Activities for The Song of Roland

Dr. Diane Thompson, NVCC, ELI

Read through the Roland Study Guide and all of the Activities below before making your selection. Make a copy of the Activity question to begin your response. Post your Activity to the Blackboard Activity 6: Roland Forum.

Why did Roland wait to blow his horn? Look closely at the three horn blowing discussions and explain what their purpose is in the poem. Use specific examples from the poem to support your discussion.
Roland is a hero; Charlemagne is a king. Compare/contrast their characters and roles. Could Roland fit into some ancient epic such as the Odyssey or Gilgamesh? What about Charlemagne? Is he like any other king you have read about? Support your discussion with examples from Roland and from some other ancient epic.
Look through Roland to find examples of Saracens (Muslims) represented as evil, deceitful and demonic. Do you think this was a normal way to write about strangers at that time and in that place? What do you think motivated such hostility? Discuss this issue using plenty of specific examples from the poem to support your ideas.
Compare the expression of monotheistic faith in Sura 1, "The Exordium," from the Koran (in your textbook or find it on the Course Materials Table on the Course Home Page) to the descriptions of the pagan, idol worshipping infidels in Roland. Do you think the Roland poet was genuinely ignorant of Muslim religion, or that he had his own agenda and reasons for presenting the Saracens as demonic heathens?
Sura 5, "The Table," from the Koran (in your textbook or find it on the Course Material Table on the Course Home Page) talks at some length about Christians and Jews, and their relation to Islam. The Koran accepted both Christians and Jews as "people of the book," but asserted that the Koran was a correction to errors that had crept into these earlier monotheistic religions. Discuss the attitudes towards Christians and Jews that you find in "The Table" and compare it to the attitudes towards Muslims that you find in Roland. What are the significant differences? Do you find any interesting similarities? Be specific in your responses and refer to examples from the texts you are analyzing.
Roland is one of a group of early French epics, or "chansons de geste" which have been compared to American Western movies: fighting men, horses, buddies, no women, good versus evil, etc. Do you agree? If so, select a particular Western movie and compare it to Roland in some detail. Be sure to support your ideas with plenty of specific supporting examples from Roland and the film, and be sure to explain "so what."
Compare the relationship of two sets of buddies: Roland and Oliver and Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Do you see any relevant similarities? Any interesting differences? And, so what? Be sure to go into plenty of specific examples from both texts to support your ideas.
Compare the roles of Charlemagne in Roland and Aeneas in the Aeneid. Both are in charge of world class empires, or at least their beginnings, and both fight "holy" wars of a sort, Aeneas to fulfill Roman destiny, and Charlemagne to free Europe of the pagan infidels. Both seem to suffer a lot and neither has a good time. Compare them in some detail, using specific examples from both text to support your ideas.
Read about the life of Charlemagne in any good encyclopedia or history of Europe, or look at Einhard's brief, readable Life of Charlemagne, written in the ninth century, and compare what you find out to the presentation of Charlemagne in Roland. Why do you think there are so many differences? Do you think the Roland poet was aware of how he was changing Charlemagne into a Christian saint, or do you think this had already happened in the centuries since Charlemagne's death? Explain your position referring to specific information you have read about Charlemagne and specific examples from the poem.
Do you think the Roland poet knew the "Sermon on the Mount" from The New Testament (in your textbook or find it online on the Course Home Page Course Materials Table for Unit 2)? If so, how do you think he interpreted it? Was this the key to his idea of being a good Christian? If not, what was? Explain in some detail, using specific examples from both texts, and be sure to develop an interesting point (e.g. SO WHAT?)
Some critics have suggested that epic poems such as Roland were composed in monasteries along pilgrimage routes, to help drum up tourist traffic. Would this help to explain the god-like quality of Charlemagne and the warrior-saint nature of Roland? Or is this too cynical a view of a great poem? Give your opinion, but support it with specific details from the poem, and, ideally, a few facts from an encyclopedia or some such (be sure to cite the source of your information).
For all its extremist religious politics, Roland presents a picture of surprisingly democratic interaction between the peers and the emperor. Look closely at the way decisions are made, both at Charlemagne's court and in the field, and describe in some detail the process of debate and consensus that guides the nobles in their actions. Can you think of any other story you have read in this course that involves such democratic processes? Or is democratic even the right word for this struggle for consensus among the aristocracy? Comment and support your ideas using specific examples from the story. If you deal in lots of comparative detail with a second story too, this can be worth double credit.
Explore The Military Martyrs and discuss in detail how this concept of the fighting saint may help to explain Roland's role in the battle and his final ascent to heaven. Be sure to give specific examples from the Military Martyrs pages and from Roland to support your ideas. 
When Roland finally does blow the horn, he bursts a blood vessel in his head, and this causes his death.  Why do you think this is how he dies? Hints: Can you explain its link to the horn-blowing episodes? Can you explain its connection to the absolute superiority of Roland to the "pagans?" Can you connect Roland's means of death to the angel coming to receive his glove (his fealty). Use specific examples from the poem to support your ideas.


 (c) Diane Thompson: 8/14/1998; updated:01/28/2011