The Trouble with Roland
This web essay is meant to aid in the assessment of the character of Roland, the putative (and in any case eponymous) hero of the 12th-century Old French Chanson de Roland.
It is well known that this paladin, ignoring the advice of his contemporary but wiser comrade Oliver, refuses to blow his horn and summon Charlemagne to the aid of the French rearguard, under attack by vastly superior Saracen forces. Later in the battle Roland reverses his decision, but only when it is too late for anyone in the rearguard to be saved.
Roland’s Motive: Glory
What is Roland’s justification for his initial refusal? Honor. His, and, through him, that of his relatives and of Frenchmen as a whole: however, the reputation of these larger bodies exists only in relation to his:
|« mun los » (83.1054)||“my reputation”|
|« mi parent pur mei…ni France la dulce » (84.1063-64)||“my relatives on my account…nor sweet France”|
|« mi parent…Frenceis… » (85.1076, 1080)||“my relatives…French warriors…”|
|« Ne placet Damnedeu ne ses angles
Que ja pur mei perdet sa valur France! » (86.1089-90)
|“May it not please God nor his angels
That ever on my account France should lose its valor.”(translations by the Professor)
The Old French word los comes straight (but for a change of gender) from classical Latin laus, laudis = “praise, glory, fame, renown.”
Now, not only Oliver, but every person with half a brain has always acknowledged — not excepting half-brained people in the Middle Ages — that other considerations than honor alone must enter into military decisions. In Oliver’s heated words:
|« …vasselage par sens nen est folie ;
Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie. » (131.1724-25)
|“valour tempered by sense is not a foolish thing and moderation is worth more than pride.” (Jessie Crossland translation)|
|« vaillance sensée et folie sont deux choses, et mesure vaut mieux qu’outrecuidance. » (Joseph Bédier)||“valor combined with good sense is not rash behavior; moderation is worth more than recklessness.” 1 (The Professor’s translation)|
(In the boxes above appear: upper left, the Old French original [in Joseph Bédier’s edition]; lower left, Joseph Bédier’s modern French version; upper right, online English translation by Jessie Crossland; lower left, my own English translation.)
The assonating and indeed rhyming words folie and estultie cover the same semantic ground; both can be used to refer to rash behavior in a military situation. They are equally opposed to mesure and vasselage par sens.
Roland’s Desmesure, plus: Orgueil or Fierté?
There is no question that, in refusing to blow his horn, Roland was not acting fully in accord with medieval notions of martial sens and mesure and that he disregarded, in favor of glory, military concerns that would have been normal in the 8th century, the 11th, or any other. The question is rather: just how much weight does the poem place (or want us to place) on this desmesure? Just how much does it detract from the positive side of Roland’s heroism — or, to use the terms common to chansons de geste, from his vasselage, his baronie, his chevalerie?
To help answer the question, I will list passages in which Roland is associated with terms of value, negative or positive, giving the original (old) French, tranlations, and a bit of commentary where it seems appropriate. At the outset, I draw attention to two things:
First, keep in mind who is speaking. When a character in the poem refers to Roland, there may be reason to temper what is said in view of what we know about the character’s relationship with Roland.
Second, a fundamental matter of lexicology. French has two words that can both be translated by English “pride.” One tends to be primarily negative:
orgueil (adjective orgueilleux, –se)
It comes from a Germanic word and, in modern French at any rate, means excessive pride, hence “arrogance, haughtiness.” (In English we have a borrowed form of the adjective, “orgulous,” that is unfortunately not very current nowadays.)
The other French term is:
fierté (adjective fier, fière)
It comes from Latin ferus and in modern French has a largely positive connotation; it is legitimate, well-founded pride or self-esteem.
Now, the modern connotations of these words orgueil and fierté do not necessarily apply to their use in medieval texts in precisely the same way; nevertheless, it may be a good idea to keep them in mind.
