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Song of Roland, The

by Dorothy Sayers translator

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As with many Americans, chivalry leaves me cold. Our reasons are good American reasons: we like to think of ourselves as more concerned with content than with form. If your motives are good, we can excuse some rudeness; we may even overlook misanthropy.

Which makes reading the Song of Roland a pretty puzzling experience. Written shortly after the First Crusade, this old French epic exalts its hero who, as near as my students and I can tell, is the biggest clod ever lionized.

The reason he’s the hero is the very reason I’m baffled by him: his adherence to the rules of chivalry is impeccable. In fact, Roland keeps the rules so faithfully that he manages to get most of his army, including his best friend Oliver and himself, slaughtered by a much larger host of Muslims.

The silliness begins when Roland and Oliver discover that Roland’s stepfather has betrayed their army into the hands of the Muslims. Oliver complains loudly (and justly) of the stepfather’s treachery, but Roland checks him abruptly: “Silence, Count Oliver, my friend! He is my stepsire, and I will have no word said.” My sympathies are wholly with Oliver here: Roland’s stepfather is a traitor. But of course the rules of chivalry prevent such an indelicate observation.

It gets better. Oliver sizes up the situation immediately and knows that they need reinforcements, so he asks Roland to sound the alarm. Roland’s response is pure chivalry: “May never God allow that I should cast dishonour on my house or on fair France bring any ill renown!” Beautiful: you’ll let all your men get slaughtered to preserve the honor of your name.

What this amounts to, then, is a very entertaining experiment in perspective: try reading this work earnestly believing that Roland is a hero. In my experience, you’ll fail. No matter how hard you try to sympathize with Roland, you’ll find yourself yelling that Oliver got it right all along. This is especially instructive for our efforts to understand the medieval mind, since any 13th century reader of the Song of Roland would find our identification with Oliver shameful. Who has the more biblical perspective?

-by Jeff Baldwin