Sun, 20 Feb 2005

The Song of Roland

— SjG @ 2:27 pm

anonymous, circa. 1100, translated by John O’Hagan around 1885, read as an e-book from

There are three kinds of war reporting: the first, by journalists who are independent of any side in the conflict, who wander around in harm’s way to report what’s going on; the second, by so-called “embedded” reporters, who are essentially information officers of one of the sides in the conflict; and the third, by the historians and tale-tellers who were not present and who recast any events according to their own studies, prejudices, and opinions. The Song of Roland falls beyond this last sort, and forces us to concede a fourth type of war reporter, viz, the mythologist.

The Song of Roland is a medieval propaganda piece designed to show the nobility of dying for your monarch, especially if it involves taking a few hundred thousand infidels along with you. As is to be expected from a mythic retelling, the noble are absolutely noble, and the base are absolutely base. Interestingly, though, there is a certain nobility amongst the royalty of the infidel enemy (an “Emir of Balaguet” is honored with the statement “were he Christian, nobler baron none,” shortly before meeting his demise).

But the noble Frankish chavaliers are a pretty bad-ass bunch. When slaying this or that infidel knight, they were not content to merely hew them with swords or pierce them with lances, oh no, we are given almost pornographic gleeful descriptions of swords passing through helmets and heads, down through armor and chest, down through the saddle, and splitting the spines of the unfortunate steeds. In case we don’t pick up on the fact that the noble Frankish chevaliers are tough, we get this scene repeated with minor variations nearly a dozen times.

Reading this made me realize that popular narrative hasn’t changed a great deal in the last thousand years. Sure, there have been some localized shifts in values here and there, but The Song of Roland was not unlike the Rambo of its day. The good guys win because they’re Good (and God is on their side), and the bad guys, for the most part, are lance fodder. The spoils of victory have changed somewhat; while Rambo emerges unscathed from the conflict, anxious for his sequel, Roland’s victory is a noble death, the praise of his monarch, and guaranteed entrance to heaven.

It also pointed out how much religion has changed. Christianity seems far less concerned with the glory of martyrdom today, and shies away from the forced conversions for which The Song lauds Charlemagne. The ignorance of the beliefs of the “infidels” certainly remains (witness statements by various Evangelical leaders in the U.S.).

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