In addition, fier and fierté in Old French can retain something of the original meaning of Latin ferus and feritas, that is to say: “wild, untamed (animal); uncultivated; barbarous, cruel, savage.” Our English word “fierce,” based on French fier(s), keeps more of these older and more negative meanings. 2
Roland Pro and Contra
Here then are passages in which Roland or his behavior seemingly comes in for a value judgment, made by either a character in the poem or by the narrator.
Roland and His Stepdad
When Roland counsels against trusting in Marsile’s good faith (laisse 14), a speech that includes a reminder of all the conquests Roland has made during their seven years in Spain, his stepfather Ganelon stands up fierement (line 219) – proudly? fiercely? – and calls it a:
|Cunseill d’orguill (15.228)||“a counsel of arrogance” (Professor’s translation)|
Of course, given the bad feeling between these two, Ganelon can be expected to interpret his stepson’s high opinion of himself in the worst possible way…
Shortly afterward, when the question has come up of whom Charlemagne will send to the Saracens as an envoy and Roland has proposed himself, his buddy Oliver intervenes:
|« Nu ferez certes, dist li quens Oliver,
Vostre curages est mult pesmes e fiers » (18.255-56)
“You certainly shall not,” said count Oliver. “Your spirit is much too fierce and proud.” (Jessie Crossland)
|« Vous n’irez certes pas, dit le comte Oliver, votre cœur est âpre et orgueilleux » (Joseph Bédier)||
“You certainly will not,” said Count Oliver. “Your disposition is dreadful and untamed.” (The Professor)
Oliver knows that his friend would make a terrible ambassador. — Note the wonderful word pesmes, which is the Latin superlative form pessimus = “very bad, worst.” It means, indeed, very bad, the worst of whatever kind the thing is (a disposition, a day, a battle, an experience): really dreadful. — The two adjectives pesmes and fiers work together in a binomial way, combining their meanings to produce something like “totally out of control, like a wild animal.”
When Roland proposes that his stepfather should be sent on the perilous mission to the Saracens, Ganelon, mult anguisables = “greatly tormented,” spits out:
|« Tut fol, pur quei t’esrages? » (20.286)
« Fou! Pourquoi ta frénésie? » (Joseph Bédier)
|“Madman! Why this anger?” (Jessie Crossland)
“You’re completely crazy! Why are you raving?” (The Professor)
Ganelon’s characterization of his stepson is a bit extreme, and shows just how wrought-up he is, given that Roland’s words were very brief and, presumably, uttered very calmly, even if with evil intent (20.277).
A further chance for Ganelon to express his opinion about Roland comes when he is parlaying with his counterpart among the Saracens, Blancandrin.
|Li soens orgoilz le devreit ben cunfundre (29.389)
Son orgueil est bien fait pour le perdre (Joseph B®rdier)
“His own pride will bring him to nought” (Jessie Crossland)
“His arrogance really ought to bring about his destruction.” (The Professor)
Did the episode Ganelon evokes involving a red apple really take place? Impossible to say…
The Battle of Ronceval: le Preux, le sage et l’orgueilleux
We jump now to just before the fateful battle. Oliver has urged Roland three times to blow his horn and Roland has refused him three times (or alternatively a single request and a single refusal have been related three times – laisses 83-85), and the narrator intervenes incisively with the famous lines:
|Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage;
Ambedui unt meveillus vasselage. (87.1094-95)
Roland is valiant and Oliver is wise. Both of them have marvellous courage. (Jessie Crossland)
|Roland est preux et Olivier sage. Tous deux sont de merveilleux courage. (Joseph Bédier)||
Roland is valiant and Oliver is thoughtful. Both have wondrous warriorship. (The Professor)
The quality indicated by proz, modern French preux, 3 overlaps with the quality of vasselage. The division (R = preux, Oliver = sage) is clearly not absolute: Oliver is sage, yes, but also preux, as we are told elsewhere in the poem (43.576). Indeed, preux and sage are qualities ought to go together; preux itself can contain the idea of wisdom. So, reciprocally, if Oliver can be preux, you would expect that Roland can be sage. Only, that seems not to be the case: Roland is decidedly lacking on this side. Can we say that his outstanding valor makes up for it?
