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The Song of Roland: Review of Poem on the Battle of Roncevaux

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The Song of Roland is a poem that was written at around 1000-1200 CE, and is still considered to be one of the most grandiose and masterful poems of its genre ever written. It’s a primary source of information about how people lived in Western Europe at that time, probably written by a man called Turolde (who is mentioned as “finishing” the song in the very last line). However, that fact is still debated, as no official author has ever been named, and the only thing that is known about them is that they were a wonderful poet. The writer himself seemed to have no part in the events told in The Song of Roland, and he considered himself only as the re-teller of this story. Of course, it’s a story that absolutely required someone to tell it – a story about great heroic deeds, fantastic combat abilities, and grand battles. It was definitely a favourite of the chivalry-focused crowds of the early 11th-12th centuries.

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However, how much is true in that retelling and how much has been embellished through the years is unknown, as the battle that the song is describing happened 300 years before their time. The English version might be even more inaccurate – the original text was in Old French, and it’s not clear how many details were lost in translation and rhyme, and in the nearly thousand years of different versions. Even though it might not be 100% true to life and have some exaggerated deeds, The Song of Roland is still considered to be one of the best accounts of how society was structured, how feudalism worked and what the life was of the people living in those times, and therefore is extremely valuable as a primary source.

The main story of the text is concentrated on the fighting between the lawful, god-fearing French, led by Charlemagne, and the heathen Saracens, backed by the evil Marsille. Charlemagne is presented as this wonderful Christian king, a great leader who commanded the absolute loyalty of his vassals. In fact, his relationship with Roland (one of his barons) could be seen as the ideal version of medieval feudalism – Roland honours the king by being an excellent fighter and displaying very impressive battle prowess, and Charlemagne rewards him for those qualities, and eventually even avenges his death, as medieval kings were encouraged to do in cases of betrayal.

Another person that truly displayed his quality as a nearly perfect vassal was Oliver. Even though he did not have the same impressive combat skills as Roland did, he contributed to the king’s cause differently – by offering his wisdom and council. For example, in the battle of Roncevals, Oliver encourages Roland to be smart and blow the horn to warn Charlemagne of the attack on his rear guard. But the proud Roland refused, and lost almost all of his men because of it. In the end, Roland was trying to take Oliver’s place as the sensible vassal and finally blow the horn, and Oliver had to become the voice of honour and strength instead, telling Roland to die like a brave soldier and not dishonour himself. This switch shows that a vassal’s personality was not set in stone – the only thing that they were absolutely required to do was to help their king and fight for his cause. Even though, in this case, it meant straying away from their own values and personalities.

In short, The Song of Roland shed a lot of light of what medieval feudalism was supposed to work like, showcasing great relationships between the king and his lords. And while they might have not been exactly like portrayed in this text, these were the relationships that people looked up to and valued in the middle ages.

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