Charlemagne's Rear Guard

The Song of Roland - Anonymous, Dorothy L. Sayers

In her introduction Dorothy Sayers compared the Song of Roland with Homer but in my opinion that is like comparing a graffiti artist with Pablo Picasso. Yeah, they're both painters, but they simply exist on two completely different levels. Granted, the Song of Roland is an epic poem in the traditional sense in that it chronicles events that occurred four hundred years before the poem appeared in its final form and was no doubt handed down by word of mouth for at least a bit of that time, but the structure and complexity of the Homeric epics simply leaves this rather scrappy piece of work for dead.



The Song of Roland is set during the reign of Charlemagne, and while Charlemagne was off beating up the pagan non-Christian barbarians up north, Spain was being invaded by the Muslims (who, in this poem, are pagan non-Christians). In response, Charlemagne crosses the Pyranees and launches an attack against the Muslim invaders and has the upper hand, so the Muslim king proposes a truce. Charlegmaine then returns back across the Pyranees to continue to beat up on the Pagan non-Christians to the north. However, the Muslims hatch a plot to weaken Charlegmaine's army and as his rear guard is crossing the Pyranees, the Basque ambush them and slaughter them to the man. In response, Charlegmaine returns and enacts vengeance on the Muslims, and kills the instigator of the ambush by tying him to four horses and then whipping them so they all run off in four different directions.



The poem itself is good, and it is an enjoyable read, but as I said it is nowhere near as structured as Homer. The poem was originally written in a very old form of French which was actually closer to Latin than the French we know today. In fact the French of this period still declined its nouns (meaning that the noun would change based on the position that it took in the sentence, something which it doesn't do these days – German still does it, but only with the articles).



What is interesting is that the Basque were still very independent back in those days. In the poem it sounds as if the Muslims encouraged them to attack Charlemagne's rear-guard, however it is suggested that they actually didn't really need all that much encouragement. What I noticed though is that the civil war that the Basques are raging against the Spanish government today is not anything new – it has been going on for over a thousand years (and possibly even longer).


The other interesting thing that I noticed is pretty much how little Medieval Christianity knew about Islam. We are told here that the Muslims were pagans that worshipped idols and had multiple gods (and that is ignoring that fact that the writer blatantly says that the Muslims worship Satan). In fact they are referred to throughout the poem as Paynims (which is medieval for pagan). These days we know that that is nowhere near the truth. They do notice that they have their own book, but it is suggested that the reason they say this is because the writer is trying to portray them as being the antithesis of Christianity. Maybe they suggest this because the Muslims conquered Spain so quickly (which was a bit of an embarrassment – especially since the counter-attack took four hundred years).



However, it is unlikely that the writer, or many of the people in Christendom at the time, would have done all that much to try to understand Islam. Simply put, they were not Christian therefore in the eyes of the writers, and the audience, they were bad. However it is also suggested that it worked both ways – the Muslims pretty much saw Christianity in the same light, and I am told the misunderstanding of what Christianity is about is evident in Muslim literature of the time such as the Tales of the Arabian Knights.


Once again, nothing much has really changed in all that time. Fundamentalist Muslims see Christians as a debauchuous lot that run around in bikinis looking at porn and living hedonistic lifestyles, while fundamentalist Christians simply see Muslims as being a violent lot that run around blowing up people that do not believe their strict doctrine. While I tend to be very traditional in my faith, that does not give me the excuse not to befriend Muslims or try to understand where they are coming from, and it certainly does not give me the right to make baseless assumptions about what Muslims are like (I have some very good Islamic friends) or make inflammatory statements about their faith that only exist to inflame tempers (even though, like most religions, there are some really bad apples).