‘Marvels’ in the Song of Roland

Hello again intarwubs… it’s coming down to thesisy crunch time, and I really haven’t the brain to be coming up with new medieval content. But here’s a paper I gave for my French class!

[UPDATED NOTE, 2010: This post keeps drawing lots of google hits from students who are obviously taking the same fourth-year French course at the University of Sydney as I did. Take it from me, students: DO NOT plagiarise this post, or cite it, or anything. You may, however, mine my footnotes if you wish.]


‘Le Merveilleux’ in the Chanson de Roland

Let us talk about ‘le Merveilleux’ in the Chanson de Roland. As I frequently have to be reminded, the term doesn’t mean ‘miracles’, but, in the case of Roland, we will be talking about miracles and divine manifestations. Other things we will be talking about include: Charlemagne’s active dream life; the weather’s deep interest in Roland’s health and wellbeing; a few mentions of divine intervention on someone’s behalf, as with Thierry in the judicial duel; Roland’s reception into heaven by Gabriel and Michael. Then we have the spectacular strength of all the major characters, but particularly of Roland, Olivier and Turpin; Roland’s ability to blow his brains right out his ears with his horn-blowing; and the ridiculously long time that all our heroes continue, after receiving mortal wounds, to run around bashing people heroically before dying with appropriate glory. For supernatural items, we have the sword of Roland (given to him by Charlemagne after a divine vision), and Charlemagne’s varicoloured sword Joyeuse, both of which are miraculous in their own right, and both of which also bear holy relics which invoke saintly protection upon their bearers and the French generally.

From all of this, there are several directions of enquiry one can take. I found, for example, that there was an extremely contentious debate in the 1920s regarding whether or not Charlemagne’s allegorical dreams were ‘proof of Teutonic influences due […] to the Norman descent of the author’.[1] More relevantly, there was a little squabble in Speculum in the early 60s, involving Alain Renoir and D.D.R Owen, drawing particularly on the work of Piere le Gentil before them, over whether or not Roland constitutes a true martyr, which drew heavily on these aspects of the poem.[2] However, I feel the role of les merveilleux, in marking out the character of our hero, was underestimated in this conflict. Accordingly, I will be looking at that which is ‘marvelous’ about Roland himself, and at the role external supernatural signs play in indicating his character.

The first marvel we must consider is Roland himself. The most outstanding thing about Roland- and we know, because the poet goes on about it for laisse after laisse– is that he is a supremely excellent warrior. He conquers vast swathes of land for Charlemagne; in the doomed battle he sets out to ferrai de Durendal granz colps (l. 1055), and does exactly that, bashing in heads and impaling people left right and centre. When he goes to blow his horn, he doesn’t just blow the horn- he bursts his temples with his heroic determination to do everything to the extreme- and then he fights on until he is the last man standing, attends to the bodies of his friends, and then dies facing the enemy. This is, needless to say, beyond the scope of normal men. The second remarkable thing about Roland is that he apparently dies a martyr’s death, which we shall return to in a moment.

Let us stop here to consider what kind of hero Roland represents. I’m going to take a detour for a moment into Beowulf studies. Not because I want to compare Roland to Beowulf- this would be interesting but largely pointless, I feel. However, there’s a discourse of heroism there which is relevant to understanding Roland, too. Fred C. Robinson, in his 1974 article ‘Elements of the Heroic in the Characterisation of Beowulf’, argued that there were two possible modes of heroism: the ‘high mimetic hero’, whom Robinson characterises as a ‘heroic man’, capable of extraordinary feats but not characterised by supernatural powers himself; or the ‘romance hero’, who is not only superior to other men in degree but also bestowed with supernatural powers which make him superior to his environment and thus different to other men in kind.[3] The heroic man, as Robinson articulates it, is like other men only more so: his human powers are magnified to the point of the marvellous, in order to indicate that which the best of men is capable against all odds. The romance hero, on the other hand, is removed from other men by his supernatural powers, and his tale becomes all about the fabulous. Now, I’m not sure what definition of Romance Robinson is working on here- as far as I can tell, high Romance heroes are still supposed to be an imitable example in their personal qualities if not their actions. And I know my supervisor Dan is currently happily shredding Robinson’s argument with regard to Beowulf. But all of that is beside the point for our purposes: for our purposes, Robinson’s paramaters will do, because they allow us to see that Roland does indeed differ from other warriors in degree rather than in kind.

