Victory or Honor in ‘The Song of Roland’

In The Song of Roland, there was a great difference in the personalities and military goals of the two main characters; Oliver and Roland. The Song of Roland was a French epic poem written between the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It chronicled an actual event which took place in the 8th century; the invasion of Spain against the Muslims by Charlemagne, and more specifically the battle of Roncevaux pass. In The Song of Roland, Charlemagne was betrayed by one of his counts, Ganelon. Charlemagne was willing to discuss a deal with the nearly defeated Muslim king, Marsilie, and Ganelon was chosen to be the Frank’s messenger. Ganelon wanted to end the war with the Muslims, so he made a deal with Marsilie, saying that Charlemagne’s nephew, Roland was the real reason Charlemagne was so enthusiastic about conquering Spain, and if Marsilie would only kill Roland, the war would end. With the help of Ganelon’s persuasion, Charlemagne decided to put Roland and his friend Oliver in the rearguard, where Marsilie would attack. All the men (including Oliver and Roland) in the rearguard were killed by the Muslim forces after a long struggle. In the end of the poem, Charlemagne came back and revenged his fallen friends by killing all of the Muslims.

There was a great difference between the personalities and priorities of Roland and Oliver, which culminated in stanzas 83 through 87. As the rearguard began to notice the Muslims were advancing with an overwhelming force (20 to one), Oliver entreated Roland three times to blow his trumpet to signal for assistance from Charlemagne. Roland refused to blow his trumpet, on the grounds that he would be throwing away his personal renown, and the reputation of France if he called for help. He said, in stanza 86: “I would rather die than be overtaken with dishonor”. Oliver was concerned with winning the battle, not losing his personal renown. Roland’s idea of military success was honor and glory, Oliver’s idea of military success was victory.

The difference in personality between Oliver and Roland is clearly spelled out in stanza 87: “Roland is valiant and Oliver is wise”. Roland was a warrior, concerned solely with honor. Oliver was a soldier, concerned with military success. The whole epic focused on honor, glory, and vengeance. The wisdom of Oliver was not accepted, the righteousness of Roland was. The purpose of the military conflict, namely victory, was not prioritized in Roland’s thought, and subsequently the poem’s worldview. Prioritized over military victory in the poem was the idea of righteousness, honor, and sacrifice.

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One thought on “Victory or Honor in ‘The Song of Roland’

  1. I’m glad that you didn’t focus on the inconsistencies of the poem! I thought your thesis was nicely focused. My main criticism is that you used the phrase “difference in personalities” to start each paragraph. In your next effort, try to use a more active voice in your writing. Instead of “There was a great difference between the personalities and priorities of Roland and Oliver, which culminated in stanzas 83 through 87”, try this: The great difference between the personalities and priorities of Roland and Oliver culminated in stanzas…. Or something similar.

    Looking forward to the next one!

    Like

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