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Good and Evil in "The Song of Roland"

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Lines from the first laisse of the epic, The Song of Roland express the focus of the poem: the demise of paganism and the victory of the superior, Christianity through the will of God. “Saragossa . . .held by King Marsiliun who does not love God. Marsiliun serves Mohamed and prays to Appolin. But he cannot prevent harm from overtaking him” (3). Here, in the very first lines of the epic, the poet has already clarified the outcome of one who does not love God – harm will overtake him. In The Song of Roland, the poet uses the symmetries and asymmetries of those who are good and those who are evil to illustrate the God’s justice and the superiority of Christianity.

In order to show the power of God and superiority of Christianity, the poet first presents the pagans and Christians as parallel. The only difference between the two groups is that the Christians are depicted as good and the pagans as evil. The parallels between the Christians and pagans are first illustrated prior to the first battle. The Saracen society is portrayed as mirroring the types of knightly virtues the Christians have. For example, Blancandrin is described as, “well endowed with the kind of courage that befits a knight, and he had shrewdness and judgment to bring to the aid of his lord” (4). This symmetry is also illustrated in more subtle ways throughout the poem; Marsiliun’s throne, like Charles’ is placed beneath a pine. There is also symmetry in the result of the first battle. Though, because of Ganelon’s treachery, the Christians lose this battle; the losses Charles and Marsiliun suffer are mirrored. Roland cuts of Marsiliun’s right hand, and Charles loses his metaphorical right hand – Roland. Because the poet sets up the Christian and Saracens so symmetrically, any instances of non-symmetry draw the reader’s attention, evincing some significance.

Charles and Marsiliun’s nephews illustrate a significant example of symmetry changing to asymmetry. Both nephews prove to be equally bold and proud. In response to Charles offering him more troops Roland says: “I will do no such thing. God confound me if I shame my ancestors! I will keep with me twenty thousand Franks . . . and you may go on your way through the pass in utter confidence, and fear no man as long as I am alive” (26). Marsilun’s nephew, Aleroth, echoes Roland’s brashness and pride: “King I have served you long and have known suffering and hardship, and battles fought and won on the field. Grant me on favor: the first blow at Roland. I will kill him . . .Charles will lose heart . . .you will have no more war as long as you live” (29). Aleroth and Roland both use equally prideful language to assure their Kings that they will be victorious. Their pride is also the cause of both of their deaths: Aleroth because he charges forward to make an attempt on Roland’s life and Roland because he is too proud to blow his horn for help. However, the poet treats their deaths noticeably differently. The mirroring that the poet has used up to this point causes any difference between narration about the Christians and pagans to stand out clearly. The poet spends little time on Aleroth’s death, giving it just a mention, but during his description of Roland’s death the narration slows down dramatically. The moment when Roland dies is held out over three laisses, which all describe the same scene. The first ends with, “he offers his glove, as a token of his sins, to God,” the second with, “he has held out his right glove to God. Angels descend out of heaven and come to him,” and the third with, “he offers his right glove to God, and Saint Gabriel takes it from him” (72). Roland’s offering of his right glove to God indicates that Roland is a vassal of God, and God’s acceptance of it through Saint Gabriel acknowledges God as Roland’s ultimate lord. The fact that the moment of Roland’s death is suspended in much narration draws the reader’s attention, just as the poet’s deviation from the typical symmetrical structure evinces its significance. What is significant here is that Roland is saved, as God’s acceptance of his glove illustrates. This evinces the goodness of Roland as a member of the Christian army, and thus, the favor God gives to the Christians.

To continue with the theme of symmetry, the poet balances out Roland’s death with Charles’ vengeance. The poet also creates symmetry with the Christian army led by Charles and the pagan army led by the Emir, Baligant. The poet presents the Emir as a pagan counterpart to Charles. For example, like Charles, Baligant is impossibly old: “[he] has survived both Virgil and Homer” (79). The mirroring between the two also results from Baligant’s effort to imitate Charles. For example Baligant names his sword “Precieuse” because it rhymes with the name of Charles’ sword: “Joyuse.” Because an imitation is usually considered inferior to the original, the poet can maintain the symmetry between Charles and the Emir, while leaving no doubt in the reader’s mind that Charles, and thus Christianity, is superior. The mirroring between Charles and Baligant continues when they battle each other, and this time, unlike in the case of the swords, their actions seem to be simultaneous. The language the poet uses to describe the fight illustrates this: “[they] exchange heavy blows . . .nothing can separate them and the fight cannot end without the death of one or the other” (106). The language the poet uses to describe their battle evokes the idea that the two are evenly matched in skill and strength. The poet does this to construct the need for some divine intervention, which comes when Charles is badly hit:

Charles staggers and almost falls, but it is not God’s will that he should be killed or beaten. Saint Gabriel comes to his side asking: “Great King, what are you doing?” When he hears the holy voice of the angel, Charles loses all fear of death, and his vigor and clearness of mind return. (107)

The poet uses symmetry between the Emir and Charles to create a situation in which God must intervene to end the battle. God, of course, chooses to save Charles. It is an angelic vision, rather than Charles’ strength that turns the battle. This evinces the idea of the justice of God and supports the idea that the morally good will receive victory.

There is a final time in the epic in which not symmetry, but asymmetry in those who are good and evil, is used to illustrate the power of God. Ganelon’s trial is a trial-by-combat. Unlike the case of Charles and Baligant, the poet indicates that the men that will fight, Pinabel and Thierry, are asymmetrical because they are not equally strong. Thierry who fights for the Emperor is described as, “gaunt of limb, and wiry, and quick . . .he is neither very tall nor very short,” while Pinabel who fights for Ganelon is, “tall and strong and brave and quick, and if he strikes a man a blow, the other has come to the end of his days” (114). The poet describes Pinabel in a way that makes it seem as if he will surely win the fight against “gaunt,” “wiry” Thierry. The great difference in the strength of the two once again constructs the need for a Godly intervention; in fact, Thierry says, “may God this day show which of us is in the right” (116). This could be the general cry of the Christians throughout the poem. The poet emphasizes Pinabel’s strength over Thierry’s to make clear that it is the good man and not merely the stronger that wins, and to evince God’s justice for those who are morally good.

God’s justice for the good Christians is illustrated time and time again in the Song of Roland. The poet of The Song of Roland uses symmetry and balance to structure the epic. Ganelon’s treachery is balanced with his trial and death, and Roland’s death is balanced with Charles’ vengeance. Symmetry is used in the descriptions of the Christians and pagans and Charles and Baligant, allowing God’s intervention decide the outcome of combat. The poet also uses instances of asymmetry, such as in the death of Roland versus the death of his counterpart Aleroth. These instances draw the reader’s attention since they deviate from the general structure of the epic, and in the case of Thierry and Pinabel’s combat, the asymmetry constructs a need for the intervention of God to help the good man and not the stronger man win the fight.

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Good and Evil in “The Song of Roland”. (2018, April 13). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from
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