This, then, is how we should view Roland’s extraordinary personal strength: he is not superhuman, but rather a super-hero. And sure enough we find that our other heroes are endowed with similar qualities of strength and endurance, although to a degree which is slightly less than that of Roland: Olivier is wounded and still fighting even though he has been blinded; Turpin, like Roland, outlives all of the enemy warriors. All the heroes of the cycle are figures of human heroism writ large: Roland is not unique in his ethos, or his feats, but in the scale at which he performs them.

Now, let us consider the role of marvelous signs in marking out Roland as an exceptional hero, beginning with his sword. In lines 2319-2321 we find out that Roland is indirectly appointed by God as Charles’ captain. Roland’s sword Durendal was given to Charlemagne in an angelic vision, with instructions to pass it on to one of his Captains, and Charlemagne presented it to Roland. Durendal becomes the physical embodiment of Roland’s martial prowess: the Saracens talk about going up against Durendal as well as against Roland (cf. ll. 926, 988); Roland himself emphasises that he will strike with Durendal (l. 1055). Finally, in the scene right before his death (ll. 2297-2354), Roland attempts to break Durendal on the rocks of Roncevaux, but the sword remains miraculously resilient. Just as Roland is not destroyed in battle, Durendal cannot be destroyed by Roncevaux. Furthermore, Roland accompanies his attempts at destroying the sword with a monologue about all the lands he has conquered for Charlemagne wielding Durendal, cementing this symbolic association between Roland as conquering hero and the sword he bears. [4]

In the aforementioned squabble back in the sixties, Alain Renoir analysed Roland’s speech to his troops in the middle of the battle as a conversion point. According to Renoir, Roland’s lament that the French will due pur mei constitutes an acknowledgement of fault.[5] Roland’s fault, according to Renoir, is firstly the pride demonstrated in the opening of the poem, but more importantly the sin of demesure: the pursuit of a noble end to a reckless degree.[6] D.D.R. Owen, who titled his paper ‘The Secular Inspiration of the Chanson de Roland’, argued that the religious framework of Roland’s life is flimsy; that the poet places most emphasis on the fact that he dies a conqueror, facing into enemy territory, than on Roland’s faith. In particular, he argued that Roland’s address to his soliders in the middle of the battle does not constitute recognition of, let alone repentance for, the sin of démesure.[7] In this, I agree with him: Roland’s heroic prowess is celebrated, and although it is clear that prudence is not his virtue, negative assessments of Roland’s character are largely based on Oliver’s criticisms of his companion,[8] despite the fact that the poet sets them clearly as equals- ambedui unt merveillus vasselage (l. 1094). Roland merits his reception into heaven by his martial heroism- he merits an exceptional reception, at the hands of the Archangels themselves, because he is exceptionally heroic.

D.D.R Owen does not discuss the marvelous elements of the poem in relation to Roland’s ‘secular’ character, which is a particular weakness of his argument. In Durendal alone, we have an angelic vision, and a supernatural sword, signifying divine investment in, and blessing upon, Roland as a vassal. He is not directly ordained as a warrior by God; he recieves his sword, and his divine mandate, through Charlemagne. Furthermore, we are of the sword’s divine origins in the same laisse as we are told of Roland’s attempt to destroy it. Here, we have an equally valid refutation of Renoir’s argument: Roland is not condemned by God or poet in the first part of the poem, only to undergo a conversion mid-conflic and go on to die a holy martyr. On the contrary, here we have clear evidence, stated at the end of Roland’s life, that God ordained him from the beginning; and in the sword’s failure to break, I believe we have a statement that all of Roland’s career has been blessed and approved of by God.

