Not google penance, but google-warning

Dear everyone who’s googling for information on the supernatural in the Song of Roland:

I recognise that essay question. Anything you find in this blog has already been submitted, two years ago, in the same class you’re taking. Your lecturer is my current supervisor.* Do not even think of plagiarising, it will only end badly. Feel free to mine my footnotes though!

*Ed: apparently she’s not taking the course this year. Point still stands.

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‘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.

Bibliography

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.

 

Guerilla Medievalism!

This I learnt today, courtesy of the Cambridge Companion to Old French Literature:

During the Occupation of France (WWII), a French patriot whose name I have forgotten arranged for the editing, covert publication, and distribution of all known recensions of the Chanson de Roland.

*Grins* Who said medieval studies wasn’t good for anything?

Roland and Gawain- further expoundings

I foolishly drank red wine at Formal Dinner, and got all teary over a UNICEF presentation, and now I don’t feel like doing any work. So what I’m going to do is, I’m going to trick myself into writing my commentary for my Gawain class tomorrow by putting it online. Sound fair?

First up, if you’re wondering what’s going on, read this morning’s post about the parrallels between the Charlemange/Roland and Arthur/Gawain relationships. (note- thanks for the tip-off about Ralph the Collier, Jeff. I’m going to see if Middle English Reading Group will help me out with it.)

This morning, I looked at the structural relationships between Roland and Gawain in the courts to which they respectively belong. (Now, I must note that it’s over a year since I read Roland, in translation, and my copy thereof is now in the hands of the Goblin. So I’m really pulling things out of my backside here.) There are two further aspects of the two heroes which I feel worth investigating: one, their personal natures, and two, their wider settings.

The Character of the Hero

No one ever accused Roland of being the sharpest sword in the armoury, did they? If I had my copy (I think it’s the Penguin?) here, I would quote to you from the introduction, but as is, you’ll have to trust me when I say that the editor, whose name I’ve forgotten, talks about just this fact. Roland isn’t the quickest of wit, or the wisest. Not much of a tactician, nor, one suspects, was he really one for courtly poncing around. Rather, he is young, and beautiful, and brave, and that is all that is required of him. See enemy, hoist banner, charge. Instant hero.

The editor of my Roland (damn, I wish I could remember her name…) had some very eloquent phrases to the effect that ‘The phrase ‘Middle Ages’ are a misnomer… these are the young ages’- young, good-looking, brash and overconfident. We’re talking about eleventh century Francophonia1 here, the height of the Feudal era, but before the chivalric code and courtly literature had really taken off. Roland and his cohort are defined as knights by two things: their relationship with one another, and their courage. Intelligence and refinement are not held at a high premium.

Now, turning to Gawain. He’s a knight cut from the same mould as Roland. He is young, and beautiful. He is known for his valiant courage, and demonstrates this against tangible enemies in the wilderness of the Wirral. He loves his uncle the king steadfastly. Intelligence is not his strong point. (I have a complicated anaylsis of this, but a) i’m not that generous with the internet, and b), it’s really kind of boring to sit through.) Suffice it to say, Gawain is perfectly equipped to deal with the dangers right in front of him, but he is completely flummoxed by the otherworldly machinations of The Green Knight, Morgan and the Lady. He just plain doesn’t know what’s going on, or how to deal with it, and in the face of these mind-games he is lead into a spiral of deceit, cowardice and sin.

Which brings us to…

The Hero’s world

It doesn’t matter that Roland isn’t the pointiest pike in the rack. His world- or his poet, if you like- doesn’t ask it of him. It asks only beauty and courage and loyalty, and these he has aplenty. Gawain, likewise not the bendiest bow in the rank, would be quite at home in Roland’s world.

* Roland’s life is defined by deep homosocial relationships.2 Roland is off with his troops, under the command of his uncle, supported by his foster-brother Olivier. Gawain, meanwhile, is off on his journey alone, into a world where the homosocial is undermined by the homosexual. Does Gawain even know what he would have to give to the Lord if he had his way with the Lady?

Gawain’s masculinity is at stake. Before I go on talking about hetero/homosexual, it’s worth making the disclaimer that I know these categories don’t cookie-cutter fit the Middle Ages. I prefer a disctinction which David L Boyd makes and then passes over, which is that (high) medieval (western european) sexuality is a binary not of hetero/homosexual but top/bottom, the former being appropriate to a man and the latter to a woman. M/M sex is dangerous because it feminises one or both of the participants. Boyd argues that Gawain would be feminised, in that he would have to offer what the Lady gave him, a ‘receptacle’. He doesn’t go that far, happily (for him, if not for future slash fans), but there’s a whole lot of complicated scholarship (see Boyd and Shiela Fisher, for starters), explaining how the girdle is feminising and the axe-wound is a vaginal symbol and so on. Point is, the whole setup runs Gawain in circles, and is a far cry from the straightforward manly bonding of Roland.

As someone known as Nathaniel (sorry, I don’t remember where you blog…) pointed out to me the other day, fourteenth century England had good reason to be concerned about the erosion of boundaries between the homosocial bonds of the feudal order and potential homosexual bonds, in the form of Edward II and his ‘favourites’. Gawain, and the straightforward heroic order he represents, are threatened.

* Roland’s world is utterly devoid of female sexuality. It’s not devoid of women: Bramimunde, in the Saracen court, is an active character. But on Roland’s side, there is only the distant Aude, a token passed between Olivier and Roland to cement their brotherly affection. This looks like a perfect example of Boyd’s heterosex-as-vehicle-for-homosexual-desire trope, but I don’t buy it, in this case. Marrying sisters is a good way to tie two men and their families together in a political as well as affectionate alliance. (And if you like your sister, you’d probably rather her married to someone you know and trust…) IMHO, it’s significant that Roland never makes it home to Aude and the marriage (and the sex) never takes place.

