The Song of Roland is the oldest known epic in France, dating from around the Twelfth Century AD. Telling the story of Charlemagne at Roncesvalles in 778, the events of The Song of Roland have been shifted into a modern (12th Century) setting, bringing a long history of concerns about Muslim invasion that gripped France in Charles Martel’s and Charlemagne’s time. The historical part of the battle is changed to make it more understandable, even more tragic, for the Twelfth Century audience. The threat of the Muslims had a very real meaning and a long history that the listeners knew. The Muslim invasions of Spain and even parts of France had forced Western Europeans into close contact with another culture and religion. Charlemagne’s struggle with the Saracen forces could take on a theme of good versus evil or right versus wrong, which makes great material for an epic tragedy.
In the early Twelfth Century, concrete knowledge about the customs, habits, and religion of the Muslims could be seen as little or non-existent. In a piece of Christian crusade propaganda, one would not necessarily expect the author to take great interest in truthfully revealing the tenets of Islam and the differences between this faith and Christianity (Lazzari 97). The poet says the “infidels” have numerous gods, against the monotheism that makes “There is no god but Allah” the first and foremost fundamental belief of Islam (Frankel). An example of this misunderstanding includes the unknown author’s claim that the enemy King Marsile worships three gods: Muhammad, Apollo, and Tervagent. The Roland poet was ignorant of other religions, and could not distinguish one from another, which did not keep him from hating all of them. The point of the poem is that Charlemagne overthrows the pagan religion as well as a physical army; this is a Christian victory, a Crusade. Also, when the Saracens swear an oath to do their best to kill Roland, they swear it on their holy book, saying it is written by Muhammad and Tervagant as the authors of it. Islam teaches that the Koran is literal word of God, with no man being able to claim responsibility for it. When the Saracens expect the return and vengeance of Charlemagne, they pray to their god Tervagant, who does not come to their aid. Angered by this, the Saracens destroy their own temple, cursing and tearing down the statues of Tervagant, Muhammad, and Apollo.
They rush off to Apollo in a crypt,
Rail against him and hurl abuse at him:
“O, wretched god, why do you cause us such shame?
Why did you permit our king to be destroyed?
Anyone who serves you well receives a poor reward.”
Then they grab his scepter and his crown
And hang him by his hands from a pillar;
Then they send him flying to the ground at their feet
And beat him and smash him to pieces with huge sticks.
They seize Tervagant’s carbuncle
And fling Muhammad into a ditch
Where pigs and dogs bite and trample on him. (Lines 2580-2591)
This scene reflects perhaps the ultimate sacrilege to the Christian community, which believed quite strongly in icons, but it makes no sense in Islam as images and pictorial representations were and are not permitted (Lazzari 98).
The Saracen warrior mirrors the Christian quite frequently throughout the text. Charlemagne retires to an orchard, underneath a pine tree, after his first defeat of the Saracens. Here his 15,000 soldiers gather around, as well as his Twelve Peers, with whom he discusses his plans for leaving Spain. King Marsile, also goes to an orchard after the same battle and is described as sitting in the shade. His 20,000 men surround him and he also talks with his closest advisors on how to finally crush the French. The political and governing strategies of the two groups are the same. Both leaders are greatly respected by their men, yet their best ideas come from a select group of advisors, many of whom are related to each other and to the king (Lazzari 98). As Marsile and his men seal their treachery, the similarity is complete; twelve chosen from the Saracens, led by the nephew of King Marsile, will go head to head with the twelve companions of Charlemagne, led by Roland, his nephew (Lazzari 98). The glove that the Saracen carries as representative of his ruler will be the same emblem that Ganelon, ambassador of Charlemagne, accepts from his king. The Saracen doubles the Christian in other aspects of the epic as well. During the battle, each Christian knight meets individually with a Saracen knight. Blows are exchanged and one knight emerges victorious, having killed the other. The two armies are equipped identically, though a certain exoticism dominates the description of the Saracen outfit. The armor remains essentially western, as does the basic riding techniques, on a special war-horse, in tight lines (Goldin 24). Yet, the Saracen is distinguished from the French by the origin of his weaponry. The author gives the impression that excellent, perhaps the best, armor comes from far away, from the pagan lands of Saragossa and Valencia (Lazzari 98). Admiration for the Saracen is not limited to his armor. The Saracen knight can be noble handsome, loyal, and bold. All the same characteristics admired in the Christian knight can be found in the Saracen knights as well. The author highlights the skill and beauty of the Saracen Margariz. Baligant, the Emir of Babylon is seen as a prime example of the knight who would be perfect, were he only a Christian. Even physically, this Saracen warrior shares the traits of a Christian; his skin is described as being white (Lazarri 98).
The Saracen is not without his abominable traits, however (Lazzari 97). Roland sees the approaching enemy in a sense of black versus white, noting that they “are blacker than ink and have no white except for their teeth alone.” Just as the Emir symbolizes the almost ideal knight, the Saracen Abisme serves as the stereotypical concentration of French fears of Arabs. Not only is Abisme morally corrupt, he is also physically repulsive. His very humanness is called into question by his inability or unwillingness to laugh and play. The Archbishop Turpin, symbolizing Christianity and Good, takes it upon himself to destroy the personified evil, Abisme. The fight is nothing other than good versus evil, right versus wrong, truth versus lies (Lazzari 98). The portrait of the Saracen in The Song of Roland goes back and forth between the positive and the negative. At the same time that the audience of the 1100’s feared the Saracen, and thus pictured them in monstrous terms, they also coveted the refinements of Muslim culture, many of which were totally lacking in the West. The Saracen characters of this story show this movement between fear and envy. The Song of Roland helped shape the attitudes that made the crusades possible. Not simply by opposing Christians and Muslims, but also by constructing a Saracen who was frightening and inhuman enough to kill at the same time that he possessed objects and characteristics worthy of use (Lazzari 99). The epic battle satisfied both of these urges.
The numerous “errors” in this representation and in the figure and career of Charlemagne are frequently pointed out and sometimes rashly attributed to the poet’s ignorance. Charlemagne was in fact thirty-seven years and not yet Emperor when the rear-guard was ambushed: he was the King of the Franks, and he was not 200 years old: he wore a mustache but never a beard (Goldin 5). Islam is and was monotheistic and forbade graven images of God: no Saracen ever prayed to the idols of Muhammad, Apollo, or Tervagant. Many details in the epic have been rejected: history knew only a terrible defeat; the song reveals a glorious victory. The poem sets forth the vision of a great past, the past as it had to be, given the way things are; the past that guides the present and enjoins the future. The poet was painting a picture of an age where things were as they ought to be and all men were in their right places (Goldin 6).
The Song of Roland. Goldin, Frederick, Translator. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
New York: 1978.