, ‘[Ganelon] betrayed the twelve peers for money.’”
To what end are chivalric morals? To what end is the just war of the Christians? These questions have been asked for hundreds of years by critics of the west, and have been well substantiated in their failures. That said, we live in the post-Christian world, post-chivalric, and critical of wars. Have we reduced war? Have we increased virtue? Alas, we live in a world filled with Ganelons, and the Rolands are few and far to find.
To quote Spencer Klavan, host of The Young Heretics Podcast, “These simple stories we tell, that it was bad to do the Crusades, are a way of avoiding how complex this is. It’s ironic because when we talk about the Crusades or the Song of Roland, we caricature them as if they’re chauvinistic: BAD Muslims, GOOD Christians. But that is us being simplistic, blithe, and debonair about what is in truth a profound engagement with what it means to be a believer, to believe unto the point of death in God in a fallen world. Do we still have that kind of belief? I’m not saying you have to go and conquer Spain but either there are things for which we must be willing to die or there is no meaning to life at all.”
If nothing else, The Song of Roland articulates values from a culture less consumed by anxiety and meaninglessness. It was clearly conceived with a purpose – to galvanize the French people against the threat of the treacherous and violent armies of Islam. It also speaks to the tragedy of such a conflict: that great men are lost to wars; conflict takes a toll on the hearts of men; and they are still necessary. The Crusades were defensive wars, and should they have been fought by Christians for the glory of God, then they were defensible too, that real men like Roland would die in the name of Christ crying “Nōn nōbīs, Domine, nōn nōbīs, sed nōminī tuō dā glōriam,” – Psalm 115:1.