The conflict between Roland and Oliver

(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! 😛)


Medieval Literature as Lifestyle Advice

When we think of a typical Christian life, we might think of someone who has devoted their life to loving Christ through obeying and trusting in Him and serving others. But practically, getting down to the minute level, what’s the Christian decision when faced with chores, or friendships? In these cases, where there is less scriptural perogative, we must rely on Biblical principles to guide us. Everyday life is full of pot-holes to any believer, but we don’t have to be afraid of them.

Two documents of the medieval period, “Song of Roland” and “The Little Flowers of St Francis”, attempted to show moral decisions in the everyday lives of extraordinary people. But what about us ordinary people? What can we learn from these examples? Some of us will never be faced with the problems that the characters were faced with, but we certainly have other problems! What do we do?

Song of Roland

The conflict between Oliver and Roland is one of the crucial points in the narrative. Yet, the way that the characters deal with the conflict is rather unsatisfying at best, and simply stupid at worst. If an idea is wrong, and you tell a friend, and you’re right, they should listen. But if they don’t listen, and it still results in a positive outcome, does that make their decision any less undesirable? Oliver was right and Roland was wrong, yet the latter wouldn’t budge, and did whatever he felt would save their honor, and that of his own family.

As far as ethical decisions go, I’m sure that it is plain to see that Ganelon’s betrayal was wrong. His punishment? Getting pulled apart by horses.

How can we, in this modern world, use this as an example as to how we should deal with betrayal today? The practice of pulling people apart by horses (dismemberment) was NOT biblical at ALL. If one of OUR friends betray us, should we follow Charlemagne’s example by tying their limbs to horses and tearing them apart? (To enlighten you; this is a rhetorical question.) So as you can see, not all principles (and in my opinion, hardly any!) constitute as moral enough to emulate in our everyday lives. However, the principles of love, loyalty, bravery, grief, and righteous judgement are all absolutely biblical gems to take away from this book, if you should read it.

Little Flowers

The earliest chapters of the book details St Francis’ rise (or perhaps I should say descent) to holy poverty. Many men join him and become his followers, his “brethren”. There are additional sections dedicated to the actions of St Francis himself, Brother Bernard, Brother Juniper, Brother Giles, and select other of the brethren. The chapters in the latter part of the book are more focused on ethics and guidance in heavenly matters than on detailed stories of the lives of those belonging to the order.

One trouble with the ethical advice given by Brother Giles in the final chapters of the book is that they seem to contradict at key points. He stresses the major importance of not working for salvation, not even bothering to work at ALL – then says we must be diligent. (Diligent in what? Being lazy?!) He says that chastity is the most important virtue – then redefines chastity as charity! (Which is absolutely incorrect.) The strict principles of the monastic and Fransiscan orders are anything but biblical.

Biblically, a man should be free to “eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his work.” He should be allowed to marry a good wife, “for her measure is far above rubies”. He could have cattle and sheep, and land, and children “as numerous as the stars”. He could be a great leader, and still be “a man after God’s own heart.” Yet, all these principles go against Franciscan tradition. Which begs the question – were the friars substituting God’s system with their own tradition?

These two books don’t satisfy a longing for truth. Neither of these books show us how to live, or even if we will go to heaven if we copy the characters in the stories. Yes, both contain concepts such as the sovereignty of God, tight systems of institutional hierarchy, obedience as crucial to success. Yet, although there were rules galore littering the chapters of these books, neither book dealt with or explained the true Law – the Law of their own God!