The descent into Spain is rugged. The bright pastures of the sommets des pyrénées slip downslope, gradually at first, then furiously, precipitously, until they tumble into dense beech forests. Bob and I do the same. Spattered by mud, decorated with leaves, and swathed in shadow, we appreciate the contrast expressed in The Song of Roland.
The reader of this famous chanson de geste (“song of heroic deeds”) must be cautious with its presentation of Battle of Roncevaux Pass (AD 778). The bards polished the details of the event for nearly three centuries. It is a high shine. Christian Basques become Muslims. A Frankish raid into Spain becomes a seven-year war. Numbers grow legs: hundreds of men become hundreds-of-thousands of men. Even after Roland was finally committed to paper and ink in the 11th century it continued to be shaped. Seven versions survive to this day. Kyle Glenn Cunningham put it like this: “Roland is an excellent example of how to understand secondary sources effectively; namely, it is a text that better reflects the time period in which it was written rather than the time period in which it is set.”**
I process bits of this medieval epic while walking the Camino de Santiago. That experience prompts three swipes here: first, the basic story that Roland tells; second, the manner of Roland’s death; and third, the relevance of Roland for the Bible Land Explorer. Let me take first two of these immediately and save the third for another day.
For those unfamiliar with this story of heroic good and unspeakable evil, recognize that Roland is a balanced presentation of four scenes.
The first and last scenes mirror each other and focus on the treachery of Ganelon and his punishment. Ganelon (Surprise!—the name is connected to the Italian notion of “despicable fraud”) is a Frankish baron who betrays the army of Charlemagne to the Muslim enemy. Tragically caught in this scheme is Charlemagne’s rearguard under the command of our dear Roland (Italian: Orlando or “noble”). Eventually Ganelon gets what he deserves and is drawn and quartered in a satisfying, if not somewhat messy, finale.
The two middle scenes of Roland mirror each other as well. Two extended battles are presented. In the first, Roland and his men are ambushed in a mountain pass near Roncevaux. The knights fight bravely but cannot overcome the odds and are martyred. In the mirroring scene, Charlemagne exacts vengeance on Roland’s ambushers. The battle action is quite grisly; men are skewered all over the place like Lil’ Smokies on gameday. Despite the carnage, lovely lines emerge in English translations of the Song like “How ill-fated thou wert” or “Here they will find us stark and dead smitten” and “Forthwith let us fly!”
For a child of the 70s I must confess that reading Roland prompts flashbacks to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Sick, I know (for the sake of old times and good smiles, try this link).
Roland’s sword Durendal dispatches hordes of the heathen to hell.*** But it is not the daring swordplay that leads to his death. At his side is another prop, the ivory Olifant. This hunting horn is fashioned from either the tusk of an elephant or the horn of a unicorn (depending on the version). When his rearguard troop is ambushed, Roland is implored to sound Olifant and signal Charlemagne’s army to return and save them. Roland refuses, claiming to do so would be ignoble. He chooses instead to fight for God and king. This he does against overwhelming odds until the battle is too far gone. In the end, the Archbishop-warrior Turpin convinces Roland to sound the horn and bring Charlemagne. The appeal this time not for the sake of a rescue, but to avenge and bury the dead. Roland is convinced. It will be his last act.
Olifant is blown with such force and duration that Roland’s brains leak out his ears and blood sprays from his mouth (see laisse 136 and laisse 170). It sounds like a Maynard Ferguson concert to me (for the impoverished souls who don’t know what I’m talking about, try the flashback here). I can only assume that Roland’s legacy as a head-exploding horn-player is akin to the legacy of Pheidippides among marathon-runners (“hey, here’s a brill idea: let’s sprint until we die!”).
Charlemagne hears Olifant from a distance and immediately recognizes the depth of the disaster. He wheels about. But it is too late for Roland and the rearguard. They have all been killed—martyrs glorious—with the blood of infidels on their swords and the praise of God on their lips.
Bob and I emerge from the forest and encounter a compound of stone buildings. It is Roncevaux. Inside the compound is the 13th century Colegiata de Santa María. Adjacent to it is a hostel for tired pilgrims hiking the Camino de Santiago. We take our place in line and wait for a bunk assignment.
*The Song of Roland (laisse 67). I draw my quotes from Leonard Bacon’s timeless 1914 English translation. An online version is available here. For a full critical introduction to the text, run to your local library and grab Gerard J. Brault’s The Song of Roland: An Analytical Introduction (University Park: Pennsylvania State, 1978).
**See the work here by Kyle Glenn Cunningham, “Historical Perspective and the Song of Roland,” page 1.
***Hidden in the pommel of the indestructible sword Durendal are four relics: a tooth of St Peter, blood from St Basil, hair from St Denis, and a scrap of garment from the Virgin Mary. These apparently made for some powerful chemistry. See laisse 175.
We have several travel experiences to Bible Lands planned for 2019 (see list here). These are often organized on behalf of educational institutions or for church groups. If you are a leader who is interested in crafting a unique travel opportunity for your organization or if you are an individual who would like to join a group, shoot me an email at email@example.com.