The Song of Roland


Cover of The Song of Roland

Rank: B
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Summer, 2010

Author Name: Anonymous

Review: All I have ever heard about The Song of Roland was that it was terrible. I’ve heard it was boring, pointless, not as good as other epics—you name it, I’ve heard it. Well, guess what: It’s actually not that bad.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Song of Roland is incredibly stupid. I just think the abuse it receives is undeserved. The writing is good enough (the English translation I read was highly musical), and some of the scenes are slightly memorable. It’s not a wasted afternoon if you’re on a train.

Here’s what to expect if you give this a read. Charlemagne, the big bad dude of France, is beating up on poor Moorish Spain. Marsile, the king of Zaragoza, is getting tired of it, so he plans to offer fealty to Charlemagne, only to renege on the promise when Charlemagne has left Spain. Charlemagne needs to send an envoy to Zaragoza to receive these terms. Roland, the baddest knight in the land (though you wouldn’t know it by reading this), suggests that his stepfather, Ganelon, go. He does this because he likes him, and thinks this mission will be to his credit. Ganelon, for some reason, thinks this is going to be an incredibly dangerous mission and is likely to get him killed (why, I have absolutely no idea. Seems like a standard diplomatic affair to me), and he hates Roland for nominating him. So to get his revenge, he (get this) decides to betray France. He goes to Spain and tells the king that if he pretends to accept the terms of surrender, Roland will lead the rear guard out of Spain, and then they can jump him and do him in.

I didn’t even know what I was reading when I read this. I mean, really?! Who does that?!

Anyway, things work as Ganelon plans, and Roland and the rear guard are ambushed. His friend, Olivier, says to him, “Hey, why not blow that horn that, apparently, the entire French army and Charlemagne can hear so they can come back and help us beat these guys? Without them, we’re outnumbered ten to one; with them, we outnumber them ten to one.” Roland, though, plays it cool, and is like, “Nah…let’s see where this is going.” Then the Spaniards start killing the French. Still and all, he’s all like, “Well, you never know. We might make a comeback…” Then they’re all dead, and Roland is mortally wounded. Then and only then he decides, “Okay, maybe we should call for reinforcements.” So he blows this magic horn, and Charlemagne knows it’s him, but even then, Ganelon tells him, “Nah, no way, man, that ain’t Roland. That’s just some hunting party or something.” Finally, they go, they see Roland’s been killed, along with everyone else, they get pissed, they do some slaughtering, they do some sacking, King Marsile loses a hand, etc.

In the end, Ganelon is tried, and rather than listen to arguments, they have him fight some other dude, since, apparently, “Almighty God” will allow the righteous one to win. The righteous one does, and Ganelon is put to death along with 30 of his closest friends and relations.

Now here’s the best part. After all this is done, and things are settled, Charlemagne goes to bed, and is approached by the angel Gabriel, who says, “Hey, buddy. Go fight some other war in some city you’ve never heard of. And do it now. Cause I said so.” To which the emperor responds:

Right loth to go, that Emperour was he:
“God!” said the King: “My life is hard indeed!”
Tears filled his eyes, he tore his snowy beard.

I laughed long and loud when I read that. Are you kidding me?! Hundreds—probably thousands—of people were just brutally slaughtered (Ganelon was quartered), and here’s Charlemagne saying, “My life is hard indeed!” What a prick! Everything’s just got to be about him. His name should be Charle-ME-n.

All right, so if I have to be completely truthful, this epic probably isn’t worth reading. The plot is just silly; I can’t get behind it. It’s also incredibly preachy. There are some wonderfully-told bits (the repetitious parts, actually, where the poet goes back and repeats essentially the same thing four or five different times in four or five different ways), but not enough to rescue the work as a whole. In particular, Roland, in this tale, anyway, just isn’t much of a hero. He doesn’t do enough, for starters, and then he acts rather stupidly and gets killed. You can’t even call his death tragic, as his “fatal flaw” is…what? Calling for back-up too late? Calling that pride is, I think, giving it more credit than it’s worth (which is not much).

Today, one, I think, goes to the epic to read about fantastic feats, or to bring history or ancient peoples and figures to life. This story is by no means fantastical enough (the most fantastic thing I recall reading [other than the divine intervention, which is lame] is a horse which jumps 50 feet. I mean, really? Have a horse jump the Atlantic Ocean and then we’ll talk), and the characters are not interesting. Aside from Olivier, they all seem rather cowardly or stupid—and those are the most interesting ones. So while I didn’t hate it, by any means, I don’t think I can recommend it.

However, I still contend that it’s not as bad as everyone says it is.

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