Few things make you feel better about yourself then realizing that you just picked up an eleventh-century Norman poem for light reading. And can I just say that The Song of Roland (my edition was put together by Glyn Sheridan Burgess) is extremely light reading. In fact, if I was to translate it into cinema terms I would say that The Song of Roland is the, I don’t know, Transformers of books. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also pretty mindless, full of action, and with very clearly defined bad vs. good guys.
As opposed to Autobots vs. Decepticons The Song of Roland gives us Emperor Charlemagne’s Franks versus King Marsile’s Spanish Arabs, or, as the poet likes to refer to them, the pagans. As the story begins, Charlemagne and his army, who, according to this poet, took over the British Isles, are in Spain, trying to expand their territory. The protagonist of the story is Roland, a relative of the Emperor, and a loyal knight, with one hell of an ego and a scheming uncle. Due to some duplicity on the part of Roland’s uncle, Roland is asked to lead the rear-guard, the knights who will soon be attacked by the Spanish Arabs. There’s some fighting, people die, and then the Franks run through the Spanish. (In all fairness there’s more to the underlying structure of the story- for example, its political implications- but since I’ve done little reading about this time in history I’m sticking to the literary appeal. I would strongly recommend reading the introduction to the book as it provides some fascinating back story. Though there are some spoilers in there, so if you might want to read it after reading the poem itself.)
Perhaps my favorite part of The Song of Roland is realizing that though we’re separated by a thousand years or so, we humans are barely different then the humans of Roland’s day. The poem reads like a cheap political rally, I could just hear the cheering crowds listening to the descriptions of the Frank supremacy. Rather similar to a crowd shouting: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! In fact, if you substitute the word “Frank” for the word “American”, who basically have a season of 24, complete with Arab stereotypes. It was rather comforting for me to be reminded that narrow-mindedness and a tendency to generalize the “enemy” aren’t new phenomena- Throughout the poem it is asserted that the Muslims worship “Muhammad” and “Apollo”. Another great example of this is the fact that the leaders of the Arabs refer to their own followers as “Pagans”.
That little spiel shouldn’t deter you from reading The Song of Roland. My point wasn’t to make you think, “Racism, let’s not read that.” I was just pointing out an interesting anthropological perspective that should enhance your reading experience. Mr. Burgess also does a fantastic job of translating it into understandable English so if you’re worried about a language barrier of any kind, don’t. If you’ve got a day, and trust me, at 128 pages of poetry this won’t take longer, and you want some fluff I’d recommend this with a smile.
The Song of Roland. Edited by Glyn Sheridan Burgess. 1990. Penguin Groups.