The Heroic Narrative in France

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The Heroic Narrative In France

A New Historical Context.

The concern for history illustrated in the Icelandic sagas takes a somewhat different form in France, where a new political and economic system was evolving. Three centuries after the disintegration of the Roman Empire, a system of centralized rule re-emerged in the area of Western Europe now known as France when a dynasty of successful kings, the Carolingians (named after founder Charles Martel, whose Latin name was Carolus), capitalized on remaining links to Roman civilization through alliances with the popes of Rome and churchmen in England and created new political institutions. Culturally, the most important innovation was a system of social, political, and economic relationships of mutual dependency between the kings and their fideles ("faithful men") known as comitatus. By the tenth century, this system of dependency involved the rulers and their vassalli ("vassals") or homines ("men"), retainers who exchanged military service for political protection and social benefits conferred by their temporal lords within the complex social-political-economic hierarchy. These homines or retainers paid homage to their lords by providing military service in exchange for an estate of land or property, the feodum ("fief") from which some historians termed this mutual hierarchical relationship "feudalism." As in Anglo-Saxon literature, where narratives illustrated the virtues of comitatus, the emerging literary forms of France demonstrated the values of their social system through the heroic behaviors of characters who participated in this arrangement. The poems often centered on Charles Martel's grandson, the illustrious Charlemagne (768–814) or Carolus Magnus (Charles the Great; le-magne means "the Great" in Old French).

Models of Leadership.

The key to Charlemagne's "greatness" was his ability to put into practice the heroic formula for successful lordship: sapientia and fortitudo (wisdom and fortitude). He achieved a reputation for sapientia by his encouragement of letters and the arts, an overall program continued by subsequent Carolingian kings (sometimes called the "Carolingian renaissance"). He demonstrated his fortitudo by successfully waging warfare for conquest and plunder on many fronts, especially against Saxons in England and the Avars in the southeast. Even if Charlemagne's war against the Spanish Muslims in Andalusia was not a military success, the adventures of his vassals in this campaign provided the raw material for the creation of the quintessential heroic literary form of medieval France, the chanson de geste (song of deeds or exploits). Although some of these "songs of deeds" stemmed from oral accounts about major heroic figures like Charlemagne, most were devoted to the exploits of less famous figures like William of Orange, about whom a series of these heroic poems eventually were written (the William of Orange Cycle, the most important of which is Aliscans). However, the subject of the primary exemplar of the genre was a relatively minor figure, Charlemagne's nephew Roland, who led the rearguard in an otherwise historically insignificant skirmish, the battle of Roncevalles in 778, an event which Einhard, a scholar in residence at Charlemagne's palace school, mentions only briefly in his biography of the emperor.

The Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland).

The extraordinary appeal of the chanson de geste entitled the Chanson de Roland probably arose in part from its connections with two major movements of the tenth and eleventh centuries: the Crusades against the Muslim Arabs in the Holy Land and the popularity of pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostela. The entrapment of Charlemagne's nephew Roland in a mountain pass in the Pyrenees range dividing southern France from Spain was a minor incident within the context of an ongoing, several-centuries-old animosity between the Christian Franks of France and the "Saracens," North African Muslims who had colonized Spain. In some sense this story reflects microcosmically the cultural and religious clash between European Christians and Muslim Arabs that was to be played out on a large scale in Jerusalem with the calling of the First Crusade in 1095. As it happened, the story underwent two centuries of oral development before this event, in large part because the same mountain pass in which Roland's battle against the Saracen emir Marsile took place was part of the on-land pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James in Compostela, one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in medieval Europe. For the entertainment of the steady stream of penitents traveling to Compostela beginning in the tenth century, oral tales concerning Roland's tragically heroic defense in a nearby locale, which was now a part of local folklore, circulated and were performed by jongleurs (entertainers) along the pilgrim routes. Thus, by the time the poem was written down around 1100, it was both well known and rhetorically polished, offering a perfect vehicle for Crusading propaganda. Pope Urban II's request in 1095 to European kings for military support for a holy war initiated a chain of obligation-fulfillment between lords and vassals that soon had many members of the knightly class traveling to Jerusalem to wage war on the Muslim "infidels." With its Christo-centric pronouncement, "The pagans are wrong; the Christians are right," the Chanson de Roland supplied in literary form the kind of propaganda that was necessary to help inflame Crusading zeal and to galvanize and popularize the war effort that temporarily united a previously divided Europe against a common enemy.

Politics and Treason.

