Archive for October, 2012

Song of Roland

On 10/4, I presented to the Woode-Walkers on the Song of Roland. Sadly, I don’t have nearly the talent Justin hopes for, and so I won’t be writing this in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, for both your safety and mine. I also won’t try to repost my entire handout, which can instead be found here. I will, however, try to cover a couple points here that I am most interested in concerning the Song of Roland.

Named Weapons

There are a number of characters in the Song of Roland who have their own named weapons (almost all swords, though one, Baligant, has a named spear). I’m fascinated by the inclusion of these weapons, because there aren’t a great deal of literary heroes who have them. I’m interested in both their origins (as trope and as items with history) and what they signify in the text.

For example, one of the obvious calls when reading the Song of Roland and noting all these named weapons is that they are a literary device to tell you to pay attention to the owner. Of all the named characters in the text of Song of Roland, only Roland, Oliver, Turpin, Charlemagne, Ganelon, and Baligant have named weapons (well, in the text – Ogier the Dane has one, but it doesn’t get mentioned in Song of Roland). These are also arguably the most important characters in the poem.  Roland, Oliver, and Turpin, all members of the doomed rearguard, have their swords (Durendal, Hauteclaire, and Almace), and they’re the only French characters in the battle who really have any lines. Charlemagne, as the great Christian and Frankish emperor, gets one (Joyeuse), and so his opponent, the Emir Baligant, must also get one (well, two – Precieuse and Maltet – maybe he overcompensates a bit). Even Ganelon gets one, though he never uses his sword – it seems to be there only to emphasize how traitorous he is (“On the relics, are in his sword Murgles, Treason he’s sworn, forsworn his faith away.” Song of Roland 46:607-8). Even though other characters seem important – the other 10 Peers, Ogier, Naimon, Marsilion – the ones with named weapons are the focal points.

I don’t think the weapons are solely a narrative device, though. They do seem to have their own history; in Karlamagnus saga (a Norse saga collecting tales of Charlemagne, Roland, and related characters), Charlemagne, in return for setting a man’s brother free, receives three swords crafted by the famous Weyland – Durendal, Cortana, and Almace. These swords eventually go to Roland, Ogier, and Turpin, respectively. Joyeuse, according to Wikipedia (yes, I know, terrible source), is on display in the Louvre – though Wikipedia also notes that it likely isn’t actually the sword of Charlemagne.  This isn’t much different from the sword of Saint Ferdinand III of Castile, whose sword, Lobera, is kept in the Seville Cathedral. Joyeuse, at least, is believed to have been Charlemagne’s real sword, so why not those of the others?

Also, Roland’s use of Durendal make it clear that these named swords – or, if not all of them, then at least his sword – were something special. While he is dying in the poem, he realizes that there might still be foes left to steal his sword, and so at first he tries to break it (and, amusingly, creating La Breche de Roland, or so legend goes); even hacking into a mountain doesn’t destroy it, though. When he finally realizes that he lacks the strength to break his blade, he lays down on top of it so that anyone who finds his body won’t immediately see it. The fact that the sword won’t break and that Roland feels a need to hide his weapon show that it isn’t Roland that makes the sword important; the sword has its own value, and he feels it is too dangerous to allow enemies to take it. This is possibly my favorite angle of discussion for the weapons – that, at least for Roland, Durendal is so important to him, and so dangerous, that he would rather destroy it then lose it to the enemy.

Someone else has done quite a bit of research on the weapons (and other items) in the Song of Roland, and that page can be found here.

After Song of Roland

The Song of Roland spawned a number of contemporary works that tell the stories of Roland, the Peers, Charlemagne, and others involved; the Karlamagnus saga is one, as is something called the Pseudo-Turpin or the Historia Caroli Magni. Ganelon even makes appearances in a number of later works – he’s in Dante’s Inferno, Canto 32, alongside Gianni de Soldanier; he shows up in two Canterbury Tales, the Shipman’s Tale (lines 193-94) and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale (line 3227).

