This is an essay I wrote for Dr Marianne Ailes of Wadham College, Oxford. I do assume that the reader has some knowledge of the text, although not too much, I hope. Quotations in Old French are pipelinked to my English translations.
Roland n'a rien à se reprocher.
The very title of La Chanson De Roland (although addeded at a later date than the text itself) suggests how the poem glorifies its hero. Yet despite the positive presentation of Roland, it is difficult not to find much in his actions to criticise. It is clear that his decision not to blow his oliphant horn and call for help, even though an ambush looks likely, leads to his own death and that of his companions. There are however certain allowances which have to be made, which prevent us from condemning Roland as an utterly foolish warmonger.
Had Roland decided to call for help when the attack on the rear-guard began, he could almost certainly have avoided the carnage which followed. Charlemagne and his reinforcements fighting alongside Roland and his men would have ensured victory. Yet, for a number of reasons, the hero chooses not to sound his horn. He does not know his own limits, and possesses a pride which leads to his own downfall. Roland has a thirst for battle which results in a blindness to the consequences of his actions. It is possible to dismiss his refusal to call for help as simple pride, but I believe the elements are more complex than this.
Firstly, we must remember that Roland lived in the eighth century. His world was very different from ours. The values of heroism, chivalry, vassalage, and courage were among the most highly regarded virtues a man could possess. Roland is presented as such an admirable character because he lacks none of these. In the eyes of the poet, and most probably in the eyes of his audience, Roland represents the model knight. His bravery, even when faced with death, is astounding. While we may see his determination in the face of such bad odds as foolish, his contemporaries and those who came shortly after him would have admired him for such courage.
We know that it mattered a great deal to those living in medieval times what others thought of them. The society relied upon people doing good because they wished to be seen to be doing good. The concept of personal morality (despite the preachings of Christianity) was not yet fully developed. Instead, a man's desire to be respected by his peers was what motivated him to behave well in society. This social situation was one of the key reasons behind Roland's decision to fight on with no help. He did not want to be seen to be a weak failure. When he attempts to destroy his sword, Durendal, once he knows he will not survive, it is to prevent the shame that would come to him should his sword fall into the hands of the enemy, rather than to prevent it being used to kill Christians:
"Pur ceste espee ai dulor e pesance:
Mielz voeill murir qu'entre paiens remaigne;
Damnesdeus perre, n'en laiser hunir France!"
It seems that he cares more for public opinion than the Christian cause. This fear of others' scorn extends beyond his own personal reputation to that of his family, and of his nation as a whole. He says, "Deus me cunfunde, si la geste en desmet". The desire for posthumous fame drives Roland forward - he confesses to Oliver his determination that people shall not sing unflattering songs about him after his death. He declares, "Malvaise essample n'en serat ja de mei".
Crucial also in the function of this medieval society was its feudalism. Vassalage was an institution which held great sway. Roland is Charles's homme, and the King in turn is his nephew's seigneur. This relationship was a very close and binding one. Roland's part in their agreement consists of him, along with an army of his kinsmen, promising to serve Charles in battle whenever required. Roland prides himself on being a true vassel worthy of his position as his uncle's right hand man. Even in his dying moments he reminds us of all the victories he has had - cataloguing them lest we forget. In his final laisse, he remembers his reason for fighting:
"De Carlemagne, sun seignor, ki l' nurrit;
Ne poet müer n'en plurt e ne suspirt"
This fidelity until the last confirms how much his responsibility to Charles means to the knight, and explains why he is so ready to die for his cause.
What made Roland's actions all the more commendable was that they were taken in the name of Christianity. The view of the age was that the Christian cause was to be furthered by whatever means necessary. George Fenwick Jones describes the Christianity of the era of the crusades as "primitive and warped". By the Christian standards of today, Roland's behaviour would be viewed as excessively violent. But, threatened as the religion was by the spread of Islam in the medieval period, its stance had to adapt. Now, if there is one authority to whom Roland can turn for a judgement on his moral innocence or guilt, it is his God. It is made clear that God does not disapprove of Roland's actions when the hero is escorted up to heaven by the angels Michael and Gabriel. It seems that, whatever we may think of them, his actions have not angered God. In this respect, it appears that, on this moral level, Roland has nothing to reproach himself for.
Roland does, several times during the action, appear to regret his decision to fight, or at least regret that so many of his comrades have died. He surveys the scene before him, and sees how many of his men have died, and it moves him to tears. The Chanson de Roland is littered with grown men weeping and swooning. This is not viewed as a sign of weakness, but rather of nobility and laudable emotion. Roland weeps "cum chevalier gentill". His sadness for the lost men is deep. His words "Barons franceis, pur mei vos vei murir" are ambiguous. Is he showing penitence, and confessing his guilt for having led these men to their deaths? Or is he simply saddened that they have died for his sake, that is to say whilst fighting under his leadership. We cannot be certain. At other times, however, the poem's hero appears oblivious to what he has done. When Oliver repremands him, he asks why his companion is so angry with him.
It is interesting to examine the view of Oliver. He is the nearest we get to seeing a peer of Roland, and his opinion differs from that of his companion. The lines which best summarise his opinion are: "vasselage par sens n'en est folie: / Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie". At the first horn scene, he makes it clear that he thinks Roland should call back Charles and his men. When at last, many hundreds of deaths later, Roland says that he will sound the oliphant, Oliver is cross with him. He believes it is too late, and says, "Se vos cornez, n'ert mie hardement". He even goes so far as to deny Roland any right to his (Oliver's) sister, Aude. These two men, although not very far detached in standing, have very different personalities. Oliver is temperate and wise, whereas Roland is rash, bold and brave. Yet it seems to me that the argument Oliver has with his companion in the second horn scene has to do with more than a clash of personalities. We know that the pair are very close friends. Surely a man would have to be extremely enraged in order to deny his good friend the love of his sister. This suggests that Oliver believes Roland's actions to be seriously flawed. Since we are told of Oliver's wise character, it would be difficult to dismiss his views.
The question of how much Roland has to reproach himself for is not a straightforward one. It cannot be denied that the massacre could have been avoided, had he acted differently. Yet - without wishing to find excuses for a mortal mistake - there are certain elements, such as the different society in which he lived, which do have to be taken into account when casting judgement.
Secondary and Tertiary Sources:
Eugene Vance - "Style and Value: From Soldier To Pilgrim in the Song Of Roland"
Yale French Studies 1991, pp75-96.
George Fenwick Jones - The Ethos of The Song of Roland
Robert Francis Cook - The Sense of The Song of Roland