Within the poem, Roland is marked out as unique by his martyr’s death. As Eugene Vance points out in his 1991 article ‘Style and Value: From Soldier to Pilgrim in the Song of Roland’, when Charlemagne finds Roland, he finds that his nephew has effectively made his own sanctuary: surrounded by rocks of marble, Roland dies in a cruciform position, like a saint’s statue, and (although Charlemagne does not know it), Roland has already been welcomed into Heaven by Michael and Gabriel themselves.[9] The narrator does not pause over any other character to tell us that they are personally received into heaven by Michael and Gabriel; no one else is noted to have died in cruciform position. Gerard Brault, in a 1971 article entitled ‘Structure et Sens de la Chanson de Roland’, used typological analysis to interpret the Chanson. By this method, he interprets Charlemagne as an Abrahamic patriarch figure: ordained and sent forth by God; father of God’s people; called to sacrifice his son (or, in this case, nephew). Ganelon becomes a Judas figure, and Roland the Christlike martyr.[10]

Why, then, do we see no evidence of divine intervention on Roland’s part during the battle? Here, I’m going to change sides again and agree with Owen- I think he underestimates the religious framework of the chanson, but he’s right that the Christ-type is not the strongest element of Roland’s characterisation. It is unarguably there, particularly in all the storms and turmoil which begin at the third hour of the day (the hour the sky went dark for Christ on the cross) and continue until after Roland’s death. However, there is nothing particularly holy about Roland’s personal characterisation: his defining traits all the way through are those of the hero. Brault himself does understand the centrality of Roland’s heroism, taking issue- like Owen- with Renoir and le Gentil’s argument that Roland’s recklessness does not constitute a sin. Rather than a sin, Roland’s courage and heroism merit a martyr’s death.[11] That, I think, is the fundamental reason why we don’t see God intervening on Roland’s behalf on the battlefield: because that would remove him from the realm of human heroism.

This is not to say that Roland is not marked out as of particular interest to God throughout the battle. We do not find out until his death scene that his sword is of divine origin, but Charlemagne’s active dream life serves to keep us aware that God and the angels are deeply invested in the fortunes of Roland, as do the storms and natural disasters leading up to his death. This begins with the dream in which Ganelon breaks Charlemagne’s lance- a fairly straightforward symbolic association with Roland, in my mind (ll. 720-725). After that, the dreams get more complex in their symbolism, which I’m not about to go into here because quite frankly dream-symbolism makes my head hurt.

In order to divert your attention from my laxity in matters of allegorical dream interpretation, I’m going to point out the significance of the fact that they are Charlemagne’s dreams. Roland himself never experiences a moment of divine revelation, until the point of his reception into heaven. He serves Charlemagne, and through Charlemagne, he serves God. Charlemagne’s dreams, his sword Joyeuse which shifts and changes colour (l. 2502) combined with Charlemagne’s patriarchal status, serve to glorify him and elevate him as a living saint. Roland, on the other hand, is not represented as particularly holy, but sanctified by his service as a vassal to Charlemagne.

Thus, to come back full circle:

I would argue that Renoir, le Gentil before him, and more recently, Eugene Vance, are correct in that Roland is glorified and dies a martyr’s death. However, the argument which Renoir presented, based on a supposed conversion moment mid-battle, is insupportable, not because- as Owen argues- the poem is insufficiently spiritual, but because the poem glorifies martial heroism and feudal service as meriting the best of Christian rewards.

