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‘His Look is Dread’
King of Peers 2: The Song of Roland
© 2022 James LaFond
DEC/11/22
Chant 2
The Arrival of the Pagan Envoys
The pagan envoys find Charlemagne camped outside of Cordova, a city which he has taken, the last before their King’s own fortress of Saragossa:
“Within the town no Saracens are left,
Who haven’t come to Christ—or sudden death!”
This must be the best line of the poem!
These ten Muslim men on their white mules, bearing olive branches as symbolic of peace, [1] are lead by Old Blancendrin, who approaches Charlemagne in the name of Jesus.
“Among the Moors, Old Blancendrin is brave and very wise.”
-From Chant 1
The old advisor, despite representing the enemy, unto Satan’s service, has qualities, such as bravery, and is loyal to his master, to his faith and to his race. The Song of Roland marks one of the last major works in Western literature [0] in which the enemy, despite being evil, possesses qualities. This is the central quality of heroic literature, that the “bad guys” have masculine qualities and understandable motivations. [2]
This theme lingered in western literature, including movie scripts, down through the 1950s, and is now almost entirely absent, with our long cycle story telling seemingly enchained to our short cycle news propaganda, that offers the enemy no credit for any quality and thus robs the hero of validation and autonomous elevation. Can it be an accident, that PTSD among American soldiers [for which there is no evidence among medieval warriors] has skyrocketed on a track parallel to the vilification of American enemies as war criminals and terrorists?
As Charlemagne is addressed in his dreadful form, by Blancendrin, he prays, and before making any decision concerning the Moor’s proposal, puts up the question for debate among his “twelve peers,” “for all he does he do with their ascent.”
The King is committed by his regal character to hold his tongue in the main, to let the envoy speak fully, to let his peers rant and rave and debate, and to reserve for himself the seat of judgment rather than of counsel or advocate.
This represents the core ideal of feudalism, a state of social dynamics at once risen from barbarism and fallen from civilization, with Nordic, Gaelic and Germanic clannish values of kinship guiding the remnant economy of Old Rome in clear concord with Christian moderation. The later, in this epic, is represented by Archbishop Turpin, a savage combatant and stern sermon giver who has warred with both heathen “Danes” in the north and Muslim Saracens in the south.
In Charlemagne’s camp knights play games of chance, such as “draughts” while older and wiser men contest in chess and young men yet fence. This neatly represents the feudal order at war, an overtly tribal ethos, wherein elders make decisions, men in their prime and middle years take the greatest risks, leading from the front, and the young men follow the boldest into the fray, practicing the most basic warrior crafts, fighting. This would be reflected in the Confederate army 1,000 years later, as generals commanding armies and corps directed from the rear, and those commanding brigades, regiments and battalions lead from the front, while the soldier himself was a mere intelligent tool of combat. [3]
Indeed, there will be many parallels seen to be apparent between Charlemagne and Roland and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
“France the sweet” echoes throughout the narrative, as an overarching symbol of the fruitful homeland, for which it pains its warriors to leave for extended periods.
Under shade trees, upon a white silken sheet, Charlemagne sits on a folding stool, “His limbs are long and strong, his look dread.”
The payment offered by Blancendrin for leaving Spain includes 20 hostages and also “Byzant” coin, reminding the listener that the premier power of the age was neither counted among the Catholic princes of Western Europe or the sultans of Islam, but ruled from Constantinople over the remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire, coining the most stable money.
The most ancient type of gifts offered were hawks, mules, lions, bears and greyhounds, in great numbers, high status beasts coveted from ancient Sumer down through Rome as symbols of power over nature, and serving for the warrior class, as a link to their ancestral hunting traditions. Camels are also included in this list. These were of late come into great value in acquiring gold from Sub-Saharan Africa in return for European slaves, and would prove instrumental in stocking the world of Islam with a disposable multitude of negro slaves that may have numbered as many as 80 million between the years 1,000 and 1900.
Charlemagne and the French do not trust the Moors, as it is related how these same enemies once slew two French peace envoys. The Christian King does grant that Marsille, the Moorish King, might know redemption yet and casts the question among his peers.
It is promised that the Moorish King will follow to France and be baptized as a vassal of Charlemagne, “Upon the Feast of Saint Michael in Peril.” [4]
Groves of trees prove to be important places of concord among both Muslim and Christian, which strikes one as odd in the narrative, in that Christians of Charlemagne’s era condemned sacred groves as pagan sanctuaries. Perhaps it is fitting, that both the men of Chistendom and Islam who displaced Gaelic, Nordic and Middle Sea faiths of rural nature centered on groves, in a return to a rural manorial economy and the semi-tribalism of the feudal order, might adopt these primeval sacred precincts as centers of secular concord, both diplomatic and conspiratorial.
The peers are named: 12 counts and dukes, some kings in their own rights. The narrator declares that “Count Gamelon” the story’s traitor will trick them, and that:
“The talk begins, that’s fated grim to finish.”
Notes
-0. The Death of Arthur possibly being the last.
-1. An indication of the hold that the symbology of Antiquity yet held at the dawn of the High Middle Ages, and held yet at the dawn of American Empire, as the new nation adopted the ancient Aryan symbol of the eagle, with arrows held in one talon and an olive branch in the other. These two clutched symbols in the talons of the bald American eagle are sharply symbolic of Roland, the war-bringer, and Naymond the French peace counselor, both to be introduced in Chant 3.
-2. Even Grendel, his mother and the dragon, opposed by Beowulf suffer sorrows and have reasonable motivations for their monstrous actions. If we trace the difference between this and the total vilification by our myth builders of every enemy of the American state as being both a monster and unreasonable, we come to a field of anti-heroic negation. This was glaringly obvious as I viewed network news in the hotel lobby this morning over coffee and all experts agreed that current Russian enemy had no reasonable motivation, no redeeming qualities and possessed no loyalty to each other, with the retired U.S. General Clark, insisting that all Russian military men lie to each other and to their leader, something that no ancient would have accused his enemies of. Even the Greeks who hated the Persians credited them with loyalty to their own.
-3. This almost exactly represents the Amerindian way of war, and may account for the great admiration that the highly literate British, French and American military officer class of the 18th and 19th centuries developed for such tribal chiefs but one step advanced out of the stone age. It was not difficult for a well-read military man to see in Turtle an Achilles, in the tactics of Crazy Horse or Geronimo an Odysseus, and in Metacomet or Tecumseh the spirit of Roland, slain at the head of and among his kin.
-4. The Muslims are depicted of having an intricate understanding of Christian observances and doctrine, suggesting a Christian heritage among some of the Saracen nobility, and certainly among their lower orders, who were not forced to convert, but were rather taxed.
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