(I apologize for the lack of background story! The poem is long and complicated, so, in lieu of an entire explanation, I hope that those of you desiring to further understand the book will read it. However, I would not recommend it for those who can easily see through holes in both plot and theology, as you may be laughing your head off the entire time. 🙂
“The Song of Roland”, written in the 11th century, was a poetic literary work which centered on fictional events of the Spanish Crusades. The story line focused on the elements of tension between French commanders, betrayal of Christianity by one of the king’s men, and the concept that those in “the right” (namely, Catholic Christianity) would always prevail over those in “the wrong”, (any heathen entity separate from Christianity), no matter the odds.
At the time when the poem was set, Charlemagne was the king of France, and had been fighting the crusades in Spain for seven years. Lord Roland, one of the main characters, was Charlemagne’s nephew. Oliver was Roland’s liegeman – this meant Oliver held a position of power which was subordinate to Roland, who served under the king. Although Oliver attended Roland and was his subordinate, the two were great friends. Oliver however, was the only one who was willing to compromise on core beliefs for the sake of preserving the other person’s honor. When they disagreed, it was not Roland who stepped down to try and resolve the situation – it was Oliver.
One of the most crucial conflicts in the story (aside from Ganelon’s betrayal of France and the tension he had with Roland) was the conflict between Roland and Oliver. At the sound of the blast of a thousand trumpets, the rear-guard knew that the Muslims were coming with forces much larger than their mere 20,000 soldiers. Defeat was imminent. Both Oliver and Roland knew this. However, the two men responded differently.
Oliver entreated Roland to blow the trumpet to call Charlemagne to come assist them in the battle. However, Roland thought this would be a cowardly move and said that he would rather be thought of as a great and brave man than as a military victor. Of course, in saying this, he sets himself up to be a martyr of the Christian faith, instead of doing what his job was: conquering!
Contrary to the readers’ expectations, the 20,000 French soldiers were able to completely obliterate the 100,000 Muslim forces! It would appear that Roland was right; the military victory did come, after all, and they would be loved by Charlemagne and viewed as brave men.
Then, unexpected by the French, there was another blast from afar – the blowing of seven thousand trumpets, which belonged to Muslim forces numbering 300,000! If the French and Oliver hesitated to fight 100,000 with 20,000, then no doubt they would be completely struck with fear at the multiplication of those forces, in fresh and ready condition! Again Oliver entreats Roland. “Dude, fine, we killed the 100,000 with little damage to ourselves. But here comes three times that, and our army is tired. We really should call the King and his troops before we are completely destroyed.”
Against all reason, Roland refuses yet again to call the king. Oliver gives in again and joins his comrade in the fighting. But the French take a large blow this time around, until eventually they only have 60 men left, to fight against Muslim forces far more numerous than them, in the thousands. What happens?
All of a sudden, there is a role reversal. Roland decides that they may as well blow the trumpet. He now admits that they and their remaining 60 men will die, and, for the sake of honor, he hopes that the King will arrive on the scene and avenge their deaths in the name of France and the Christian faith.
Oliver was aghast! They had fought this far without the king – and now Roland wished to blow the trumpet, after losing 19,940 men as a result of his desire for his family’s honor. Although Oliver had wanted to call the King before, he wanted no part in it now. He told Roland that the blame for the massacre belonged to Roland alone.
If they had called for backup before, when there were a few of them, it would have been reasonable. But at this point, they would surely be seen as cowardly. Such was Oliver’s position. Yet, although he was not willing to abandon his position, he wasn’t willing to abandon Roland either – so he chose to obey his commander.
Yet, although the battle ended in a crushing defeat of the rear-guard’s 20,000 forces, Roland believed that the gain was greater than the loss – that it would be worth it. Was it?
(Sorry for the cryptic ending! 😛)