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He described, for the year , the day, August 15, the following:. The Song of Roland , the Chanson de Roland , as its name implies was an oral epic, a chanted narration, sung before audiences of soldiers and pilgrims, at courts and in market places, and handed down from generation to generation of such singers before being written down in England after the Norman Conquest. Scholars, such as Albert Lord and Joseph Duggan, who have studied these works find that they are somewhat different from literary texts that are composed scribally.

What also characterizes such oral formulaic poems is that they are not linear in the way that writing is, going from left to right, from A to B to C; instead they are symmetrical, chiastic, like woven designs, like embroidered ones, like music, like parentheses, like a cross section drawn through the ripples in a pond from a cast stone, like onion skins or like Chinese boxes, their panel structuring being A,B,C,D,C,B,A. Their poetic meter or measured line helped the poet remember how the next part of the text was to go.

In the Chanson de Roland the AOI that ends many laisses or stanzas may be a refrain the jongleur both sings and strums upon his harp. It may function like punctuation in a written text, giving him time to pause and assemble in his memory the next stanza in the poem. This is poetry to be heard by the physical ear, not seen by the physical eye. Probably the best way to imagine it would be as a jaunty, jazzed up version of chant, as cantastorie - and the passage concerning the shadowy valley should recall David's psalm about the valley of the shadow of death: the Song of Roland sung in the people's language of life and death, blood and guts, in the lingua franca , in Norman French; the psalm sung in the solemn, eternal, official elite language of the Church, in Latin, in Gregorian chant.

The text of the Song of Roland is both a barbaric thing and one of great artistry. It is filled with lies, with military and religious propaganda. At the same time it is carefully contrived and symmetrically balanced.

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In it, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, a polarity that works like a binary computer, in itself, an artifact and tool whose original conception came from the cards for the jacquard weaving loom. The Roland comes more from oral, pre-literate culture, which, in sophisticated chiastic ways, presents a careful, self-referential design.

With Norman culture is its conscious opposition to that of the Saracen, reflected, tailors' mirrors' fashion, in the poem in the oppositions of Roland and Marsile and between the world of Charlemagne and that of Baligant, their liege lords. Both the Iberian and the later Anglo-French manuscript illuminations stress the opposing symmetry, between Jerusalem and Babylon, the mirror-reversing quality, of their text and structure. The text replicates the politico-religious map of the Mediterranean as its blueprint paradigm. The poem is poised between two chess game halves: " France dulce, la bele"; "clere Espaigne, la bele.

Louis' disastrous crusade strategies where he sought to conquer Jerusalem, unsuccessfully, by landing in Egypt and Tunis to do so. In fact, the Apocalypse distorted Ezekiel, having the Babylonian Empire of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers become instead a code name for the Roman Empire of the Tiber; then a further lie was worked into the tapestry, having Babylon become next the code name for the Islamic Empire as situated on the Nile.

The map and paradigm of the text of the Chanson de Roland is that of the Mediterranean world the Viking one would seize. It presents in the text an imperialistic codification and abstraction of the Mediterranean world--and carefully plots its action upon that map as if in a Pentagon strategic session.

To explain this poetic structuring further we need to examine other aspects of Romanesque culture. That society was feudal. At a king's coronation his vassals placed their hands between his, our modern gesture of prayer, while kneeling. Then they rose and king and vassal kissed each other. The one gesture signified obedience and subservience, the other, paradoxically, love and equality.

Together they represented loyalty. A substitute for the hand could be the leather or textile glove. The left hand was sinister, bastard, evil; the right just, proper, true. Therefore we have treacherous Ganelon dropping the right glove when Charlemagne hands it to him, XXV. We also have Ganelon participating in the treason of the oath upon the relics in his sword Murgleis, XLVI, which is not unlike Harold's treacherous oath in the Bayeux Tapestry.

To further emphasize that act Marsile in turns swear an oath to Ganelon while seated on an ivory faldstool " Un faldestoed i out d'un olifant ," upon, not so much a Koran as a book of scriptures of Mahune, Tervagan and Apollin. Then Marsile will literally lose his right hand just as Charlemagne loses his metaphorical one, that of Roland.

The Oliphant and Roland’s Sacrificial Death

The Amiral Baligant of Babylon will send to King Marsile of Saragossa a golden glove for his right hand - too late, To counter Ganelon's treachery will be the action Roland takes when dying - of profering up his right hand glove to God, " Sun destre guant en ad vers Deu tendi t," , , , repeated as with the Olifant's trumps of doom, three times for emphasis. In this period the banner, the sign in textile, was a crucial part of the battle.

It was not to be captured for that signified defeat. There were royal standards, banners which represented, like the glove, the person of the king.

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Pagan Vikings - and even Christian Anglo-Saxon kings - fought under a dragon standard. There was also the Crusaders' banner, mentioned in our text, the Oriflamme. The Song of Roland tells us it was St. Peter's banner given to Charlemagne by the Pope. The Song of Roland is about Charlemagne. It is a vast epic about a battle waged against Saracens, Infidels, Muslims, by valiant Christian knights, among whom are twelve Palatinate counts, twelve peers, the douze pers, for whom Roland is as Christ, God the Son, Charlemagne, God the Father, and Ganelon, Judas.

