The Song of Roland
From east to west, there is no house in France
Unshaken, and men cry: “It is the end!
The end of all the world!” They do not know
The truth. Alas! It is the sorrowing
Of land and sea and sky for Roland’s death! Roland, p. 50
Not one whose eyes fill not with tears, whose heart
Does not despair. Yet pray they unto God
That Roland may be saved until they come
To the red field. But what avails it now?
It is too late—they cannot come in time. Roland, p. 63
The Song of Roland is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator. The narrator’s knowledge stretches to both sides of the conflict: it can see and describe the words and actions of both the Franks and the Muslims. Yet if that were all it could do, the narrator would merely be third-person objective. Much like a camera filming a movie, it would only show only facts and could voice no opinion. Song’s narrator is much more than a lens; it is a guide for the masses. The narrator knows each main character’s thoughts, and in some key moments of the story, the narrator goes even further and acts as an omniscient commentator, telling people reading the book or listening to the song to feel a certain way or to take note of a forthcoming event. This is the case for the two selected passages. The first passage after the Franks hold off the first wave of Muslims, and the second passage occurs just after Roland blows the horn to signal to Charlemagne that he is in trouble. In the case of both passages, the narrator is, on one level, merely reminding readers that Roland is going to die. Yet the narrator expresses this point in slightly different ways in each case, which create different emotional effects.
Passage one refers to a storm terrorizing France while Roland and the Franks battle in Spain. A squall rages so violently that “there is no house in France / Unshaken.” Song’s author creates a situation in which weather conditions are so rare and powerful that a whole country is not only in a widespread storm, but one that literally shakes every single Frenchman’s house. The narrator then presents two parties’ reasons for this: the people of France’s perspective and the actual truth. The French civilians believe that “It is the end / The end of all the world!” In other words, they believe that the storm is so horrible that it must be due to the apocalypse. The narrator, in saying “Alas!” shows that it is a shame that the French people do not know the truth about why the storm is occurring, which is that “It is the sorrowing / Of land and sea and sky for Roland’s death!” Here the narrator not only claims to know the thoughts of the general population of a nation, but also the thoughts of Earth’s personified elements— inanimate bodies of matter expressing their sadness because Roland is betrayed. Since the narrator is sympathetic to Charlemagne and Roland, and the Franks are all monotheistic Christians, it is likely that the narrator really means to say that God Himself created a storm as a symbol for the infamy of Roland’s death that will soon happen, not separate gods of land, sea, and sky. As a result of God’s displeasure, the Franks at home must live in a state of fear, although they will not know why until news of the battles reaches France. The narrator’s language of fear invites Song of Roland’s audience to be taken in by the story’s dramatic effects and to share the Franks’ dread.
Passage two refers to the King and his mournful soldiers hoping in vain for Roland to stay alive: “Yet pray they unto God / That Roland may be saved until they come / To the red field.” Readers already know from passage one that praying unto God will not help anything. God has already formally announced Roland’s impending death by creating a symbolic storm to strike fear in the French. It is obvious from all the foreshadowing that the red field will become even redder with Roland’s blood. Yet the narrator emphasizes his point anyway by repeating him point in different words: “It is too late—they cannot come in time.” This time the narrator does not invoke the ideas of God or fear in his foreshadowing of Roland’s death, but he does portray inevitability and hopelessness. The words “too late” imply that there was a chance to salvage the French troops, but that opportunity has ended. It is also important to note that the narrator uses the word “cannot” instead of the words “might not” or “probably will not.” “Cannot” indicates that saving Roland is an absolute impossibility, regardless of how much hoping and praying Charlemagne does. The narrator’s use of words that convey inevitability and hopelessness makes sense because those emotions are what Charlemagne and his troops would actually feel in a situation where their men are heavily outnumbered, but they are traveling from too far a distance to save the men.
Again, both passages foreshadow Roland’s death, but the first one illustrates the fear of the French people and the second focuses more on inevitability. This makes sense, since Song of Roland was originally sung for audiences. First the author wants audiences to be impacted by the angst of the situation and to share the fear the French have when their leaders are killed by Muslims. Later on, the author wants to draw out a new emotion, since he has already utilized fear; he wants the audience to experience the sadness inherent with the pointlessness of the reinforcements coming to save Roland when it is already too late, so he has the narrator announce Roland’s demise in a different manner. Due to this expressive style of narration, the audience stays entertained because Song does not overplay any one emotion. Even though the text is highly repetitive, because of its subtle differences in wording, Song of Roland’s repetition can draw out different emotional reactions for each repetition.
The Song of Roland, Trans. Frederick Bliss Luquiens. New York: Collier Books, 1952.