La Chanson de Roland, or The Song of Roland, is the oldest surviving French poem. It is also the oldest and greatest of the chansons de geste, medieval epic poems written in French. In old French, "geste" means a deed or action, often of heroic proportions. A hundred or so of these epic poems survive, dating from around the year 1100 to the late fourteenth century. In their time, they were exceedingly popular.
Although we know neither the identity of The Song of Roland's composer nor the date of its composition, most scholars estimate that the poem was written between 1098-1100. This dating puts the poem's origin at the time of the First Crusade, and indeed the poem has been characterized by some scholars as "propaganda" to encourage Christians to take up arms against Islam. "Propaganda" here is a loose term, including a broad range of artistic creations that can intend to push listeners to action or simply paint certain policies or events from a specific perspective. What can be said for certain is that The Song of Roland seems animated by the spirit of the Crusades, a time when the medieval Catholic Church, at the height of its power, sought to expand Christendom into the Holy Land.
The poem describes events happening several centuries earlier, during the reign of the mighty Christian warrior-king Charlemagne. The historical context of the poem therefore straddles several centuries, and to properly understand the poem we must bear in mind its rich historical background.
The poem is a legendary account with some basis in reality: in 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was slaughtered in the Roncesvalles (old French: Rencesvals) pass of the Pyrenees mountains. Accounts from this dark period of European history are always problematic, but the most reliable European account of the event comes from Einhard, Charlemagne's own biographer:
At a moment when Charlemagne's army was stretched out in a long column of march, as the nature of the local defiles forced it to be, these Basques [Wascones], who had set their ambush on the very top of one of the mountains, came rushing down on the last part of the baggage train and the troops who were marching in support of the rearguard and so protecting the army which had gone on ahead. The Basques forced them down into the valley beneath, joined battle with them and killed them to the last man. They then snatched up the baggage, and, protected as they were by the cover of darkness, which was just beginning to fall, scattered in all directions without losing a moment. In this feat the Basques were helped by the lightness of their arms and by the nature of the terrain in which the battle was fought. On the other hand, the heavy nature of their own equipment and the unevenness of the ground completely hampered the Franks in their resistance to the Basques. In this battle died Eggihard, who was in charge of the King's table, Anshelm, the Count of the palace, and Roland, Lord of the Breton Marches, along with a great number of others. What is more, this assault could not be avenged there and then, for, once it was over, the enemy dispersed in such a way that no one knew where or among which people they could be found. (Burgess, 9-10, translated from Einhard's Vita Karoli Magni, or, The Life of Charlemagne)
Those familiar with the events of the poem will notice several divergences between the poem and history. For one thing, the adversaries of the poem are Saracens (called also in the poem "pagans"), not Basque natives. And while Einhard's account mentions Roland, the other chief characters of the poem are missing. According to Einhard, revenge was not possible, but in the poem Charlemagne seeks out an immediate and satisfying revenge that also completes his conquest of Spain.
The campaigns in Spain must be seen within the greater context of Charlemagne's life and times. Charlemagne lived during an era when the tide of Islam seemed unstoppable. Islam, a religion not yet three centuries old, had swept up the world of North Africa and the Middle East. These newly Moslem kingdoms were richer, stronger, and culturally and technologically well ahead of the kingdoms and tribes of Europe. Moslem Spain, to cite one example, was one of the most magnificent parts of Europe: Islam had brought the benefits of sophisticated culture, science, and institutions.
Europe itself was not yet fully Christianized. In many places, particularly in the north, pagan and barbarian tribes still maintained strongholds. The Catholic Church seemed threatened on all sides. The Roman Empire had fallen several centuries before, and life had become less ordered, more dangerous, and far more difficult. Charlemagne was a devout Christian and a fierce warrior, who expanded his Frankish borders until he ruled a Christian empire including large areas of present-day Germany and France, as well as a foothold in Spain. The pope crowned him emperor in 800, recognizing him as a new ruler of the old Western Roman Empire.
The defeat at Roncesvalles forced Charlemagne to rethink his strategy in Spain; he became defensive, focusing on capturing and holding a few strategic areas to act as a buffer between his own empire and Moslem Spain. Eventually his vassals were able to conquer Barcelona in 803, which enabled him to maintain an area under Frankish control called the Spanish March.
