Sophocles, an ancient Greek tragedian, said, “It was my care to make my life illustrious not by words more than by deeds.” The Song of Roland is admired as a “chansons de geste” the French term for song of deeds. In this epic, Roland’s purpose is to protect King Charlemagne from any danger caused by the Saracens. Although Roland is arrogant sometimes, he knows it is his heroic duty to protect the King and push his own personal struggles aside. In the epic, The Song of Roland, Roland becomes a martyr because of his drive to not only protect King Charlemagne but to defend the Christian faith against the Saracens.
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Roland is a vassal to King Charlemagne and therefore it is his duty to protect him against the Saracens. Although the King is Roland’s uncle, Roland treats him with respect as any servant would. Roland’s responsibility is to protect King Charlemagne and as a vassal he owes the king his life. When Ganelon appoints Roland to the rearguard Roland proudly stands up in front of the king and says, “Charles, the king who holds France, will not lose, I warrant, a single palfrey or war-horse…and he will not lose a single pack-horse or sumpter” (53). Roland is frightened by his position in the rearguard but he puts aside his fear and accepts his responsibility because it is his heroic duty to protect King Charlemagne. Roland is willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill his duty. Blancandrin says, “Roland is a dangerous man…the emperor himself is constantly in his thoughts; for him he will conquer the lands from here to the Orient” (41). King Charlemagne, “who holds France,” and his vassals believe that God divinely chose the king to rule over the land and to promote the Christian faith. Roland’s divine obligation is to protect the king so that he is able to effectively fulfill God’s requirements.
Roland’s bravery and ambition is inspired by the Divine Being because of the deeds he is encouraged to perform in order to fulfill his heroic duty. In this epic, the characters have free will but God intervenes only to make good consequences happen. For example, God “performs a miracle” when he allows King Charlemagne’s men to hang Ganelon. The narrator says, “God protects [Thierry] from being cast down dead” and Thierry is able to win the combat by splitting Pinabel’s head open (154). It is only by God’s will that King Charlemagne is allowed to hang Ganelon. In regards to Roland, he is chosen to be head of the rearguard to protect King Charlemagne from the attack of the Saracens. By his own free will, Roland denies the king’s gift of twenty thousand men. God does not intervene because this decision allows Roland to become a martyr for the Christian faith. He says, “I shall do no such thing. May God confound me, if I dishonor my family…Proceed with confidence. You need fear no one in my lifetime” (54). Roland is passionate about leading the rearguard and ultimately, he is not dishonored. As a token of His grace, God sends down Saint Gabriel to bring Roland to Paradise. The narrator says, “He confesses his sins and prayers for the grace of God…God sent down his angel Cherubin and with him Saint Michael of the Peril. With them both came Saint Gabriel. They bear the count’s soul to paradise” (105). Roland’s bravery and passion to serve King Charlemagne is what allows him to be a faithful servant of God and in the end, a martyr for the Christian faith.
Roland repeatedly refuses to compromise with the Saracens and therefore becomes a martyr for the Christian faith. At first, Roland is reluctant to blow the horn so that the king and his army can come to help. Roland feels that if he blows the horn he has failed to fulfill his leadership duty as head of the rearguard and ultimately sees this deed as a win for the Saracens. Roland’s ambition to lead the rearguard comes from the hatred he has for the Saracens. At the beginning of the battle, Marsile’s nephew, Aelroth, insults the Frank by calling them “treacherous” and brings out the wrath that Roland feels against the Saracens. The narrator says, “The count rides on to strike him with all his might. He breaks his shield and tears his hauberk open; he splits his breasts and shatters all his bones…” (67). Roland is very passionate in this scene because he will not allow the pagans to insult the fortunate Franks. Roland is determined to win this battle against the pagans or die trying. Roland says, “Here we shall receive martyrdom and now I well know we have scarcely any time left. But a curse on the man who does not first sell himself dear…” (90). Roland is a martyr because he is not afraid to die for his faith and knows that the Divine will take care of him and his men. His faith in God is what makes him fearless.
Much like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Roland’s death is vile and takes a while to occur. Roland is truly responsible for his own death because he blows the horn too violently which makes his temples burst. This act is not only done to bring King Charlemagne and his men back but it is also a call to God to come and guide them to victory. The narrator says, “Count Roland is bleeding from the mouth; in his skull the temple is burst. He blows the Oliphant with pain and anguish…” (86). Although he is severely hurt, Roland does not stop blowing on the horn because he has faith that help will come and lead the Franks to victory. Roland’s unbreakable faith in the king and Christianity is what allows the Franks to win the battle against the pagans.
Ultimately, Roland’s deeds are able to manifest a victory for the Franks against the Saracens. Although Roland is often portrayed as arrogant, he is very passionate about protecting the king of France so that he is able to spread Christianity. Roland’s passion for the Christian faith allows him to become a martyr and take abode in his rightful place in paradise. Roland’s deeds shed light on the notion that one who portrays faith in doing what they love will be rewarded with great gifts beyond their imagination.
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