Even with its political appropriateness and folkloric appeal, the Chanson de Roland would not, of course, have been able to fulfill its role of inspiring greatness if it did not illustrate the kinds of troubling situations and complex moral issues that challenged contemporary warriors. In this sense, then, the term "songs of deeds" can be somewhat misleading. To be sure, the Chanson de Roland contains numerous "deeds"—the mutual "slashing and bashing" of evenly matched warriors and many almost mindlessly repetitive scenes deployed in laisses similaires ("similar stanzas" like those also found in Spain's El Cid), that depict Christian Frankish combatants pitted against sometimes outrageously exoticized Saracen warriors, who mutually exchange brutal physical blows. But, more importantly, in the Chanson de Roland one also finds interesting scenes that not only reveal the politics of medieval lordship in action, but also depict the homo-social comradeship that bound medieval warriors to one another through their mutual obligations of fealty. This is similar to the comitatus ideal described between Beowulf and his retainers or between Beowulf and Hrothgar in the English heroic poem Beowulf. The subtleties of medieval politics are exemplified in Roland in the complex machinations that occur at the council held by Charlemagne in the poem's opening. Here the Franks argue about continuing their seven-year-long (and thus far unsuccessful) campaign against the Emir Marsile of Saragossa. Roland, one of the youngest at the council, speaks rashly out of turn, urging their continued effort and, after being denied the mission himself (he is deemed too brash for the delicate diplomacy necessary to the negotiation), he nominates his stepfather Ganelon to serve as Charlemagne's envoy to the Saracen camp. Suspecting his nephew's motives, for this has the possibility of being a death mission, Ganelon becomes enraged and vows revenge. Ganelon misrepresents Charlemagne's terms to the Saracen emir, betrays the Franks to Marsile for financial gain, and ensures his nephew's defeat in the narrow pass of Roncevalles by nominating him for rear-guard duty in a military trap planned in collusion with the Saracens. This aspect of the story, then, is an exemplum of a failure of loyalty, where a retainer allows his personal antipathy to outweigh his duty to his overlord and to a comrade in battle. The scenes of Roland's defeat reinforce the listener's sense of horror at Ganelon's crime, and the ending of the story provides a lesson in justice. After being tried for treason—the worst crime in the fellowship-oriented ethos of the chanson de geste genre—Ganelon is hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Comradeship and Loyalty.

The positive values of comradeship are also present in the poem. The loyalty between men at arms is exemplified in the intense friendship between the hero Roland and his friend, Oliver. This relationship anticipates the chivalric relations between Arthur and his Roundtable knights depicted in the romance genre that was invented in France in the twelfth-century narratives of Chrétien de Troyes. In a dichotomy similar to the simplistic one that distinguished between pagans and Christians, the Roland-poet characterized the two comrades thus: "Roland is brave; Oliver is wise"—a variation on the heroic "sapientia and fortitudo" ideal. Roland may be courageous, but his valor entails a good degree of proud folly when, as it becomes obvious that his army cannot prevail against the Saracen troops, he refuses to heed Oliver's "sage" advice to sound his horn for help from Charlemagne. Later, when his depleted troops number only seventy and Roland rethinks his position about seeking help, Oliver scorns Roland's plan. Distinguishing between "prudent valor" and "recklessness," Oliver claims that if they called for aid now they would lose "los" (renown), the driving force that motivates not only the vassals in the chansons de geste, but also the Roundtable knights in the soon-to-be-developed Arthurian romances. Admitting that Oliver is right, in a series of moving laisses similaires, Roland nevertheless blows the horn so hard that he bursts the veins of his temples. In the ensuing attack of the Saracens, when Oliver is severely wounded, the blood running into his eyes blinds him and he strikes inadvertently at the weakening Roland. Oliver dies in his comrade Roland's arms and when the French are outnumbered 40,000 to 3, Roland again feebly sounds his horn. After breaking his beloved sword Durendal so that the enemy cannot confiscate it, Roland dies extending his right hand toward Heaven. Angels bear Roland to Paradise, the promised reward for all loyal Crusaders.

Passion and the Grand Gesture.

As full of "deeds" and broadly drawn differences as their plots are, these heroic poems are also characterized by a depiction of human passions and motives that is intriguing but somewhat baffling, conveying well the inscrutable and perhaps ultimately unknowable causes of their protagonists' behavior. What triggered the evident but unexplained animosity between Roland and Ganelon? Why does Ganelon betray kin and country? What personal hubris (pride) prevents Roland from sounding the horn? The poet leaves these motives unexplored and ultimately elusive. This opaque mode of characterization would change with the advent of romance, which intimately explores the inner workings of the knightly protagonists' minds and the sentiments of their hearts. But the Chanson de Roland is a poem full of grand and, if not subtle, then unforgettable gestures: Ganelon's flinging of his cloak and backing up against a pine tree; white-haired, silver-bearded, 200-year-old Charlemagne's brooding, almost mythic stroking of his long beard; Roland's pathetically overdue sounding of the horn. It is also marked by touching moments between two male heroes, Roland and Oliver, whose friendship and mutual loyalty ultimately outweigh any differences of opinion they have about military strategy—the same homosocial affinity that saved the strained friendship of Gunnar and Njál in Njál's Saga. Although little is made of the relationship in the poem, Ganelon's sister Aude had been betrothed to Roland, and upon hearing of his death, Aude herself dies. One of the greatest changes in the literary treatment of the chivalric knightly ethos that occurs with the rise of the romance genre is the new prominence given to love relations between men and women. Given this same plot, Chrétien de Troyes would have made much more of the Roland-Aude courtship than the Roland-poet could ever care about.


Robert Francis Cook, The Sense of the Song of Roland (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987).

Jessie Crosland, The Old French Epic (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1971).

Barton Sholod, Charlemagne in Spain: The Cultural Legacy of Roncesvalles (Geneva, Switzerland: Droz, 1966).

François Suard, La Chanson de geste (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993).

Karl D. Uitti, Story, Myth, and Celebration in Old French Narrative Poetry: 1050–1200 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973).

Eugene Vance, Reading the Song of Roland (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970).