Yesterday: The Persian Expedition Tomorrow: Nicomachean Ethics Twitter: @GreatBooksDude
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Yesterday I focused on my favorite ride, Haunted Mansion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E60nt-_f6Sw). Errrr, I related the great Anabasis of The Persian Expedition to it. Today I will focus on a similar work, the great French epic poem, The Song of Roland.
A two-hundred-year-old Charlemagne is with his army trying to wrest control of Spain from the Moors and their king Marsiliun. But Charlemagne decides to sue for peace and needs to send an ambassador. A discussion is held among his army; Marsiliun killed the last ambassador, a faithless act in violation of the laws of nature and of nations, so nobody wishes to go; moreover nobody volunteers to go. The brave Roland finally speaks up, nominating his stepfather Guenelun to go, and Charlemagne approves it. Guenelun is P-I-S-S-E-D PISSED. So he formulates a plot to get his revenge.
When he arrives at Marsiliun’s court, Guenelun strikes a deal whereby in exchange for some pretty good dough he will have the French withdraw from Spain, leaving a small rearguard under Roland’s command. Marsiliun is to send to battle forces to slaughter this force; the first will be killed to a man by Roland’s corps, but they will exhaust him, and the second will finish him off.
The plan is agreed to and put into execution. Roland is left with his buddy Oliver and the Archbishop Turpin. As they see the first battalion of Moors marching forward, they realize something is up, and Oliver encourages Roland to blow the trumpet to call Charlemagne back; Roland refuses, saying he would be a coward to do so. Indeed they fight bravely and destroy the first force. But when the second comes into sight, they realize they must call Charlemagne back. So Roland blows the trumpet, and the exhaustion coupled with the effort cause his temple to burst, and he dies. The whole corps that was left with him is also killed. Charlemagne instantly recognizes what Guenelun has done, has him tied and left with the cooks of his kitchen, and returns to the field. Seeing the dead bodies and engaging with the second force of Moors (which has been joined by a force of more authentic, Middle Eastern Muslims), which he defeats soundly, he takes the Moorish queen back to Aix-la-Chappelle, converts her to Christianity, and has Guenelun put on trial. A duel of honor is fought to determine his guilt; he is found guilty, and he is drawn and quartered. Charlemagne then wishes for some rest, but is called forth by an angel to fight more battles.
There is so much in this epic that it may be the third or fourth most valuable piece I have ever read. But do not look for it in schools, because schools must be “politically correct.” This book contrasts Christian values with Muslim values, claiming they are different; like The Iliad, it describes a conflict of civilizations. If The Iliad remains relevant in part because it describes a 10-year war in the Middle East, The Song of Roland describes a lengthy combat with Muslims, which must be of equal or greater value, since we just engaged in two and may well be involved in a few more in short order. In turning our society into a bunch of raging fucking weenieheads (I had to, this is how I usually describe Pau Gasol but it’s been 2 and a half months since I was able to do that!), the school system has in essence taken one of the most powerful and resourceful pieces of literature ever written out of circulation. Again this book should be required for those involved in foreign policy, at think tanks, working as journalists both visual and written, and in entertainment. Yet far from being required, it is simply not taught at all.
There are two elements of this poem that particularly strike me. The first is that despite Roland’s portrayal as the flower of French chivalry in all its glory, both he and Guenelun are probably equally bad, if Roland is not worse. But Roland pushes his iniquity under the guise of Christian charity; he claims the mission on which he sends Guenelun is consistent with his honor, knowing at the same time the likelihood of it being a death sentence. In essence he is dirty but subtle. On the other hand Guenelun is quite open about his hatred for Roland, and he simply believes that one bad turn deserves another. Neither of these are men I’d love to meet. But Guenelun also, in the process, damages the king’s army, so he is considered by the state to be the greater traitor. And that’s where this poem ultimately leads me: Roland is worse than Guenelun, but Guenelun is considered the greater traitor because his betrayal extends to the King, who in this poem is presented as omniscient and omnipotent, an agent of the divine on Earth. And even at that (as I’ll get to in the next paragraph), Roland is himself as much a factor in that portion of the king’s army being wiped out, but he is considered innocent in how he does it because (a possibly senile?) Charlemagne likes him. If epics are nationalist by nature and reflect the first principles of the societies in which they are written, then it is no wonder that The Song of Roland would be a French epic, since France ultimately became the most authoritative state in Western Europe. When I cover Beowulf you’ll see the differences in this regard between the French and Anglo-Saxon epics.
The second thing that really hits me hard about this epic is the question of Roland’s honor. Roland refuses to blow the trumpet, but then the question becomes, is he brave or is he stupid? Adding to the contention that he might be stupid is the fact that he had advice from others to blow the trumpet. And we generally consider someone stupid if they do something that looks like it won’t turn out well when others can and do tell them this and they still don’t listen. But Roland is depicted in such a way as to arouse our highest aspirations, so instead of blaming him we are led unwittingly to see him as a victim. What does honor mean when we are going to die, anyways? This is Montaigne’s great question, and nowhere is it more alive–if possibly less answerable–than in The Song of Roland.
The poem as a whole is short, about 130 pages of half-lines, broken into short vignettes of varying length. In some cases these vignettes simply repeat themselves twice or three times, to give the effect of the same moment having happened multiple times; this is done either 1) to show the effects of an event on different perceptions of it; or 2) to indicate the weight of the moment. But it does not make for difficult reading. So again we come to the part where I say it takes 2 days, it’s more interesting and more valuable than anything our school system teaches, and it’s therefore not taught at all. Read it yourself, goddamn it! And study it with me next summer in my course on the great epic poems!