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Manipulation in "The Song of Roland"

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The First Crusade took place from the year 1096 to 1099. According to Robert the Monk’s retelling of Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont, the Pope describes the enemy as, “…a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God…” This description is meant to set the Christians, whom Pope Urban was addressing, apart from the pagans.

The Song of Roland served a similar purpose for the French people at the time of the Second Crusade, nearly fifty years later. By manipulating the details of the actual Battle of Roncevaux Pass, The Song of Roland reveals a nation caught up in the hatred of foreign and pagan cultures in the midst of the Second Crusade.

The Song of Roland is based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass that took place in 778; however, the story’s author took many liberties in his retelling. The battle was originally between two Christian sides, the Franks and the Basques (source), and the Basque forces would not have equaled 400,000 men as is suggested in the fictionalized version. Charlemagne was also not 200 years old.

The distinctive difference between the factual account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and the version told in The Song of Roland is a curious one. The Song of Roland is thought to have been written somewhere between 1129 and 1165, nearly 400 years after the battle took place. The story would have been passed by oral tradition for those four centuries, and it is not a stretch to assume that many details would not remain the same.

However, it is unlikely that the opposing force could have changed from the Basques to the Saracens naturally. Instead, the author of The Song of Roland may have made this change deliberately as a type of propaganda for the Second Crusade. A story that brought about the exact type of religious zeal that led to the Crusades in the first place.

Though they were partially involved, the First Crusade unfolded largely without France. When the Second Crusade came around, however, the French were eager to fight. The French Christians possessed a real hatred for the Muslims that they would eventually war against, and that hatred is portrayed, and perhaps even amplified in, The Song of Roland. Brewster Fitz says in his article, “Cain as Convict and Convert?

The narrative of the Song of Roland projects a new order of Christianity, which stands in relation to the pre-crusading order as the New Testament era to the Old Testament era. Such a narrative is guilt-driven. Its telos is to judge, convict, slay or convert all forms of the Other, whether within or without, while sacrificially absolving radical guilt.

This goal of Christianizing the whole world is precisely the line of thinking that sparked the Crusades, and The Song of Roland goes so far as to manipulate history in order to put forth a message supporting that line of thinking. Interestingly, the Second Crusade took place from 1147-1149, a three year span that fits nicely within the time frame in which The Song of Roland was supposedly written. This supports the theory that the Basques were transformed into the Saracens so that the battle could be viewed as a religious one, a clear instance of Muslim treachery in history that the French could draw from in their real life battle against pagan culture.

Focusing now on the fictional account, The Song of Roland focuses on two particular groups: the Franks and the Saracens. The Franks are the “good guys,” the group that the reader is meant to associate with and root for. The Franks are Christians, God-fearing men who hold their religion dearly. They are portrayed as an upright and loving people, even going so far as to the pray for their enemies the Saracens. Though a minor detail, it is also worth mentioning that the Franks are a fair-skinned people as this is in deliberate contrast with the darker skin of the Saracens. Their leader, Charlemagne is described as mighty and righteous. In the very first stanza it says:

  • Charles the King, our Lord and Sovereign,
  • Full seven years hath sojourned in Spain,
  • Conquered the land, and won the western main,
  • Now no fortress against him doth remain.

Charlemagne is a sovereign ruler and a mighty conqueror. This bit of tribute would have immediately won the support of any twelfth-century Frenchmen.

If the Franks are a portrait of morality and reason, the Saracens are the opposite. The Saracens are pagans who do not worship the true God. Their king, Marsile, “feareth not God’s name,” (1.7) and he “invokes Apollin’s aid,” (1.8). Apollin most likely refers to the Greek god Apollo, a deity that the Franks would have considered pagan. If this contrast was not enough, the author says:

  • King Marsilies he lay at Sarraguce,
  • Went he his way into an orchard cool;
  • There on a throne he sate, of marble blue.

Charlemagne travels, conquers, rules. In contrast, King Marsilies “lays” in his cool orchard where he sits comfortably on his throne. He is not a strong, inspiring leader like Charlemagne, but the opposite. Furthermore, the Saracens, as the antagonists, are simply construed as evil. Their only goal is to defeat the just and righteous Franks.

