Go, stranger, and in Lacedaemon tell,
That here, obeying her behests, we fell.
–epitaph of Leonidas, King of Sparta
Famously, the electorate doesn’t like a loser; conversely, the poets appear unable to abide a winner. Our canonized imagery of warriors and warfare clusters around defeat: Thermopylae, Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, Hannibal’s Elephants, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” The Fall of Troy, Rocky I, and Lucan’s Pharsalia all hew to the narrative tropes of tragic implosion or moral victory set against a backdrop of loss. (When we do glamorize triumph, it is almost always the triumph of the underdog that we celebrate; victory against underwhelming odds carries less poetic resonance.)
The Frankish Emperor Charlemagne is mostly remembered—in the history books, that is—as the military and political architect of medieval Christendom. In the annals of verse, however, the most famous of the Carolingian chansons de geste, The Song of Roland, takes for its primary topic the Emperor’s most famous defeat. Roland (etymologists among you may be interested to know that, in Spanish and Italian, he is known as Orlando) was Charlemagne’s nephew and his commander at the Battle of Ronceveaux in A.D. 778, a relatively small engagement between the Franks and the Basques that prevented the Franks from holding onto recently conquered Moorish lands in northern Spain.
The Roland poet, whose identity is unknown, took some liberties with the story. Instead of facing a rag-tag band of Basque landsmen, the “fair flower of French chivalry” was up against the arrayed forces of 400,000 Moorish “paynims.” Roland’s stand in the high mountain pass also echoes Leonidas at Thermopylae–in the poem he is the last line of defense against a Muslim Europe. In the final analysis, the fact of Roland’s defeat is less important a subject for poetic elegy than his apotheosis as an exemplar of martial virtue.
It is thus a fool’s game to question the valiant nature of Roland’s gambit. (Indeed, it is a fool’s game to question the nobility of any military gambit not involving Benedict Arnold, the Nazis, or John Kerry.) On one issue, at least, the majority of poets seem to be in agreement: It is sweet and beautiful to die in defense of one’s country.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.