At Hautdesert, however, heterosex does imply some kind of homosexual exchange, as I noted above. Gawain can’t be quite certain of that, though. What he can be certain of is that he’s faced with transgressive and aggressive female sexuality. I’m digging in my heels and maintaining that the Lady is dominant, at least in the first temptation scene. At the very least, the boundary between masculine/top and feminine/bottom is blurred.

Furthermore, the machinations of female sexuality are behind all this confusion. As Boyd points out, the blame for transgressive homosexual desires is shifted onto women; his women-as-objects-between-men thesis can be inverted, and the men become ‘taken men’ in women’s power, as Shiela Fisher argues. Sadly neither of them consider the sexual implications of this- what does it mean for the Lady to instigate a homosexual exchange? If Gawain knows he may have to ‘pay back’ Bertilak, does he think Bertilak has orchestrated it, or the Lady? And then, at the end of the poem, we find out that Morgan is behind the whole operation. As a result of his ‘trafficking’ with women, as Sheila Fisher puts it, Gawain dons the girdle and loses his heroic standing. Women, to put it bluntly, are dangerous and they’re undermining the masculine warrior code by which Roland lived and Gawain ought to live.

* Roland’s enemies are this-worldly and they stay that way. He’s facing a whole pile of Saracens, all he has to do is charge them down and die heroically. His conflict is that between sensible tactics and his stubborn pride- pride wins, and he gets to be a hero. Bonus points.

Gawain’s enemies, on the other hand, can’t make up their mind if they’re otherwordly or thisworldly. First off, he has the otherworldly Green Knight, who is scary as hell. Next, he has the Lady, who ought to be thisworldly but is behaving very transgressively. Then there’s the fact that his host, apparently thisworldly, is also the otherworldly Green Knight. And finally we find out that the whole apparently thisworldly castle of Hautdesert is ruled by Morgan ‘the goddess’, and she orchestrated the entire sequence of events. Poor ole Gawain just can’t keep up. He doesn’t have the information he needs to understand what’s going on around him, but what’s more he just doesn’t seem to try. He just bumbles along trying to keep his head on and his masculinity invoilate from moment to moment.

* Finally, and this is a point I haven’t investigated properly in relation to either poem, there’s the question of economic anxiety. I have a book waiting to be read called ‘The Poem as Green Girdle’, which is all about commercial imagery in SGGK. For now, suffice it to say that in Roland, everything is shiny and beautiful, while in Gawain, everything is shiny and beautiful and has a definite price, even Gawain himself. Roland associates display with nobility and worth; Gawain associates display with wealth and commercial value. Roland’s worth as a hero is displayed in his rich ornamentation; Gawain’s worth as a hero is measured and curtailed by pricing. I need to poke into this a bit more, and have another look at Roland (in the French… blerg…), but I venture the suggestion that the later poem is evidencing an anxiety about the burgeoning market economy, the nature of wealth and the possibility of it amassing in non-noble hands, a concern which simply isn’t relevant in Roland.

What I’m trying to say here…

is that Gawain is an old-skool knight, a big, pretty, kinda dumb warrior of the Roland type, completely at sea in the confusing and threatening world of the fourteenth century. A good three centuries separate the two poems, and in that time a whole courtly culture has had time to develop, on the foundations of the feudal society in which Roland is located, and is now threatened by all kinds of things. The poet emphasises this disparity between the heroic past and the unstable present through the character of Gawain- not through a great courtly knight like Lancelot, or even the later French incarnation of Gawain, but through a Gawain who bears more resemblance to Roland, and who simply cannot cope with the confusion of his new situation. Perhaps this is why the poem shows such leniency toward Gawain’s cowardice in saving his own life- a hero used to facing down his enemies in combat shouldn’t be expected to unravel the twistings of monsters and Morgan.

~

1. As Keith Busby pointed out to the CMS the other night, a good deal of medieval ‘french’ literature is preserved in English manuscripts. Nobody mention this to the French department, ok?
2. If you try to tell me Roland and Olivier were having slashy gay buttsex, I will cry.

Gawain and Roland: Matching Pair

Let me test this theory out on you, O Blogosphere.

France’s great hero-king, Charlemagne, had a nephew. Roland. Or at least, so the cycle of hero-myths tells us. The pair of them are commemorated in the Chanson de Roland (11thc), where Charlemagne embodies France, and French Kingship. Roland, meanwhile, embodies France and French knighthood. Everybody with me so far?

England’s great hero-king, Arthur (sorry, no humourous videos), had a nephew. Gawain. Or at least, so the cycle of hero-myths tells us. The pair of them turn up all over the place in medieval English literature. Before someone imports Lancelot from the Continent, Gawain is the premier knight of Arthur’s court- take, for example, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14thc). Arthur embodies England and English kingship. Meanwhile, Gawain embodies England and English knighthood. We have a parrallel, yes?

Back when I wanted to be an Arthurianist, and read all kinds of crappy Arthurian pop-history, quite a few books I read talked about the creation of the Arthur myth as a response to the French foundation legends centred around Charlemagne. Now, being old and wise, I’m willing to bet that there’s more to it than that. However, I do note that, in all my (fairly haphazard) research into the Gawain tales, lots and lots of people make comparisions between the ‘English’ Gawain and the ‘French’ Gawain- and squabble over which the Gawain of SGGK better embodies- but no one seems to step outside the Arthurian canon, which is odd. I’m not so sure that the fourteenth century would’ve drawn such a big distinction.

I have more Gawain-Roland relationships I can draw out, but I have to go and get ready for work now. So I’ll leave you to sit on this one- tell me what you think!