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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 237-263

Laisses 214-236

Laisses 264-269

Summary

Meeting, the armies exchange battle cries; the Christians shout "Monjoy!" and the pagans shout "Precieuse!", the name of Baligant's sword. Rabel and Guinemant strike the first blows, leaving corpses behind them. Pagans and Christians alike fight hard and well. Baligant's son Malprimes kills many French knights before Duke Naimes spits him through. The battle is extremely close. Baligant slaughters many of the best Frankish warriors, including Guinemant. But when the brave Christian lord Oger strikes the pagan flag-bearer, and Baligant sees the banner of Mohammed fall, the emir begins to suspect that his gods are false, just as the Christians always said.

The two great leaders, Baligant and Charlemagne, find each other through the confusion of the fight by recognizing each other's voices as they shout their battle cries. They unhorse each other and find themselves facing each other with drawn swords. Baligant asks Charlemagne to become his vassal; Charlemagne asks Baligant to convert to Christianity. The great Muslim emir and the great Christian king are, of course, alike unbending. Baligant gives Charles a great blow to the head, but God does not want him dead and Saint Gabriel comes to his aid. Hearing Gabriel's voice, the king recovers and splits the emir's body through.

Seeing their leader dead, the Muslims flee and the Christians chase them, slashing at them as they run away.

Commentary

In this battle-scene, the pageantry of war is again lovingly depicte as a series of fine, colored images, of vermilion on green grass and saffron-yellow byrnies. And again, the poet's instinct toward order and symmetry cause him to arrange the scene in such a way that the battle feels well-choreographed, almost graceful.

We see again the strong belief, among both the Christians and the Muslims, that in the end the just will inevitably triumph, for the world is run by a munificent god with a sharp eye trained on all that happens beneath him. But if both sides, toward their different gods, see themselves as like servants hoping for favors from the almighty—as when Charlemagne asks for a miracle or the pagans call on Termagant to save them from drowning in the Ebro—the Muslims are portrayed as having an attitude of less than total humility towards their divinities. The pagans, when they are portrayed attempting to strike bargains with their gods—as when the emir shouts out, "Oh mighty gods of mine, I've served you long. / I'll make you effigies of solid gold, AOI / if only you will keep me safe from Charles," (253.3492-3494)—are shown to be not only serving the wrong gods, but serving them wrongly. The Franks, on the other hand, sum up in a neat phrase the role that they see themselves taking in relation to God when they cry, "King Charles is in the right against these pagans, / and God has left his verdict up to us" (242.3367-3368). Essentially, the Frankish soldiers see themselves as the executive branch of God; he legislates and judges, but it is up to them to enforce.

The attitude that Baligant takes when he sees his flags, along with his flag-bearer, toppled, seems rather curious unless one understands the strength of the conviction that the good will win among these characters: "When Baligant observes his banner falling / and the standard of Mohammed coming down, / the emir understands somewhat / that he is wrong and Charlemagne is right" (257.3551-3554). The belief that the events of a battle can prove not only who has a better army or stronger men, but who is better loved by God allows victory to become a demonstration of the righteousness of one's own religious practice; thus the Franks can hope for battlefield conversions if they are sufficiently valiant, and a good warrior is truly a good missionary. Given Queen Bramimonde's despair over the cowardliness of her husband and his troops, her resulting conviction that the gods abandoned the Saracen army on the battlefield, and her later conversion to Christianity, it seems she too relies on the test of military success to show her which religion to follow.

In the combat between Charlemagne and Baligant, they mirror each other's every move, after recognizing each other's battle cry, like echoes converging. Unlike the symmetry between Joyeuse and Precieuse, there is no suggestion that one leads and the other follows; their actions seems to be simultaneous and their relation seems to be perfectly even and mutual. In laisses 258 and 259, the choice of words emphasizes this mutuality; they "traded mighty thrusts" (258.3568) and "exchange tremendous blows" (259.3582). It seems that they are so evenly matched in skill and strength that, without the light touch of divine intervention in laisse 261, the two might have been too equal to each other for one to triumph over the other. That this angelic visitation—rather than Charlemagne's strength—turns the battle supports the view that victory is the lot of the morally superior. On the literal level, this view seems to make Roland's martyrdom incomprehensible; if he was such a favorite of God's, why didn't the heavenly host work some miracle to save him? But this is exactly the problem that motivates the entire poem; how can one make sense of the massacre of France's greatest warriors and greatest men? The largest shape of the poem—of revenge following and mirroring tragedy, and punishment coming on the heels of betrayal—along with the ideal of martyrdom represent an attempt to fit the death of Roland into a larger picture that can justify and make sense of it.

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