Western Literature lesson 140

“Do you think the typical listener to a recitation of this poem would have spotted the discrepancies?”

The Song of Roland is an epic poem written in the 11th century that transformed the defeat of Charlemagne in the late 8th century, on his quest to reclaim Spanish territory from the Muslims, into a glorious victory. The 11th century was not a time of learning, so it makes sense that many of the common folk would completely miss most—if not all—of the discrepancies in the poem. There were many to choose from. Armies of only a few thousand emerged from battle hundreds of thousands of soldiers stronger and half dead soldiers rose up to defeat a newly arrived army…and won! Perhaps the most noticeable discrepancy was when Charlemagne’s army neglected to notice the blaring of 1000 horns but managed to hear the horn of a single dying soldier. It seems impossible to us nowadays to reason that the typical listeners to this poem would not have noticed all of these facts but a couple of defenses on their side can be made nonetheless.

The Song of Roland had been transferred by the lips of a thousand poets into a legend. The educated folk who were able to deduce these faults in logic were few compared to the masses that had all been regaled by the hole-riddled story since babyhood. It was too late to alter into a more believable tale and so it never was. Even to the ears of many of the educated people, the inconsistencies in the story appear to be miracles of God’s grace. Since God is all powerful, why could he not have helped the losing Christian army vanquish its enemies?

Today we realize that even if some of the disagreements of plot could be logically explained simply by omission of certain facts (such as reinforcements arriving in the midst of battle), the entire Song of Roland is at odds with the truth. Charlemagne and his army limped home having spectacularly lost. Turold the poet, wanting to create a powerful tale of glory and valor, used the battle of Roncevaux to support evidence of his masterpiece. And that is why the Song of Roland is a total lie by exacerbating the truth!

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