Giles, lines Roland's death is like Christ's with an earthquake and an eclipse, like the Second Coming, like the Apocalypse, like Doomsday. The Olifant's blast is the Doomsday Trump - such as we see blown in the Autun tympanum - secularized from theology to history. A similar patterning occurs in Beowulf where its hero is abandoned by his twelve thanes, only Wiglaf staying with him during his dragon fight.


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The Song of Roland has a further typological patterning. Aachen was Charlemagne's capital, Aix-la-Chapelle, where he built a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, thus localizing Jerusalem on the border of France and Germany, making the capital city of his empire be as if Jerusalem. This side of the poem, with the exception of Ganelon, is of the City of God in the Apocalypse and in Augustine.

The other side is of the evil empire, its diabolical parody. Baligant even vows to make golden images of these three for their aid, Then, after Baligant's defeat, the Christians tear down the synagogues and mosques of Saragossa and smash the non-existent idols, Their cities of man are Zaragossa and Babylon, again shaped by Apocalypse and Augustine.

Roland and Charlemagne are countered by the Moslem rulers, Marsile and Baligant. Even Marsile has a further decomposing nephew, Aelroth an Anglo-Saxon sounding name that , to mirror Roland as nephew to Charlemagne, whom Roland kills. Interestingly, to stress Baligant's great age he is noted to have lived as long as Virgil and Homer, epic poets both: "le viel d'antiquitet, Tut survesquiet e Virgile e Omer" , though this is stated to place him into the pagan era rather than to refer to the Aeneid or the Iliad.

Let us return to the infernal trinity of idols. Islam, like Judaism, strictly abides by the commandment of Moses against worshiping any graven image. Medieval Christianity, likewise, said it did not worship idols--though it did permit images and statues within architectural niches. The Chanson de Roland imposing the infernal trinity of idols upon its Muslim characters projects upon them its own worst fears about itself.

To speak of Muslims as worshiping idols, statues on pillars, of Mawmet, Apollyon and Termagant, is absurd. Not only did they not do so; they are rigorously unitarian: "There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet. This is preparation for her conversion to Christianity - when she will take the name of Juliana, the name of a marvelously forthright early Christian saint and martyr who told the devil in no uncertain terms to go to hell.


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Medieval art remembered the Roman manner of state sacrifice, to idols of naked gods or of togaed emperors upon tall pillars - though the Renaissance conveniently forgot this in its desire to erect free-standing statues such as Michelangelo's David. The Middle Ages considered such free-standing statues as against Mosaic Law: "Thou shalt not make any graven image. But students find the references to the Saracens' jeweled helmets splendid. And, every now and then, there are glimpses of the Iliad 's good sportsmanship, where the text can pause to praise a Saracen knight.

The text begins with Charlemagne seated on his golden faldstool in an orchard beneath a pine tree, stroking his long white beard, chiastically mirror-reversed by the infidel Marsile lying on blue marble. The Saracens plot treachery under the appearance of peace, complete with olive branches. Ganelon is sent to mediate the agreement - against his will - and plots along with the Saracens against his liege lord Charlemagne out of his hatred for his stepson Roland - who is Charlemagne's nephew and right hand man.

The problem here is of jealousy, like that of Cain for Abel.

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We know what is in store because Ganelon fumbled and dropped the right-hand glove which Charlemagne gave him to take to the Saracens. Ganelon plots the fall of Charlemagne's right hand, Roland. The messages he relays are not true ones - they are twisted distortions of Charlemagne's words designed to make Marsile mistrust the Christian Emperor.

To counter Roland, Charlemagne's nephew and the twelve peers, Marsile's nephew steps forward and brings with him twelve peers, the first being Marsile's aptly-named brother, Falsaron. Later the nephew of Marsile, Aelroth, will be killed, likewise Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, and Marsile also physically loses his right hand. The text is strongly, heraldically, coded. It is a tissue of lies and truth, assymetrical reality made over into the symmetry of embroidery. When we come to the battle itself in the Pass of Roncevalles we have Oliver counseling Roland to blow the Olifant, the large ivory horn named "Elephant.

Now Oliver is a fictional character added to the story, although Roland is historically true. It is odd that Oliver and Olifant are so similar as to their names. Usually Oliver is thought to be associated with "olive," like those branches of olive of the initial treacherous peace embassy. There may also be an attempt in the language of the poem to create of Oliver a lying opposition to Roland's truth. Ivory, we have noted, was considered a treacherous kind of material for it actually punned in Greek with the word for deceit which is why Homer and Virgil speak of gates of ivory, of fiction, of lies, and of horn, of fact, of truth.

The two are great friends, they are each others' alter egos. The one is straightforward courage, the other the devious intelligence necessary for survival despite codes of honor. In a Homeric epic these qualities would have been decomposed into the apparitions of Ares and Athena.

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It is too late when the Olifant summons Charlemagne to the scene of the tragedy.