As the battle continues, two more appearances of fier:
|Quant Rollant veit que la bataille serat,
Plus se fait fiers que leon ne leupart. (88.1110-11)
When Roland sees that the battle will take place he becomes fiercer than a lion or a leopard. (Jessie Crossland)
|Quand Roland voit qu’il y aura bataille, il se fait plus fier que lion ou léopard. (Joseph Bédier)||(as above)|
|Vers Sarrazins reguardet fierement
E vers Franceis humeles e dulcement,
Si lur ad dit un mot curteisement. (91.1162-64)
|He looks fiercely towards the Saracens, but very humbly and gently towards the French and he addresses them courteously. (Jessie Crossland)|
|Il regarde menaçant vers les Sarrasins, puis, humble et doux, vers les Français, et leur dit ces mots, courtoisement: (Joseph Bédier)||He looks fiercely towards the Saracens and towards the French humbly and mildly, and speaks to them courteously. (The Professor)|
To finish once and for all with fier, I’ll jump ahead to laisse 160 and these lines in which the Saracens are wondering whether they will ever be able to bring this man down:
|« Li quens Rollant est de tant grant fiertet
Ja n’ert vencut pur nul hume carnel. » (160.2152-53)
“Count Roland’s spirit is so fierce that he will never be vanquished by mortal man.” (Jessie Crossland)
|« Le comte Roland est de si fière hardiesse que nul homme fait de chair ne le vaincra jamais. » (Joseph Bédier)||“Count Roland is of such great fierceness that he will never be vanquished by a mortal man.” (The Professor)|
Later in the battle, we find orgueil applied to someone other than Roland. The hero has just slain Valdabrun, a mighty Saracen.
|Dient paien: « Cist colp nus est mult fort. »
Respont Rollant: « Ne pois amer les voz ;
Devers vos est li orguilz e li torz. » (119.1590-92)
The heathen say: “This is a hard blow for us!” Roland replies: “I cannot love your folk; on your side is the pride and the wrong.” (Jessie Crossland)
|Les païens disent: « Ce coup nous est cruel! » Roland répond: « Je ne puis aimer les vôtres. L’orgueil est devers vous et le tort. » (Joseph Bédier)||The pagans say: “This is a heavy blow for us!” Roland answers: “I cannot like your people. On your side is arrogance and wrong.” (The Professor)|
Here also, once again, is the complaining speech Oliver produces when Roland at long last admits the rearguard could use some help.
|Ço dist Rollant : « Por quei me portez ire ? »
E il respont : « Cumpainz, vos le feïstes,
Kar vasselage par sens nen est folie;
Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie.
Franceis sunt morz par vostre legerie.
Jamais Karlon de nus n’avrat servise.
Vostre proecce, Rollant, mar la veïmes! » (131.1722ss)
Then said Roland: “Why are you angry with me?” And he replied: “Comrade, it was your fault, for valour tempered with sense is not a foolish thing and moderation is worth more than pride. The French are dead because of your thoughtlessness and Charles will never have service from us again. ………… Your prowess, Roland, has been our undoing. (Jessie Crossland)
|Roland dit : « Pourquoi, contre moi, de la colère ? » Et Olivier répond : « Compagnon, c’est votre faute, car vaillance sensée et folie sont deux choses, et mesure vaut mieux qu’outrecuidance. Si nos Français sont morts, c’est par votre légèreté. Jamais plus nous ne ferons le service de Charles. ………… Votre prouesse, Roland, c’est à la malheure que nous l’avons vue. (Joseph Bédier)||Roland says this: “Why do you bear me anger?” And he answers: “Buddy of mine, you caused it. For valor combined with good sense is not rash behavior; moderation is worth more than recklessness. If our French are dead, it is through your lightheadedness. Never will Charles have service from us.……… We have seen your prowess to our misfortune. (The Professor)|
After Roland has blown his horn, the scene cuts back and forth between the rearguard and the main army, in fine cinematic fashion. The word orgueil gets used one last time now in conjunction with Roland, and once again it is Ganelon who employs it.
|« Asez savez le grant orgoill Rollant;
Ço est merveille que Deus le soefret tant. » (134.1773=74)
“You know well Roland’s great pride. It is amazing that God suffers it so long.” (Jessie Crossland)
|« Vous connaissez bien le grand orgueil de Roland: c’est merveille que Dieu si longtemps l’endure. » (Joseph Bédier)||“You know well Roland’s great arrogance. It’s a marvel that God has suffered it so long.” (The Professor)|
As the battle continues, we learn the opinion of no less a person than Archbishop Turpin, a fighting prelate fit to inspire a Frère Jean des Entommeures (who was a fighting friar). Having witnessed Roland cutting the enemy to pieces, he exclaims:
|…« Asez le faites ben!
Itel valor deit aveir chevaler
Ki armes portet e en bon cheval set :
En bataille deit estre forz e fiers,
U altrement ne valt .IIII. deners,
Einz deit monie estre en un de cez mustiers,
Si prierat tuz jurz por noz peccez. » (141.1876-82)
“You acquit yourself well! Such valour becomes a knight who carries arms and rides a good steed. He ought to be strong and proud in battle; otherwise he is not worth four farthings and ought rather to be a monk in a monastery where he can pray all day for our sins.” (Jessie Crossland)
|« Voilà qui est bien! Un chevalier doit se montrer ainsi, qui porte de bonnes armes et monte un bon cheval; ou autrement, il ne vaut pas quatre deniers: qu’il se fasse plutôt moine dans un moutier et qu’il y prie chaque jour pour nos péchés! » (Joseph Bédier)||“You do it very well! Such valor a knight must have who bears arms and sits on a good horse. He must be strong and fierce in battle; otherwise, he’s not worth four pennies. Rather he should be a monk in one of these monasteries, where he will pray constantly for our sins.” (The Professor)|
The Archbishop, at least, and at least at this point in the battle, has no bone to pick with Roland’s knightliness.
Roland’s and Oliver’s Final Thoughts, including a Vergilian Echo
The battle continues on its deadly way; twenty thousand Frenchmen, including the twelve peers, eventually fall before the enemy forces. As befits the passing of so great a warrior, Oliver’s death throes extend over a number of laisses. At the very last:
|Descent a piet, a la tere se culchet,
Durement en halt si recleimet sa culpe,
Cuntre le ciel ambesdous ses mains juintes,
Si priet Deu que pareïs li dunget
E beneïst Karlun e France dulce,
Sun cumpaignun Rollant sur tuz humes.
Falt li le coer,… (150.2013-19)
He dismounts and lays himself on the ground and resolutely he confesses his sins aloud, his two hands joined and stretched upwards towards the sky. He prays God that he will grant him paradise, that he will bless Charles and sweet France, and his companion Roland above all other men. His heart stops beating, (Jessie Crossland)
|Il descend à pied, se couche contre terre. À haute voix il dit sa coulpe, les deux mains jointes et levées vers le ciel, et prie Dieu qu’il lui donne le paradis et qu’il bénisse Charles et douce France et, par-dessus tous les hommes, Roland, son compagnon. Le cœur lui manque,… (Joseph Bédier)||He dismounts, lies down on the earth. In a loud voice he confesses his guilt. With both hands clasped heavenwards, he prays God to give him paradise and to bless CHarles and sweet France and his companion Roland above all men. His heart fails… (The Professor)|
Oliver’s last thought is a prayer for Roland, above everyone else (including the Emperor). He has had a beef with his boon companion, but he is over it now.