The Song of Roland more or less ignores this history, depicting instead a Charlemagne capable of conquering all of Spain. The account is legend. Roland, instead of being "Lord of the Breton March," as detailed by Einhard, is a Frankish lord and Charlemagne's own nephew. The "treachery" of the Christian Basques becomes transformed into the treachery of a single man, Ganelon, and the Basques themselves are replaced by Moslems, whom the poet calls Saracens or pagans. The battles are epic and grand, worthy of intervention by God himself, and historical ambiguities or defeats are ignored.
The spirit is very much that of the Crusades, a period in which the Catholic Church had become strong and ambitious enough to mount a series of determined campaigns in the Holy Land. Centuries had passed since the time of Charlemagne, and if anything history had magnified his persona. He was one of the first great Christian kings, and his legacy was part of what later made the Crusades possible. The poem describes what was impossible for Charlemagne but what would be possible during the Crusades: conquest of fabulously rich Moslem lands. In 1095, Pope Urban II gave a famous speech at the council of Clermont, exhorting all Christians to fight for the recapture of the land of Christ. Warriors who fought for the Holy Land would receive full penance. Archbishop Turpin, the fierce warrior-priest of the poem, reflects this new mentality. He blesses and gives penance to the Franks wholesale before the battle, and promises all that paradise awaits them. The poem also uses Charlemagne and the nobility of his persona, his supposed personal relationship with God, and his reception of divine messages from angels. The poet has no qualms about changing facts to fit in with the spirit of the new Holy Wars.
The Song of Roland consists of roughly 4000 lines of verse, divided into 298 poetic units called laisses. Laisses are irregular in length, from three or four lines to a few hundred, but in The Song of Roland they average under fourteen lines. The lines are mostly decasyllabic, and are connected by assonance (the last word contains a similar vowel sound but not necessarily a perfect rhyme) or by rhyme.
One of the poem's striking features is the use of parallel laisses, in which consecutive laisses echo slightly different versions of the same event. The term is not precise; its key characteristic is a slowing of the pace of narrative and a formula of repetition. We can see this technique at work in the scene where Oliver climbs the hill. Laisses 80 and 81 both start with Oliver at the top of a hill. In both laisses, he reports seeing a vast pagan host. Laisses 83-5 focus on Oliver's request that Roland blow his horn. The request is repeated and refused three times, in very similar terms. But the reader does not have the sense of three requests: rather, one feels that the poet is slowing down his pace and focusing on a single moment, that of Oliver's conversation with Roland, and offering three varying versions of it. The effect is something like a stutter, or a film sequence in slow motion, or, better yet, a film sequence cut so that the same event is seen multiple times from different angles. The consecutive laisses overlap, seeming to repeat partially, but not completely, the same description. The poet will use this technique to great effect during Roland's death scene. Time becomes suspended, and we focus, as if in a dream, on a single, powerful moment.
Another striking feature of the poem is its paratactic structure. Rather than connect sentences with conjunctions, the poet lays down lines one after the other with no connecting words. This kind of format is known as parataxis. Causality and connection between phrases are almost always implicit; this form runs throughout the poem.
Like all epics that were orally recited, The Song of Roland has many formulaic phrases. These phrases were ready on hand to complete a line, and were easy to remember. They fulfill the requirements of the meter and give a pleasing repetition to the poem. The formulaic expression can either occupy the first half, or hemistich, of a line, or the second hemistich. The formulas are most present in the battle scenes, which are very ritualized. Examples are simple: "He spurs on his horse"; "He breaks his shield." The formulas do not occupy the whole line, however, and so monotony is prevented.
The chansons de geste were written to be performed. AOI, repeated in the margins throughout the poem, remains a mystery, but many speculate that it indicates some instruction for the musical accompaniment or some move or cry by the jongleur, or performer. The AOI does seem to appear at key moments, or changes in mood, but theories about the exact purpose of the letters can only be speculation.
The poem would not have necessarily been performed all at once; a skilled jongleur, depending on the occasion, might summarize preceding parts and than perform a small part of the poem. Readers should try to remember that on the page, a crucial part of the poem's art is missing. The Song of Roland was meant to be seen and heard, accompanied by music and in the context of social gatherings and celebration.