Song of Roland Themes

Themes

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Good and Evil

The Song of Roland gives us Good vs. Evil, pure and simple, Star Wars style. The horror of war is not intensified by ambiguous moral justifications, as in Homer's Iliad, nor are heroes deterred by compassion for the enemy, as in the Mahabharata. War is great, even glamorous. The cost is heavy, but only for the heroes. Villains deserve neither compassion nor grief. The Franks represent pure Good; they are moved by the will of God. The Saracens are evil, and on dying their souls are dragged down to hell by devils. Just like the Crusades, the war in The Song of Roland is seen as a holy mission.

Loyalty and Vassalage

Heroism in the poem is based on feudal ideas. Even the pagans in the poem can be considered heroic, when they are evaluated in terms of loyalty and vassalage. The feudal system linked lords and vassals with a series of obligations and loyalties. A vassal gave his total loyalty in exchange for protection and vengeance should the vassal be killed in service of his lord. In The Song of Roland, vassalage is depicted as parallel to Christianity. Roland's ultimate liege lord is God, and it is in serving Charlemagne that Roland fulfills his duties as a Christian.

The Benevolent God

God is all-powerful. God is all-good. These two statements are assumptions for the medieval mind. Characters in The Song of Roland assume that God will intervene in events; it seems perfectly reasonable to believe, for example, that deciding the verdict at Ganelon's trial should be done by combat, because God will supposedly aid the man in the right.

And yet, paradoxically, evil things happen. The poem manages to turn these events into part of God's plan. See the analysis of the seventh section of the poem for further discussion of this topic.

The Will of God and Man's Place

God commands, and Man acts. Although humans sometimes need divine aid to carry out God's plans, much of the hard work is left to men like Charlemagne. Faith in an all-powerful and benevolent God does not mean that we can be complacent. Part of God's plan is to have men carry out his wishes for him. God provides help, but it is in fighting for good that man achieves new heights of greatness.

Duty

Closely connected to the themes of vassalage and the will of God and man's place, duty is one of the key values of the poem. It is for duty, not love of war, that Charlemagne continues to battle against the forces of Islam. It is out of a sense of duty that Roland fights to the death at Rencesvals. Duty causes Charlemagne to avenge Roland's death. In the poem, duty is often linked to love. The bonds between Charlemagne and Roland, or between Roland and his men, are marked by deep respect and affection. Duty arises spontaneously from this love, or should, just as unquestioning duty follows naturally from the sublime love of God.