The works I’m interested in, though, come much later. The first time I heard of the Song of Roland wasn’t through assignment in class or hearing about it from a professor or teacher – my first exposure came in late 1999, in a comic book store. I picked up a graphic novel called Roland: Days of Wrath, a retelling of the Song of Roland in comic book form, and I was hooked. I bought my first ‘real’ edition of the Song of Roland a week later. So I have an understandable interest in seeing how the work ages and what other works it has inspired, partially or in full.

The most famous is also the most tenuous: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. King has admitted that one of his inspirations for this series was the Robert Browning poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, and in that poem, there are several things that point to the titular Roland being the character from Song of Roland. The most obvious is the name; then his status as childe – a young man of noble birth, or one about to be knighted; and finally, in the next-to-last line of the poem, he uses a slug-horn, possibly referring to the older Roland’s olifant. If Browning’s Roland is meant to be a younger version of the Song of Roland’s title character, then King’s work is just barely linked to it.

The French military apparently felt that Roland’s sword was so cool that they named a few things after it – the BLU-107 Durandal, a bomb designed to destroy airfield runways, and the SNCASE SE-212 Durandal, a 1950s-era fighter jet prototype that never made it into full production. While the plane was a failure, the bomb was a success, and is apparently still in use today.

One of my personal favorite links to the Song of Roland is truly nerdy, because I’m a huge nerd – the Song of Roland is almost directly responsible for the Paladin in Dungeons & Dragons. Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, once listed a number of books he felt were his main sources for material for the game (Appendix N), and one of those books was by Poul Anderson, called Three Hearts and Three Lions. The main character is a reincarnation of Ogier the Dane, and he is essentially the character used as the basis for the Paladin class; this isn’t unusual, because the Peers of Charlemagne were sometimes known as paladins themselves. Some translations even note Oliver as a paladin: “Both his nephew, count Rollant, as I think, And Oliver, that courteous paladin;” (Song of Roland, 43:575-6). The paladin today is not a byword for Charlemagne’s Peers, but rather the idea of a knight or warrior in service to a divine entity.

Apparently, the video game designers at Bungie (makers of the HALO series of games) are also fans, or at least familiar, with the Song of Roland and related materials; the second- or third-most popular character in the series, the AI who is the Master Chief’s constant companion, is named Cortana, after the sword of Ogier the Dane. The Halo games have several other references like this – the MJOLNIR armor, HRUNTING/YGGDRASIL prototype armor, and Project GUNGNIR, among others. Cortana wasn’t Bungie’s first use of something from the Song of Roland material – in 1995, when Bungie created a sequel to their game Marathon, they named it Marathon 2: Durandal; like Cortana, Durandal was an artificial intelligence. I find it interesting that both of these artificial intelligence characters were named after weapons, since that seems to denote their purpose as weapons.

While there’s quite a bit more I could cover, I think I’ll just stop there and see what others have to say.


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Without commenting merely on Eileen Joy’s announcement of her resigning her position at SIUE, I wonder how some might react to the ideas in her recent post on In the Medieval Middle. In particular, I find intriguing her idea concerning new modes of practicing the kind of learning traditionally associated with universities. Here at Regent, the faculty and administration have been meditating on learning models offered by Udacity, Coursera,  and others (including Massively Open Online Courses offered by many of the nation’s premier universities, such as Stanford’s recent course on Artificial Intelligence [irony or omen?]). Without speculating whether Dr. Joy intends to gravitate toward this model or not, I wonder if her desire for more communal approaches to learning can be fostered without abandoning (or merely departing from) the traditional brick-and-mortar institution. My mind is racing with free-associations at this point, but I wonder how new and revolutionary ideas in medieval scholarship (and I think many of us in the Woode-Walkers, past and present, can claim to hold some) can emerge in scholarly conversations (i.e. journals) without appeasing many of the gatekeepers that might frown on such crazy stuff. I have no answers, but perhaps you have meditated on this yourselves. Perhaps some of you have even more questions than these. I am interested in knowing your thoughts.

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