These Saracens are considered the cultural “other” in The Song of Roland because their culture is pitted against that of the Franks. Their differences are highlighted to display the contrast between the two races of people, and further cement the Franks as the indisputable “good guys.” Parallelism is used to draw quick comparisons between the Franks and the Saracens. The Franks are Christian, and the Saracens are pagans. The Franks are a loving people and the Saracens are not. The Franks are fair-skinned, and the Saracens have dark skin.

This method creates two sides, one distinctly good and one distinctly bad, and helps the reader to become involved in the story quickly by placing everything, literally, in black and white terms. This practice is common in all periods of literature; however, it is especially important in The Song of Roland due to the historical context of the tale. This defining of the Saracens as the “other” is in keeping with Fitz’s analysis of the supposed “new era of Christianity” in which all “others” must be converted or destroyed.

In this chanson de geste, Charlemagne’s fight against the Moslems appears to be a prototype of every crusade, to the extent that, despite all the odds, Christians-the French in this case-will win a decisive victory. The argument seems to hold that their unshakable belief in Christ will make the French strong enough to defeat the pagan enemy. That belief was succinctly expressed in the famous apothegm: “Paien unt tort et crestens unt dreit”.

The final line of that quote is the most important. The French sincerely believed that the Pagans were in the wrong and the Christians were in the right. This idea justified religious wars such as the Crusades in the minds of the Franks, and as the parallelism in The Song of Roland suggests, is the entire basis for Charlemagne’s fictitious war against the Saracens.

Further evidence of The Song of Roland as thinly veiled political propaganda is littered throughout the story, hidden in plain sight in the author’s word choice and obviously biased analysis. Seated in his orchard, Marsile declares Charles and the French forces to be superior. He says to his advisors:

My Lords, give ear to our impending doom:

  • That Emperour, Charles of France the Douce,
  • Into this land is come, us to confuse.
  • I have no host in battle him to prove,
  • Nor have I strength his forces to undo.

Charlemagne displays chivalrous virtue and militaristic confidence by facing his enemy head-on. Marsile, on the other hand, believes his to be the weaker people, and relies on dishonorable tactics in order to get the better of the Franks. The treacherous Guene, or Ganelon, arrives in King Marsilies court to deliver Charlemagne’s message that the Saracens must “receive the holy Christian Faith” (33.7); however, Marsile will hear none of it, and soon Ganelon’s ulterior motives come to light. He suggests that Marsile should sneak up on the French company. His advice is as follows:

  • Five score thousand pagans upon them lead,
  • Franks unawares in battle you shall meet,
  • Bruised and bled white the race of Franks shall be;

Marsile jumps at an opportunity to eliminate the Franks, rather than convert to their “true” faith, and in the process he disregards all honor and ethical dilemmas in a classically pagan fashion.

It is impossible to know for certain what inspired these particular changes to the story of The Battle of Roncevaux Pass; however, there are several indicators including the time period in which The Song of Roland was authored, as well as the shift from a Christian enemy to a Muslim one, that suggest these changes were intended to conjure up feelings of religious zeal and a strong hatred toward pagan cultures. The French people, along with several other Christian groups at the time of the Crusades, believed that it was their duty to cleanse the world of wicked pagans, and The Song of Roland acts as a perfect reflection of that imagined responsibility.

Works Cited

  1. Fitz, Brewster E. “Cain as Convict and Convert? Cross-Cultural Logic in the “Song of Roland”” MLN 113.4 (1998): 812-22. Jstor. Johns Hopkins University Press. Web. 26 May 2015.
  2. Kablitz, Andreas. “Religion and Violence in the Song of Roland.” MLN 126.4 (2011): S115,S158,S181. ProQuest. 26 May 2015 .
  3. Moncrief, C. K., trans. The Song of Roland. Project Gutenberg, 20 July 2008. Web. 24 May 2015.
  4. “Urban II (1088-1099): Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095.” Medieval Sourcebook. Dec. 1997. Web. 11 May 2015.

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