As stated in the introduction, though the actual battle of Roncesvalles occurred in 778 C.E., the earliest known version of The Song of Roland, The Oxford Manuscript, was written somewhere between 1140 and 1170 C.E. (Wikipedia contributors). The time and distance between the actual event and the first written copy of the poem make it necessary to approach the historicity of the poem cautiously. One fact that confirms this need for caution is that the actual Battle of Roncesvalles was one of the biggest military missteps or disasters of Charlemagne’s career and is lionized with sufficient revenge to amend the disaster in the poem itself (The Song of Roland ix). It seems possible that the time and distance between the actual event and the first written manuscript of the poem might have made this significant historical change possible.
Another reason to be alert while reading the piece is that the poem is one of the primary examples of the canson de geste literary style in France (Wikipedia contributors). These poems were written specifically to sing the praises of heroes, making it almost certain that events surrounding the hero within the poem will be shown in the best possible light. This fact is verified by clear exaggerations within the first stanza of the poem. It begins, “Charles the King, our great Emperor, has stayed seven whole years in Spain and has conquered the haughty country as far as the sea. Not a single castle resists him any longer….except Saragossa” (The Song of Roland 3). This was clearly not the case since one of the factors that persuaded Charlemagne to march down to Saragossa in the first place was the prospect of being “ceded all of Spain up to the river Ebro” (Heer 106).
It is also interesting to note, when considering the influence that the canson de geste style has on the piece, that the poem has been appropriated for nationalistic purposes in both the distant and fairly recent past. The poem was “used by Pope Urban II to inspire the knights of France to join his crusade” (Heer 114), and in the 19th century, when scholars were searching for an authentic French literature, “the Chanson de Roland became the epic cornerstone of French literature, a position of popularity and dominance that it continues to occupy today” (Harrison 672). Though it is based on a fairly substantial military defeat, the triumphant tone of the poem has prevailed.
Harrison, Ann Tukey. “Aude and Bramimunde: Their Importance in the Canson de Roland.” The French Review 54.5 (1981): 672-679. Web.
Heer, Friedrich. Charlemagne and his World. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., 1975. Print.
The Song of Roland. Trans. W.S. Merwin. New York: Modern Library (2001). Print.
Wikipedia contributors. “The Song of Roland.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.