Roland is still on his feet, though he and Archbishop Turpin are the only Frenchmen still fighting,, when the poet allows himself the following long-winded (for him) appreciation of his hero:
|Li quens Rollant unkes n’amat cuard,
Ne orguillos, ne malvais hume de male part,
Ne chevaler, s’il ne fust bon vassal. (159.2134-36)
Count Roland never loved a coward, nor a proud man, nor an ill-conditioned man—nor even a knight if he were not courageous. (Jessie Crossland)
|Le comte Roland jamais n’aima un couard, ni un orgueilleux, ni un méchant, ni un chevalier qui ne fût bon guerrier. (Joseph Bédier)||Count Roland never loved a coward, Nor a haughty person, nor a bad man of evil extraction, nor a knight who wasn’t a good warrior. (The Professor)|
Roland definitely does not like the arrogant, the orgeuilleux, regardless of whether or not he himself is given to that fault. Who does he approve of? People like his companion Oliver, who, he says of him in his lament, had no equal:
|« Pur hanste freindre e pur escuz peceier,
Pur orgoillos veintre e esmaier
E pur prozdomes tenir e cunseiller,
En nule tere n’ad meillor chevaler » (163.2210-14)
|“You had no equal in any land for breaking a lance or shattering a shield, for vanquishing and laying low the proud, for helping and counselling the valiant.” (Jessie Crossland)|
|Pour rompre une lance et pour briser des écus, pour vaincre et abattre les orgueilleux, pour soutenir et conseiller les prud’hommes, […] en nulle terre il n’y eut meilleur chevalier! (Joseph Bédier)||“For breaking lances or shattering sheilds, For overcoming and dismaying the arrogant, for sustaining and aiding worthy men, in no land was there a better knight.”|
The description is reminiscent of what Anchises tells his son Æneas is the special calling of the Roman:
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.
to spare the submissive and to subdue the haughty. —Vergil, Æneid 6.853
Who might be the orgueilleux, the haughty, that Oliver always strove against? In this context, they are misbehaving knights, those who use their fighting prowess in the wrong way or for the wrong purpose: Saracens in the first place but not necessarily them alone. The first element of the Anchisean formula (“to spare the submissive”) seems not to appear in the French text, unless we say that the Roland-poet has replaced it with a more military variant: just as Oliver always fought down wicked knights, so he always supported prozdomes in need of his help, prozdomes meaning, here, essentially: worthy knights, those who use their prowess in the right way or for the right purpose.
Who might these worthy knights be that Oliver supports?
You will note that, whereas Jessie Crossland has translated the verb cunseillier as “counselling,” I have translated it with the more general “aiding.” In fact the Old French verb could have either the more general meaning of “helping someone who needs help” and the more particular one of “giving advice to someone who could use advice.” Now, in the more general sense of the verb Oliver gives aid to all his fellow Christian warriors by fighting alongside them in defense of the same cause; in the more particular sense of giving advice it is above all his companion Roland that he sustains (we have seen him doing so both before and during the battle of Ronceval). In praising Oliver for the important service of counsel he provided, Roland here gives a clear enough (if indirect) indication of who in the end he thinks was right in their recent disagreement, and shows thereby that he himself has edged at least a little closer to the quality of sage.
The Balance Sheet on Roland
A complete portrait of Roland as he appears in the poem named after him would need to consider other matters as well, the most important of which is the lengthy description of the hero’s passing. But the death of Roland deserves a web essay of its own.
However, from the passages examined above we can affirm at the very least that:
- No one in the poem, other than his stepfather Ganelon, associates Roland with orguill-orgueil = “pride / haughtiness / arrogance…”
- Otherwise, the only word indicating pride associated in the poem with Roland is fier = “proud? / fierce / savage / wild…”
- Roland definitely merits the word proz-preux = “valiant / a good warrior / (wise?)…”, and should probably be ranked even among the prozdomes = “worthy knights / accomplished knights in every regard.”
- The medieval poet has not quite made his way to Barry Goldwater’s formulation.↩
- Did Latin ferox, related to ferus but with more positive meanings such as “bold, spirited, warlike,” help fier acquire its positive meaning? If so, it is doubly odd that French féroce and English “ferocious” ended up being mostly negative (and animalistic).↩
- Proz is derived from a Vulgar Latin adjective prode, a back formation from the Classical verb prodesse = “to be useful.”↩
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