Song of Roland
Both Roland and Turpin have lost their horses; there's no way they can pursue the fleeing pagans. Roland tries to nurse and comfort Turpin, then goes to bring the bodies of his dead companions over to the archbishop to be blessed. When he finds and brings the body of Olivier, Roland is overcome with grief, weeps, and faints. The archbishop then goes to fetch some water for Roland, but as he begins to walk toward the stream, he falls down dead. When Roland comes around from his faint, he blesses Turpin's body.
Roland realizes that his own death is very near; his brains are oozing out of his ears. Climbing a rise, he comes to a place with green grass and four great marble stones and then faints again. Seeing this, a pagan who had been playing dead comes and tries to steal Roland's sword. Roland comes out of his faint almost immediately and gives the thief such a good blow to his head with his oliphant that he falls down dead. Now he fears for the fate of his excellent sword, Durendal, which he is so fond of. He tries to break the blade against a rock, for he never wants it to end up in pagan hands. While he does this, he reminisces about his conquests and triumphs. The sword won't break, and Roland knows he must now die.
Roland stretches out, face down, on the grass beneath a pine, tucking Durendal and his oliphant under him and turning his head toward pagan Spain. Confessing his sins, beating on his chest, weeping, and praying, he offers God his right-hand glove. Saint Gabriel comes down from heaven to take it, and, along with other saints, he takes Roland's soul into Paradise.
In this section, up to the time that Roland goes up the rise to die, the primary emphasis falls on both his and Turpin's great generosity and tenderness. We are shown that, even when Turpin is on the brink of death and full of "gaping wounds" (161.2173), he never thinks of his own pain, but only of comforting Roland. Roland, also mortally wounded, cares not a bit for his own suffering but is concerned exclusively with helping Turpin and the souls of his dead comrades.
The scene of Roland's death is surely the climax of the poem. The narration slows to a crawl—in general, the slower the pace of the narration, the more important the scene to the poet—to let us thoroughly appreciate the pathos of the moment. The primary technique of the poet to achieve this slowing of time is the use of laisses similaires, which suspend a single moment, holding it up for our contemplation. This technique is apparently an innovation of the poet's; there is nothing like it in earlier literature. Laisses 172 and 173 are the first of this sort in this section. We first encounter the instant when Roland realizes that he cannot shatter his sword Durendal at the beginning of laisse 172; he then begins to apostrophize (apostrophe is a rhetorical device which personifies a thing by addressing it in the second person, as in Roland's cry, "Oh Durendal, how dazzling bright you are,"(172.2316)) his sword. In laisse 173, we come back to this same moment again. The two laisses are variations on each other; phrases echo each other, describing the same action in a slightly different way. For instance, in laisse 172, "the steel edge grides, but does not break or chip," but in laisse 173, "the sword grates, but it neither snaps nor splits." While the usual relation in a narrative poem such as this of one verse paragraph to the next is that they describe successive moments—this relation is so basic that we usually completely overlook it—the relation between these two laisses is essentially different. Here we almost shift from the narrative to the lyric, into a kind of eternal present.
Laisses 174, 175, and 176 hold the moment—the instant just before Roland's death—even longer, signaling us even more emphatically to slow down and appreciate its fullness. The great repeated gesture here is Roland's lifting of his right-hand glove up to the heavens. The offering of the right-hand glove was a gesture that a vassal makes to his lord, to express his reverent loyalty. Roland here, by his last gesture, identifies himself as ultimately the vassal of God. This collapses the feudal system into Christianity and vice versa, making the loyal service of a temporal lord an expression of and symbol for the service of God. The way in which Christians often call God "the Lord" had, in this period, a real significance; the Lord was indeed conceived of as being like a transcendently perfect version of a feudal lord. It is this kind of spirituality that Roland's gesture eloquently expresses. God acknowledges Roland as a vassal, and sends down Saint Gabriel to accept the proffered glove. And then we know that Roland is saved; his death acquires the meaning of a martyrdom. Roland's understanding of the absolute quality of the battle being fought, his unbending loyalty to God and king, his passion and his folly are shown to transcend Olivier's caution and prudence.
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