It’s not complex theology. It’s probably not even orthodox all the way through. But I don’t think that the poet is even concerned, as Renoir and Owen are, with the sin of demesure or Roland’s inner holiness. Turpin promises the Frankish warriors that they will all be rewarded in heaven, without moralising; Roland, as the best of warriors, merits the best reward. Furthermore, the distribution of marvelous signs throughout the poem: Charlemagne’s dreams; the turmoil in the weather; the divine origins of Roland’s sword, and its refusal to break at the last; serve to reinforce the fact of divine blessing upon Roland’s heroism from the moment he enters Charlemagne’s service, right through the course of the poem, and finally at his death.


Primary Sources:

  • Burgess, Glynn (trans): The Song of Roland (Penguin: London, 1990).
  • Short, Ian (ed & trans): La Chanson de Roland, 2nd ed, Le Livre de Poche 4524 (Librarie Générale Française: Paris, 1990).

Secondary Readings:

  • Brault, Gérard J: ‘Structure et Sens de la Chanson de Roland’, The French Review XLV, Special Issue No 3. (1971), pp. 1-12.
  • Krappe, Alexander Haggerty: ‘The Dreams of Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland’, Papers of the Modern Literature Association 36.2 (1921), pp 134-141.
  • Owen, D.D.R.: ‘The Secular Inspiration of the Chanson de Roland’, Speculum 37.3 (1962), pp 390-400.
  • Paden, William D.: ‘Tenebrism in the “Song of Roland”’, Modern Philology 86.4 (1989), pp 339-356 (p. 346-348).
  • Renoir, Alain: ‘Roland’s Lament: Its Meaning and Function in the Chanson de Roland’, Speculum 35.4 (1960), pp 572-583.
  • Robinson, Fred C.: ‘Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterisation of Beowulf: a Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence’, in Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope, pp 119-138.
  • Vance, Eugene: Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Neb., 1986), p. 66.
  • Vance, Eugene: ‘Style and Value: From Soldier to Pilgrim in the Song of Roland’, Yale French Studies 80 (1991) pp 75-96.

[1] Alexander Haggerty Krappe, ‘The Dreams of Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland’, Papers of the Modern Literature Association 36.2 (1921), pp 134-141 (p. 134).

[2] Alain Renoir, ‘Roland’s Lament: Its Meaning and Function in the Chanson de Roland’, Speculum 35.4 (1960), pp 572-583.
D.D.R. Owen, ‘The Secular Inspiration of the Chanson de Roland’, Speculum 37.3 (1962), pp 390-400.

[3] Fred C. Robinson, ‘Elements of the Marvellous in the Characterisation of Beowulf: a Reconsideration of the Textual Evidence’, in Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope, pp 119-138 (p. 119-120).

[4] Eugene Vance, Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Neb., 1986), p. 66.

[5] Renoir, ‘Roland’s Lament’, p. 573-4.

[6] Renoir, ‘Roland’s Lament’, pp 575-577.

[7] Owen, ‘Secular Inspiration’, 393-396.

[8] William D. Paden, ‘Tenebrism in the “Song of Roland”’, Modern Philology 86.4 (1989), pp 339-356 (p. 346-348).

[9] Eugene Vance, ‘Style and Value: From Soldier to Pilgrim in the Song of Roland’, Yale French Studies 80 (1991) pp 75-96, (pp. 84, 90).

[10] Gérard J Brault, ‘Structure et Sens de la Chanson de Roland’, The French Review XLV, Special Issue No 3. (1971), pp. 1-12 (pp. 8-9).

[11] Brault, ‘Structure et Sens de la Chanson de Roland’, p. 10.



One Response to “‘Marvels’ in the Song of Roland”

  1. Mark Phillips Says:

    Subj: Song of Roland / Song of Charlemagne

    I am in possession of a typewritten english manuscript dated November, 1965 authored by Alladore L DeNiers, (self-described poet, historian and special consultant on ancient languages) Aachen, which purports to be a translation with notes of The Song of Charlemagne by Ahmer ibn Acsmer discovered in 1964 near Adrar, Algeria.

    I am seeking to correspond with someone who might be able to corroborate its authenticity and/or value to the scholarly community.

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