The Aeneid Through The Song of Roland
The Song of Roland tells us that Rolands pride led basically to the massacre of his men, who made up the rear of Charlemagnes great Frank contingent going home after a campaign in Spain. True, it was his Ganelon who compromised Rolands position to the Muslims out of an impulse for revenge and a history of strife with his stepson, but in the midst of the fight Roland had the choice to call for help by blowing his horn. Against the sensible advice of his close associate Oliver, he stuck it on his own, not thinking that by doing so he was essentially compromising not just the lives of his men but also his own life. It was a vain impulse to stand ones ground in essence, and to think oneself capable of subduing an army that was greater than his own. It was heroic but futile and in a way stupid. In the end he did end up calling for reinforcement, but not after the damage had been done, with their contingent being totally decimated and incapable of turning back the Muslim combatants. One cannot distinguish where the heroism started and the foolishness ended, because while it was true that he volunteered to lead the contingent making up the rear of the Frankish army, an act that was brave and responsible, nevertheless he proceeded to lead his men to certain death when he failed to call for help while there was still time and while they were still alive in substantial numbers (O’Hagan).
One can also see that Rolands heroism in a way is a blind heroism because it fails to take into account the inputs of those around the hero. In this case the wise words of Oliver fell on deaf ears, and those deaf ears in turn proved deadly for a contingent who lived and died on the wisdom of the leader and the leaders judgments. On hindsight it seems arrogant for Roland to want to face the enemy alone, when the more prudent thing to do was to call for help even before one person in his care got killed. While there is nothing in the poem to suggest that Roland was filled with a kind of personal hubris that maybe wanted to get the glory for turning back the Muslims on his own, the ways of the human heart are hard to fathom. The whole situation is tragic and reflects the failings of the heroic mind. One can also say in retrospect that just volunteering to lead the most vulnerable part of the great army, the rear, was heroic enough. To push that attitude to its extreme is no longer heroic, one can argue, but foolish. Even the last act of Roland to blow the horn when all was lost can be construed as a move that is full of ego, notwithstanding the heroism that it also implied. It was heroic in that Roland only called for help when he could no longer stay standing and the entire contingent had been decimated. His version of heroism seemed to consist of staking his own life and digging in in the midst of the Muslim ambush, rather than involving the rest of the Frankish army and calling attention to himself (O’Hagan).
One can say that this tragic heroism reflects the culture out of which the piece comes into being. Charlemagnes reign was characterized by the Crusades and the conflict with the Muslims, and here the emphasis seemed to be in high moral ideals, which Roland seemed to embody in a very large and bold way. He was a hero and one whose intentions and impulses were noble and true. He was extremely loyal to Charlemagne and was extremely antagonistic to the enemy, the Muslims. In this stance he was willing to stand guard and to sacrifice his life if that was what was needed. These high ideals of courage and heroism was something that was looked up to and immortalized in the poem. At the same time, the culture had a heavy emphasis on religious themes and the way human tragedy insists itself into the course of some of the most important events of the time. The simple narration too reflects a black and white, good versus evil conception of the universe, reflecting the spirit of the time, with the Franks and Roland on the side of the good and just, and The Muslims on the side of the enemy (O’Hagan).
O’Hagan, John. “The Song of Roland (Translation)”. Fordham University Internet History Sourcebooks/ Harvard Classics No. XLIX. 1910. Web. 12 March 2014.