Review of The Song of Roland
By PAUL D. MILLER
The Song of Roland is the medieval French Catholic Crusader abridged version of the Iliad. It tells the story of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army, led by the eponymous Roland, fighting against overwhelming numbers at the Battle of Roncesvalles in 778. Imagine the armies of Agamemnon, dressed in Renaissance finery, spouting Scripture as they slay hordes, not of Trojans, but Saracens. It is a story full of bravura, gore, and heroism. As with all things pre-modern, there are things to admire. I thoroughly enjoyed the chivalry, the honor and loyalty and brashness, and the story of men banding together in a desperate cause. At its best, I felt like I was reading the source material from which Gondor in the Lord of the Rings was fashioned. It is the literary apogee of the civilization of the Middle Ages. Then there was the forced conversion of 100,000 at sword-point and the hints of racism. That, alas, was also part of pre-modernity. No book is perfect.
If the Song of Roland is Gondor, Beowulf is Rohan. It relates the story of a lone hero in search of monsters and dragons to slay to win for himself glory and a kingdom. Beowulf is much darker, bloodier, and rougher than Roland. It is more raw, less refined, and takes place in a world with fewer comforts and manners. Its religion seems to be halfway between the paganism of Homer and the crusading Catholicism of Roland: the poem mentions God and Providence on occasion, but there is no mention of Christ and Beowulf doesn’t fight because of his religion. He fights because of his warrior ethos. The poem is a celebration of the alpha male. Beowulf is praised because he is big, strong, has cool weapons, does great deeds, and kills enemies real good. But the poem is also pervaded by a sense of mortality that chastens its triumphalism and elevates it above mere hero-worship.
These two pre-modern epic poems—one medieval and French; the other, Old English—have some points of similarity. One is in their depiction of manhood. Men are warriors. They handle weapons skillfully, are physically strong, and prove themselves in combat. But being a warrior does not mean being a bully or a murderer. Their capacity for violence is guided and restrained by a sense of duty and honor; by obedience to a king or commander; by service to a land or a people. Beowulf and Roland fight not out of a love for the kill, but a love for their homes and their brothers. They would have made fine Marines.
They also fight from a love for glory. Their goal in combat is not to kill their enemies in the most efficient and risk-free way possible, which would be dishonorable and cowardly. Beowulf deliberately disarms himself to make his combat with Grendel harder and, thus, more glorious. Roland refuses to blow his horn and call for help lest the French Army think him unable or, worse, too cowardly to fight on his own. Later, when all is lost and Roland is near death, he blows the horn—not to call for help, but to ensure someone will see his glorious death and know his deeds. These men thirst for glory, and glory is gotten by putting yourself directly in harms way in the service of others. Beowulf and Roland would be horrified by drone strikes.
Men today could learn a few things from Beowulf and Roland—but only a few. So much has changed, for better or worse, that men who seriously aspire to be like Beowulf would probably end up in prison. Men in our time grow up in schools that tell them to sit still and behave when they really need to run and wrestle. They channel their energy and competitive drive in sports until they’re 18 or 22—but, because of the stupid linkage between sports and schools, promptly loose most opportunities to compete as soon as they graduate. They compete vicariously by rooting for a team on TV or, worse yet, playing fantasy sports—about the least manly thing I can imagine. Even war, for the most part, is waged by bureaucrats and technicians; only a tiny percentage of military personnel (like Army Rangers and Navy SEALs) do anything remotely similar to the intimate, physical combat undertaken in earlier ages. There is no room for epic men in the modern world.
Some of these realities are, I think, too constraining; we could use a little more tolerance, and more meaningful outlets, for the natural roughness of young men as they come of age. But in another light, these changes are a sign of progress that we should be glad for. Beowulf and Roland were professional men of violence in a barbaric age that needed them. And their age got some things completely wrong. They have nothing to teach us as husbands and fathers (other than, perhaps, our duty to protect the weak). Their vainglory is tiresome and too often led men to pick fights rather than avoid them. They had no awareness that humility, too, is manly, as are grace, forgiveness, and love. We have no need to handle a broadsword with skill.
But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to be a man in the modern world. Manhood isn’t a matter of skillful violence. Things like courage, honor, and loyalty will always matter. Just because we aren’t on a literal battlefield doesn’t mean the virtues are irrelevant. There is no area in life in which integrity does not matter. Tell me you don’t feel just a little bit of manly pride the next time you stand up to your boss or coworker on a matter of principle, or the next time you stick you neck out to share a daring and original idea at work. It may feel like the field on which we fight is small, the stake petty, and therefore the outcome immaterial. But if these are the battles to which we are entrusted, they matter, and if you treat them with contempt, you hold your manhood cheap.