Roncevaux n many ways the Frankish king, Charlemagne was the King Arthur of the continent. He was a real historical figure, a man of great accomplishments, both military and civic. Those can wait for another day, however, since for discussions about the Frankish hero, Roland, the body of legend that surrounded king Charlemagne is more important. In these legends Charlemagne is a figure of surpassing benevolance, the king who saves all of Christendom from the Saracens, and establishes a shining perfect court that is every bit as impressive as Camelot. Roland is one of the figures who spring from from this legendary court, immortalized in his own epic cycle, the Song of Roland.
The Song of Roland is loosely based on Battle of Roncevaux (778). Very loosely. In the real world it was a battle between two Christian forces, in the mythic version it is a grand conflict between Christian and Muslim. The Mythic version is far more interesting, especially to Fantasy enthusiasts. Here is a basic outline of the Song of Roland.
- Roland is a mighty, fearless warrior, one of the twelve peers of Charlemagne. Interesting side trivia, the term Paladin originally refers to these exemplary knights (first as companions of Roland, then Charlemagne), but comes from a later work than the Song of Roland itself.
- Roland has a great horn, called the Olifant, and an unbreakable sword called Durendal. Both of these names crop up in fantasy fiction. In Michael Moorcock’s work Elric seeks out the horn to signal the end of his age, IIRC.
- Roland also has a treacherous stepfather, Ganelon.
- When Roland nominates Ganelon to bring an important message to the Muslim King of Spain, Marsiles, seeking peace. Ganelon accuses Roland of trying to gte him killed. Ganelon then uses his position as messenger to plot with the Saracens and ambush that pesky Roland.
- After the peace is signed, Charlemagne’s army leaves. Roland leads the rear-guard, with a hand picked force of kinghtly badasses, including the Archbishop Turpin a warrior-priest who wielded a mace to avoid shedding the blood of his foes (And thus doomed Clerics in many versions of D&D from ever enjoying the awesome might of the d8/d12 longsword).
- A huge horde of the enemy attack the rear guard, but Roland refuses to blow the horn to signal Charlesmagne, feeling that his men are more than a match for the Saracens.
- Roland and his men fight with unsurpassed valour, but in the end they are overwhelmed. Roland recognizes his mistake, and blows Olifant so hard that his temples burst, killing himself instantly. His body is born away to heaven by angels.
- Marsiles, wounded by Roland in the battle, later succumbs.
- Charlemagne arrives to find his rear guard dead and sets upon the Saracens who killed them, killing most and winning a tremendous victory.
- Ganelon is put on trial, convicted of treason, and pulled apart by horses
From the Song of Roland, other authors added details to Roland’s early life, fleshing out his friendships with other characters in the tale and adding to his deeds and adventures. Eventually mythical enemies began to appear in his tales, such as Ferracutus, a giant who is invulnerable all over, except the belly-button.
As a historical character we know almost nothing about Roland, other than his listed death at Roncevaux, perhaps this lack of lore unfettered the imaginations of all those who ended up embellishing his tale. Who knows?
Roland, aside from being an example of how a popular character can grow throughout the ages, exemplifies several interesting features of classical characters.
- Duty & Virtue: Not all knights are virtuous in the old tales, but the good guys shine far more brightly than modern heroes often do. Rolan embodies the virtues of the aristocratic warrior.
- The fatal flaw: Unlike Lancelot, who is undone by his vices, Roland is actually defeated by what is arguably a strong point. His courage boils over in over-confidence, and his predictable adherence to duty allows Ganelon to set a trap for him. This is a little more modern, but it is presented with a great deal less cynicism than one might expect.
- Certainty: Like most pastoral heroes Roland is possessed of certainty. His faith and his loyalty to the King are unshakable. Even his realization of his mistake is quick and he does not angst over it. Of course his certainty might seem like prejudice if viewed from an outside perspective, but that is another trait common to pastoral fantasy.
- Martial Perfection: Roland is a peerless fighter, nearly able to overcome a terrible trap simply through strength of arms.
- Sacrifice: Roland unflinchingly sacrifices himself in the name of faith and duty, the antithesis of more modern heroes. The symbolism of his last act, blowing Olifant to warn and summon the King, defiant unto death is perhaps what seals him in the ancient imagination.
In comic book terms Roland is more of a Superman figure than a Batman figure. In direct confrontations he cannot be overcome, and thus his enemies are reduced to scheming and treachery to defeat him.
The influence of Roland extends deep into gaming culture. The term Paladin has be synonymous with the kind of good, divinely inspired knight exemplified by Roland. You can find Paladins not only in Dungeons and Dragon, but in World of Warcraft and other computer games. Always, they follow the same archetype, making it one of the more consistent Fantasy tropes out there. Roland is at the heart of this, firing imaginations even in an age when the assassin is a more common protagonist than the knight.
P.S: the use of Roland in Borderlands II is quite excellent, both using the tropes, adapting them, and subverting them.