Reflecting on common culture codes of Europe, a number of literary works, with no doubt, formed the character of previous European. If, Odysseus represents an archetype of a traveller, pioneer and conqueror, then, Faust — an active-minded and restless intellectual. Likewise, one of the most famous warrior archetypes is represented by Roland, one of Charlemagne’s (Carl the Great) knights, the hero of the old French epic poem, The Song of Roland

Actually, The Song of Roland is very consonant with the spirit of our age, regardless of its ancientry and the dust of centuries on the poem (particularly for European Muslims). Shortly, the poem is dedicated for the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, between the troops of Charlemagne against greatly outnumbered army of Saracens (Muslims), who were depicted, presumably as infidel pagans.

It is worth mentioning, that the real historical background of the battle, that provides the basis for the poem, is another particularly interesting subject. In fact, the combat took place between Franks and Basques, while Muslims were actually allies of Charlemagne, who wanted to benefit from internal quarrels among Andalusian emirs.

The discourse from the poem itself, however, seems far more interesting due to the conventionality and metaphorical nature of literature. The fantasy around Moors and the islamophobic context that was related to the era of crusades, most probably added later by minstrels for a good amount of coins, should not really draw us away from its meaning and content.

The plot starts with the betrayal of one of the Charlemagne’s barons, that leads to insidious truce between Charlemagne and Marsile, the king of Moors, from which Marsile is committed to accept Christianity. Charlemagne’s army thus returns to Aachen, the Frankish capital of that time, leaving a quite a small rearguard behind. One of the emperor’s best warriors, count Roland with his comrades, volunteers to lead this rearguard. Later, Charlemagne’s troops go into the mountains, while Roland’s brigade, left behind as a rearguard, faces a sudden Moorish attack. 

Roland, being the incarnation of an old type of hero, decides to immediately engage in fierce and unequal combat, flatly rejecting his companion’s, count Oliver’s, advise:

 “Comrade Rollanz, sound the olifant, I pray;   

If Charles hear, the host he’ll turn again;   

Will succour us our King and baronage.”   

Answers Rollanz: “Never, by God, I say,  

For my misdeed shall kinsmen hear the blame,  

Nor France the Douce fall into evil fame!   

Rather stout blows with Durendal I’ll lay,   

With my good sword that by my side doth sway;   

Till bloodied o’er you shall behold the blade.   

Felon pagans are gathered to their shame;   

I pledge you now, to death they’re doomed to-day.”

One cannot help to automatically admire such a courage, even if it looks rather arrogant. Heroes of this kind tend to be sure, that their mere valour and being on the right side can secure their victory. Roland’s words are terribly inspiring that even the wise Oliver held his peace aside and unsheathes his sword. Roland says: “God grant us then the fee! … Pagans are wrong: Christians are right indeed”, and ” Evil his heart that is in thought coward! We shall remain firm in our place installed”. 

It would have been wonderful, if the battle did not end up with an epic failure. But here’s where it gets really interesting. 

Seeing, that Franks are losing the battle and realising his mistake, Roland, in attempt to save the situation, decides to blow his horn (olifant) and call Charlemagne to rescue. And here Oliver, previously staying in the shadow, comes forward to have his say:

Says Oliver: “Great shame would come of that   

And a reproach on every one, your clan,   

That shall endure while each lives in the land,   

When I implored, you would not do this act;   

Doing it now, no raise from me you’ll have:   

So wind your horn but not by courage rash,   

Seeing that both your arms with blood are splashed.”

Then says Rollanz: “Wherefore so wroth with me?”   

He answers him: “Comrade, it was your deed:   

Vassalage comes by sense, and not folly;   

Prudence more worth is than stupidity.   

Here are Franks dead, all for your trickery;   

No more service to Carlun may we yield.”

This truly cathartic episode turns the whole picture around, and the narrative makes an impression of a prolonged final. In fact, and most likely, for the first time in literary history, here we see types of hero opposing each other, vassal of spirit and vassal of duty (testament with God), additionally outlining the difference between one and the other, which are different motives, different ideas of honour and disgrace and so on. Roland’s whole thrust goes within the paradigm of overcoming himself, approving his own existence by a heroic act, and his greatest concern is not to disgrace himself. While something totally different appears in Oliver’s motives: sense of wisdom, commitment to the overall cause, exalted above everything else. 

In the  Song … Oliver reveals the qualities of the complete prozdom (an old French word, used in the poem, which means the combination of personal, social, political and military worth, — D.R.) . He knows the hearts of men; he knows that Roland’s aggression and misjudgement make him a danger to himself. Oliver is restrained in language, sound in judgement and objective in any situation. When the French see the Saracen army at Roncesvalles, it is Oliver who makes an accurate assessment of the enemy strength and deduces the chain of betrayal that has brought them there: he has mesure. It is Oliver who pragmatically advises Roland to summon assistance, and is of course ignored. … The irony at the heart of the Song is that command is entrusted to a man who is proz but also pesmes (ill-judging) and who leads his men to a brave and holy, but unnecessary death”1.

There were and are entire nations that can be called vassals of spirit, mostly of a tragic, martyr-like fate. It is typical for them to fight till the end and self-destruction, notwithstanding the benefits of their struggle, they consider it to be faint-hearted to argue about the consequences. 

Roland is an archetype of a European knight, but if to look from wider perspective, we’ll notice, that this type of character played a remarkable role in history of Islam as well. People of this nature have always been the stars of Ummah, its vigour; a constellation of heroes and devotees that are from among them. Having heard about the Paradise, they’ve put the good news aside, for it was something else they were centred on.

But it is one of the beauties of Islam, that for each character it provides a way to reveal itself in the best way, and for the benefit of deen. What usually ruins a hero, in Islam should make him rise and ennoble. Along the history, Islamic civilization had special institutions that served to initiate character-building purposes. Yet, today we are back to Roland’s tragedy. 

Should not we, therefore, find in ourselves courage and fortitude to say what Oliver did? With all the love and sympathy, we feel for these individuals, as undeniable heroes and knights of Ummah, yet we don’t approve their actions. As to fall in an uneven fight, surrounded by dead bodies of friends and comrades, is, no doubt, a very honourable act, but in itself — totally ineffective. That’s by no means what the Lord of world wanted from his khalifa.

At death’s door, Roland bitterly regrets his deed and symbolically gives his glove to God, at this moment becoming His vassal, as before was the vassal of his own honour. In this belated finding of the real meaning of battle lies another culmination of the poem, wherein heroics sound as a final, beautiful and tragic chord:

He would not die in any foreign realm   

Ere he’d surpassed his peers and all his men.   

To the foes’ land he would have turned his head,   

Conqueringly his gallant life he’ld end.


Daria Rusanova

1 David Crouch, The Birth of Nobility Constructing Aristocracy in England and France 900–1300, 2005 

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