Warrior in the Song of Roland
While perspective is critical when we look at situations and circumstances, we should never forget that history is one of the greatest teachers when it comes to understanding human behavior. We discover that after thousands of years of evolution, we as a race have not changed very much. We still have global and widespread problems and conflicts that lead to wars and we still have problems and conflicts that lead to personal battles. An example of this can be seen in The Song of Roland. Centuries old, the story revolves around the idea of a noble cause worth fighting for, focusing on the men that choose to serve in those battles. These warriors are not very different from us today in that they are human. They possess characteristics that allow us to see them as real men as well as warriors. Coupled with Christianity, we see warriors that define a generation and a society. The poem is also significant to us because it allows us to know what kind of literature people were interested in during medieval times. The fact that this piece of literature has survived only proves that it was important to its audience. The Song of Roland is as much a historical text as it is a piece of literature.
It is important that we look at the warrior theme with a close association with Christianity in that Christianity cannot be overlooked in the poem. Dorothy Sayers notes that the two are inextricably linked. In her opinion, the poem is “not merely Christian in subject; it is Christian to its very bones” (Sayers 19). Sayers suggests that the violent men of action are called on to do their valiant duty to the Faith and to the Emperor; and when they die, they will be taken to lie on beds of flowers” (19). She maintains that that the “grand outline of the poem defines itself: a private war is set within a national war, and a national war again within the world war of Cross and Crescent” (25). She also suggests, “The small struggle at the centre shakes the whole web. The evil that is done can never be undone. God is vindicated” (25-6). This is true of the story. The center of the story is not that the men are warriors but that they are Godly warriors associated with a higher cause. This provides us with an insight into the men that fight in the name of God. It is also important to look at the context of the poem; it was written during the time of the crusades when the fight was against the outside religions, namely Muslins and Jews. These wars were just in the eyes of the monarchy; they were encouraged because of the fight for the common cause. The fervor associated with these wars and these warriors cannot be overlooked because it was a powerful motivator. Men were mobilized and set forth for this cause and, more importantly, men died for this cause.
We have several examples of warriors in the poem. Roland is the hero of the story, with chivalry guiding him. He is loyalty to the emperor is displayed when he tells Oliver, “Here must we stand to serve the King’s side. / Men for their lords great hardships abide” (Roland 1009-10). He understands his calling and he moves forward without fear. He is “fierce” (1093) and courageous. Yet, he is not perfect. He has a tendency to be proud and this leads him to be over-confidence. His over-confidence in turn leads to rash decisions and a lack of foresight. His pride also prevents him for asking for help when it is needed. He is of the belief that facing death is better than facing disgrace. It could be said that he supported Lao Tzu’s quote, “Silence is a source of great strength.” However, this did always work in his favor. Regardless, he dies as a hero in the story. His death is perhaps one of the most powerful and most significant scenes in the poem. Davis suggests that Roland’s death represents as “aspect both of the love of warriors for each other . . . And of the sense that these warriors had the absolute approval of God for their warlike activities” (Davis 20). In the field, “fighting and dying in a Christian cause” (21) is the way of the warrior.
Other warriors allow us to visualize what the medieval warrior was like. Olivier emerges as a brave warrior and is not as glamorous as Roland but he is intelligent. We read, “Roland is fierce and Oliver is wise / And both for valour may bear away the prize (87.1093-4). An example of this intelligence can be seen when Oliver realizes that the Franks outnumber the. He practically begs Roland to sound for additional backup but out of pride, Roland refuses. He realizes his mistake and when thy are ambushed, decides the idea is not so bad after all. He does not see that the reinforcements would not arrive in time to save them. This is an example of how Oliver demonstrated more wisdom and logic in trying situations. Turpin is treated with honor in the poem. After the Saracens attack, he is provided a notable place. We read, “ne’er was mass swung by any tortured priest / That of his body could do such valiant deeds!” (121.1606-7). He is well-respected and honorable. He is killed when he goes to get water for wounded Roland. His death alongside Roland demonstrates how the church turned toward a more warrior-like state. These men are warriors but they are also Christians and it is interesting to see how they incorporate religion into their fighting techniques, beliefs, and processes. We do not often see warrior attached to Christianity in modern times but this tale reminds us that wars are fought for religious reasons all the time.
Christianity parallels the morals of the warrior in this tale as a means to define a type of people living in an age where the two coexisted. A warrior under servitude to the king was more than a warrior for the king, he was also a warrior for God. This was indeed a noble life call as we see with Roland in that he dies undefeated by the enemy. We also the merging of the warrior with Christina beliefs when he mourns his life but realizes that a human death is not the end of his existence — just his existence on earth. He confesses any sins and is taken to heaven by the very angels of God. After Roland’s dies, Charlemagne spends the rest of the poem avenging his death. When he arrives too late to offer any assistance to Roland and the Twelve, he sounds the horns, and gathers his men to track the trail of the “men of Spain whose backs are far off” (179.2446). As the men move forward, they do so with strength and confidence that comes from their faith. They know that God knows all and will surely have vengeance on the enemy.
The Song of Roland is an interesting piece of literature because not only tells a story, it tells us how a particular culture in history operated. When we think of warriors, soldier, knights, and chivalry, we often have preconceived notions of what these things are in our minds. The Song of Roland allows us to see all of these aspects of a medieval culture through the lens of Christianity, which had a powerful affect upon the warriors of that day. A warrior was not just a man that rode out to fight the enemy. A warrior was linked directly with God and service to him via service to the king. Charlemagne’s primary cause was to defend Christianity and this was at the forefront of his soldiers’ minds. These warriors are unique in that they stand out from the typical images we normally associate with knights and warriors. Soldiers and knights, as well as chivalry were aspects of life that were first examined through Christianity. The fight was not just a fight on this world — it had an otherworldly aspect to it in that it was also for and about God. These men were energized by this higher calling and people wanted to hear these astonishing stories of defeat in the name of the church. Just like fight was not just fighting, death was not just death. It was all for a higher calling and a higher purpose. Information like this allows us a greater appreciation for cultures different from our own. What we learn is that even with all of the advancements of technology and education, we are still the same people underneath. We still love a good fight with a good cause. The Song of Roland proves to be not only entertaining but educational as well.
Davies, Jon. The Christian Warrior in the Twentieth Century. New York: Edwin Mellen Press.
The Song of Roland. Sayers, Dorothy, trans. Baltimore: Penguin Books. 1961.
Sayers, Dorothy. Introduction: The Song of Roland. Sayers, Dorothy, trans. Baltimore: Penguin
Lao Tzu Quotes. All the Best Quotes Online. Information Retrieved may 09, 2009.
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