The Song of Roland


One of the aspects of my upbringing was an appreciation of the classics. It lasted longer than it should have, despite the fact that I was the kind of kid who compulsively questioned things around him. At some point I did get to the question of why these books were classics, and after years (not hyperbole) of intense study I came to understand that classics are declared as such largely by fiat. And yet, I still pick them up, looking for something magical.

The song of Roland is a French medieval epic that takes places during the real historical war between the French of the Muslim invaders of Europe. Although a truce is declared, the Muslim forces decide to double-cross the French, and mount an attack over the Pyranese. Roland, one of the mightiest heroes of France, is left with his forces and his sword (Durendal) to hold the line against the attackers.

It’s hard to talk about these stories without talking about classics as a whole.

The whole notion of a classic is based on a massive equivocation fallacy. Classic once meant the period of time known as classical antiquity (Rome and Greece), which at some point came to take on the meaning of ‘high quality’ and ‘perenniality’. But the notion that these books are perennial is something that becomes hard to shake off, and it makes these hard to read? Is the story perennial? No. Are you a worse person for not reading it? Not really. Are you uneducated for not reading it? Absolutely not, and I am sure you can live an excellent life all while knowing next to nothing about the story of Roland, as 95% of the world’s population throughout all time ever hasn’t.

I’ll take that statement to the bank.

Which isn’t to say texts such as this are worthless. I went into the book expecting something more along the lines of the Italian epic with same character, Orlando Furioso (Roland the Furious), and despite getting some much more grounded, I enjoyed the work nonetheless. The Italian version is much more fantastical (the genre, not the quality). But the French version it much more grounded, and it is fairly good at giving you a certain historical perspective, albeit mythologized. This might be the perspective of a person who has been to the site of Roland’s grave in the Pyrenees (be accident). The story then is myth in it’s strongest form; reinforcing the values of the Europeans who authored it. The inverse of this is the fact that other side of that conflict isn’t exactly well represented, but this was the narrative of those times.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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