La Chanson de Roland

I do not use my real name on this blog, because I don't want the attention on me.  I would prefer people to pay attention to the text instead.  Actually, this is not secret because it is easy to find out with a bit of work.  My first name is Roland.  This very French name is somewhat unusual for a person of Chinese descent.  How many Roland's do I know?  Certainly, no other person of Chinese descent.

Globally, there is Roland Barthes, of course.  A great influence on me through his books Mythologies, The Pleasure of the Text, Writing Degree Zero, Empire of Signs, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, etc.

Then there is Roland Cassard, a fictional character from the Jacques Demy movies Les Parapluies de Cherbourg and Lola.  Yes, I can chant "Quelle beauté! ..." when Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) sings his praise of Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve) at first sight ...

But the most famous Roland of them all is the one from La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), an 11th century French epic poem.  To quote from ClassicNotes, which is written for lazy students who don't want to read the whole thing:

For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Moslem stronghold remains, the city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne's vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne's departure. But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive Marsile's messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at Marsile's court on Charlemagne's behalf.

Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne's right-hand man, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his diplomatic mission he plots with the pagans, telling them that they could ambush Charlemagne's rearguard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with Roland dead Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.

After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile's good faith, Roland, as he predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve peers, Charlemagne's greatest and most beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent man and Roland's best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery Archbishop Turin, a clergymen who also is a great warrior. At the pass of Rencesvals, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Oliver counsels Roland to blow his oliphant horn, to call back Charlemagne's main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland blows his oliphant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples burst from the force required, and he dies soon afterward. He dies facing the enemy's land, and his soul is escorted to heaven by saints and angels.

Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a miracle of God: the sun is held in place in the sky, so that the enemy will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the river Ebro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned. 

Well, this summary is being extremely kind.  When I read the original text, I came away with the impression that Roland de Roncevaux was an (expletive deleted).  Yes, he was an (expletive deleted).  He was willing to fight to the last man on his team without asking for help that would be forthcoming immediately, just to show that he was a tough guy.  With comrades-at-arms like that, who needs enemies?  The word on Roland is thus:

Remember that The Song of Roland was written at the dawn of the Crusades. The poem is designed to get Christians riled: the intent is not to praise men like Oliver, but to glorify men like Roland. Roland, because of all of his virtues and faults, is exactly the kind of man needed for the Crusades: a man willing to die, and sacrifice the lives of others as well, for land and glory. A man who rejects any chance of peace. A man without moderation or mercy, but fearless and completely loyal to his king and Church.

Simply put, this man was a sociopath.  The term "Roland and Oliver" is also synonymous with "best friends."  With best friends like that, who needs enemies?

So I am not thrilled with that name.  I have asked my father many times why he chose that name.  He never gave a full explanation.

However, I am not upset and I am not about to get my name changed to Bob, Bill, Joe or Billy Joe.  After all, I just found among the letters of Chinese writer Eileen Chang to my parents that she liked my name.  On April 27, 1995, Eileen wrote: (translated) "Roland's name is really nice.  I especially like the Middle Ages."  Here are the handwritten words: