The Song of Roland
translated by dorothy l. sayers
penguin, 208 pages, $14
This year, France’s presidential election is being fought almost entirely on the terrain of national identity. Not on the question of who is best suited to govern France, but on the question of what France even is to begin with. So much public discourse circles on the same questions: Are we still French? If not, then what have we become? Nearly everyone is convinced that the French language is dying out, to be replaced by a mush of English neologisms. The Académie française, which regulates this sort of thing, keeps mounting its rearguard actions, all of them doomed. Instead of podcast, say audio à la demande. Instead of clickbait, say piège à clics. Instead of hashtag, say mot-dièse. It doesn’t make much difference: People still fait du shopping on le week-end; signs in airports still guide you to le check-in. When I visited Paris late last year, a fashion editor there told me that there was still some hope. When she’d moved to the city, nobody went to the gym; now, the map of Paris is speckled with Equinox and SoulCycle clones. But French women do things differently. They’ll spend an hour spinning, and then lounge around the entrance, smoking cigarettes. They’ve absorbed some of the forms of the global American monoculture, but not its content. A small victory in a flattening world.
For Anglophone observers, the crisis of Frenchness is best expressed in the candidacy of the right-wing pundit Éric Zemmour, described in the pages of this journal as “the most controversial man in France.” Zemmour launched his campaign with a video speech, delivered sitting down in a book-lined study, not looking at the camera:
You walk down the streets in your towns, and you don’t recognize them. You look at your screens, and they speak to you in a language that is strange, and in the end, foreign. . . . You remember the country of your childhood. You remember the country that your parents told you about. You remember the country found in films and books. The country of Joan of Arc and Louis XIV. The country of Bonaparte and General de Gaulle. The country of knights and ladies. The country of Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand, the country of Pascal and Descartes. . . . Your children are homesick, without ever having known this country that you cherish. And it is disappearing. . . . France is no longer France, and everyone sees it.
One strange feature. As Zemmour spoke, there were solemn strings rising in the background: the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Beethoven was, of course, a German.
Zemmour is not an ordinary political candidate. It’s not at all clear whether he’d raise the national retirement age, or how he’d negotiate with the public transport unions, or what his plans are to alleviate the French “social crisis,” in which GDP growth has masked soaring poverty. These issues matter to French voters, but Zemmour’s campaign revolves entirely around the “four I’s”—immigration, identity, insecurity, and Islam. His only major policy proposal is to rebuild the country of his childhood, “so that the French once again feel at home.”
Despite the global press attention, Zemmour is unlikely to make it to the second round of the election. But the other candidates are increasingly speaking in Zemmourian tones. Even Emmanuel Macron—who took the presidency in 2017 as a smooth, computerized liberal technocrat—is now fully engaged in the culture war. He has attacked “Islamo-gauchisme” and the imported ideology of “le woke”; he has denounced the “separatism” of France’s Muslim population. In a televised debate in February of last year, his Minister of the Interior even accused Marine Le Pen of “going soft” when she said that she didn’t intend to attack Islam in general, which is “a religion like any other.” According to his biographer, Macron privately believes in the “Great Replacement,” the idea that Europeans are being overwhelmed by migrants from the Third World.
He’s not the only one. In Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission—these days, probably his most well-known—the 2022 election ends up going to the Muslim Brotherhood, and France is transformed overnight into an Islamic state. At the end of the book, our hero—an indifferently atheistic alcoholic and Huysmans scholar—converts. Looking back on the vanished secular world, he comments: “I would have nothing to mourn.” According to Le Pen, the novel is a “fiction that could one day become a reality,” but it’s not really a serious vision of the future, and it’s not even particularly about Islam. (There’s a far more realistic scenario at the end of his Prix Goncourt–winning The Map and the Territory, in which a post-industrial France becomes a kind of tourist playground, a theme-park version of itself, selling “hôtels de charme, perfumes, and rillettes” to Chinese capitalists.) Like all Houellebecq’s novels, Submission is about the void of meaning in modern European society, the nihilism of an age that offers nothing to cherish except supermarket ready meals and porn. Here, Islam is a fantasy of something that could break through the torpor, something you could actually believe. But as cultural panic mounts, this fantasy ends up ensnaring the actual Muslims of France.
As with nearly every European country, France’s approach to its minority populations grew out of what was once called the Jewish Question. The question was this: How can a nation-state deal with the presence of a group of people who are, in some way, different from everyone else? In 1791, revolutionary France became the first country in Europe fully to emancipate its Jews, but under a very specific formula: “As a man, he has every right; as a Jew he has none.” The old monarchies had given the Jews special laws and dispensations with one hand and repressed them with the other; for this new secular state, everyone is only a citizen. To this day, France refuses to collect data on the race or religion of its citizens. It is not a multicultural society: The republican spirit insists that you are not black or white or Arab, but simply French.
In many ways, this universalism is genuinely admirable, but it’s not without its problems. Most men are simply men; a Jew is split. He is a man, yes, but also, somewhere in his being, a Jew. His Jewishness and his humanity stand against each other; we’re always at risk of being booted out of the universal brotherhood of man. When Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused, excoriated, tried, and imprisoned, he was a full French citizen and an officer in the army. But it wasn’t Dreyfus the man and the citizen who was subjected to this treatment. It was Dreyfus the Jew.
Things have changed. Zemmour is Jewish and doesn’t appear to experience any such split. (Although he has criticized French Jewish institutions for their attachment to Israel, and he also, bizarrely, has contested Dreyfus’s innocence.) Today, it’s Muslims who are accused of being insufficiently universal, and therefore insufficiently French. And despite making up less than a tenth of the population, their non-Frenchness apparently risks turning the entire country into something other than France. According to Zemmour, it’s impossible to integrate Muslims fully into French society, because Islam is simply incompatible with republican values. As if, in treating a chunk of the French citizenry as something other than French, Zemmour and Le Pen and Macron and the rest aren’t themselves walking away from those same values.
It’s not really clear what French Muslims could do to prevent the foregone conclusion. These are French citizens who speak the same half-English pidgin and eat the same American fast food and listen to the same Senegalese rap music and buy the same Korean electronics as any other people in France. Few are particularly religious; most are just as subject to Houellebecq’s microwave-lasagna malaise. And like everyone else, they die.
On July 14, 2016, a lone terrorist drove a truck through a crowded promenade in the city of Nice, killing eighty-six people. Of the murdered, fully one-third were Muslims: people who had gone out to celebrate Bastille Day, to watch the fireworks and the French Air Force’s aerial display with their neighbors and friends. What were these people lacking? What else should they have done, so that they too could be recognized as the heirs of Joan of Arc and Louis XIV? Should these victims have worn berets? Pointy moustaches? Slung a string of onions around their necks? What does it actually mean to be French?
In 1835, a young scholar named Francisque Xavier Michel found an answer to this question, hidden deep in a library of old manuscripts. One of the volumes was a collection of medieval texts, rebound in leather sometime in the seventeenth century. The first text was Calcidius’s Latin translation of Plato’s Timaeus. The second was something Michel had never seen before but every medievalist in France was trying to find.
It was known that French knights, before going into battle, would sing about the heroic death of Roland—one of Charlemagne’s paladins—at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The tale of Roland had been retold by Dante and Cervantes; in Norway it formed part of the Karlamagnús Saga. Snippets and reconstructed versions were scattered through the libraries of Europe. All these writers appeared to be referring to some original text; the tale of Roland must have been written down at some point in the past—but like so many medieval documents, it might simply have vanished. This was what Michel had found: four thousand lines of the earliest secular literature written in the French language. His country now had a national epic, something that could stand next to Homer and Virgil. He wrote to his patron in a cri d’exultation, as soon as he realized what was in his hands:
I have just found . . . what? Guess! The Song of Roland!! It was almost like squaring the circle! It is nothing other than the Romance of Roncevaux, rhyming in assonances like marches, corrages, vaille, homme . . . etc., but it is the Romance of Roncevaux in a manuscript from the beginning of the twelfth century.
The Battle of Roncevaux Pass was fought in 778 near the present-day border between France and Spain. Charlemagne had come to Spain at the invitation of Sulayman al-Arabi, the Abbasid governor of Barcelona, who was fighting a long, grueling war against the remnants of the Umayyad Caliphate. In return for his help, Charlemagne was offered the Upper March, which was mostly inhabited by non-Muslim Basques. A joint Carolingian-Abbasid siege of the city of Zaragoza ended in failure, and eventually the alliance turned sour; meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Charlemagne’s empire was being attacked by Saxon tribes. He led his army out of Spain through the Roncevaux Pass, but as they were leaving, the rearguard was ambushed by Basque guerrillas hiding in the hills. In his Vita Karoli Magni, Einhard gives a brief account of what happened next:
In the battle were killed Eggihard the king’s seneschal, Anselm count palatine, and Roland, governor of the Breton march, among many others. What is more, this assault could not be avenged there and then, for once it was over, the enemy dispersed in such a way that no one knew where or among which people they could be found.
Roncevaux was a small, bloody battle in an era full of small, bloody battles; the numbers on both sides were probably no more than a thousand men. This is the only time a Roland appears in the historical record. Charlemagne never returned to Spain.
The Song of Roland, composed more than three and a half centuries later, tells a very different story. It is, like all the best medieval literature, a piece of totally unashamed blockbuster entertainment. The action is gory and, once it gets going, relentless. Swords cleave through helmets, straight through the skull and into the brain, which dribbles out from the wound. Men are punctured through the neck, the liver, the lungs; red blood speckles the green fields. At one point, Roland drives his sword through an enemy’s head, all the way down the body from neck to tailbone, through the saddle of the horse he’s riding, and nearly cuts the horse itself in two. As modern critics have pointed out, this isn’t just impossible, but very dangerous; any knight who actually attempted the downward “epic” stroke would be exposing his armpits, the most vulnerable gap in his armor. It doesn’t matter. This isn’t a battle manual. This is cinema.
The structure of the Song of Roland should be familiar to anyone who enjoys the odd trashy action film. Charlemagne has been in Spain for seven years, fighting the Muslims; he’s told that Marsile, the last Saracen king on the peninsula, is ready to give up and convert to Christianity. Roland offers to go to Marsile’s court to negotiate the surrender; Charlemagne refuses the offer, so Roland nominates his stepfather, Ganelon, instead. But the last messengers who went to Marsile had their heads removed, and Ganelon assumes that Roland is trying to bump him off discreetly. Still, he goes, but he makes a secret pact with Marsile: He’ll make sure that Roland is in the rearguard as Charlemagne’s army heads back to France, and then, once the main army has crossed the pass, Marsile will attack and slaughter them all. Without Roland, his greatest knight, Charlemagne will be unable to cause any more trouble, and Spain will finally be at peace. For the first half of the tale, the wheels are turning, slowly moving everything into place for a huge set-piece battle. The twenty thousand French in the rearguard suddenly find themselves facing a hundred thousand Muslims, resplendent:
Now are the Paynims [pagans] in
Sarsen hauberks dight
Whereof the most with triple mail
Good Sargossa helms they lace on
Swords of Viana steel gird on their
Spears of Valence they have, and
shields full fine,
Their gonfalons are scarlet, blue,
They leave their mules, their
palfreys leave behind
And mount their steeds; in serried
ranks they ride.
Fair was the day, the sun shone
clear and bright,
No piece of harness but glittered in
The battle is a slaughter on both sides. Marsile’s army retreats, but only after the entire rearguard is killed. In his final moments, Roland blows his olifant, an elephant’s-tusk horn, to summon Charlemagne back to Roncevaux. Then Roland finds a hill, a high hill, and over the fields full of dead he gives up his life:
The County Roland lay down
beneath a pine;
To land of Spain he’s turned him as
And many things begins to call to
All the broad lands he conquered
in his time,
And fairest France, and the men of
And Charles his lord, who bred him
from a child;
He cannot help but weep for them
Charlemagne mops up the remains of the Muslim army, but suddenly an even bigger threat emerges. Baligant, the Emir of Babylon, has arrived with an enormous host. The fleet has so many lanterns strung from its masts that “the sea by night is beautiful and gay”; the soldiers march in shining armor and saffron robes, an army of golden light. They come upon Charlemagne as he weeps by Roland’s corpse. Another, vaster battle ensues—more epic, more gruesome—which only ends when Charlemagne kills Baligant in single combat. The king returns home to France, where all the loose ends are finally resolved. After a trial by combat, Ganelon is tortured to death with his entire family. That night, Charlemagne is visited by the archangel Gabriel:
“Up, Charles! assemble thy whole
With force and arms unto Elbira
Needs must thou succor King Viven
where he lies
At Imphe, his city, besieged by
There for thy help the Christians
call and cry.”
Small heart had Carlon to journey
and to fight;
“God!” says the King, “how weary
is my life!”
He weeps, he plucks his flowing
beard and white.
Michel’s discovery was well timed. During the Revolution, France had been a universal republic: the country that gave us the kilogram, the decimal calendar, and the Déclaration des droits. French culture was the culture of humanity writ large. Now, France was a monarchy again and contracting into something smaller, more parochial; it needed an anchor in the past. The real turning point, though, didn’t come until 1870. As Prussian forces were besieging Paris, as the people of the city started slaughtering zoo animals for their meat, the great scholar Gaston Paris lectured at the Collège de France on La Chanson de Roland et la nationalité française. In the wake of France’s humiliation by Bismarck, the Song of Roland became the French national text; between then and the outbreak of the First World War, a dozen translations into modern French were published. “It took the war of 1870,” Léon Gautier wrote, “to grant us understanding and love of it. Sedan made us understand Roncevaux.” From 1880, all French teacher candidates were quizzed on the Song of Roland; in 1885, it was prescribed for schoolchildren too. French soldiers departed for Verdun with the poem in their pockets; in many French schools, it’s still the only medieval text on the curriculum.
Roland seemed to mark the origin of a deep tragic current running through all of French history. Valiant in defeat, noble in death—but always defeated, and always dying. Roland could have blown his olifant when he first saw Marsile’s army; his companions begged him to do it, but he refused. He will not allow “that any living man should say he saw me go / Blowing of horns for any Paynim foe.” He loves his honor more than his life. Gautier again: “Roland, c’est la France fait homme.” The poem is a wound for a wounded nation, the scar where it was torn into the world. To be French is to share in that tragedy, to mourn your country: to sit by the corpse of Roland, like Charlemagne, and weep.
One great present-day advocate of the Song of Roland is, of course, Éric Zemmour, for whom it conjures “distant memories, childhood memories, when schools taught us to love France with a carnal, trembling love.” In his 2018 book, Destin français, he describes it as “the beginning and the end of a nation called France”; the inaugural myth of the French people, now “expelled from the national memory by the apostles of deconstruction.” The lesson he draws from it is the obvious one. With the Song of Roland, French identity is founded on the battle against Islam. Sometimes the French win and colonize the shores of Africa; sometimes the Muslims win and colonize the banlieues of Paris. For every Poitiers, a Roncevaux. “The conqueror of yesterday is the conquered of today and will be the conqueror of tomorrow in the incessant ebb and flow of two irreducibly antagonistic civilizations.”
I don’t know what it’s like to be a French Muslim student, reading the Song of Roland, and be told that this is your national myth. But I can imagine. Every so often, when I’m reading a book, I’ll come upon a little sentence that makes me have to put the thing down, pick up my phone, and wearily google the author’s name plus the word “anti-Semite”—most recently, when reviewing Dostoevsky’s Demons for this publication. I loved the book, but there’s one figure, Lyamshin, who’s consistently referred to as “the Jew,” as if that’s all that needs saying. And so I discovered that . . . well, from Dostoevsky’s A Writer's Diary: “It is difficult to find anything more irritable and susceptible than the educated Jew. . . . They who are reigning in Europe, who are directing there at least the stock-exchanges, and therefore politics, domestic affairs, the morality of the states.” It can be very disheartening to love something, and then realize that it absolutely does not love you back. Maybe this is just part of the experience of being a minority. I still remember the moment when I learned, at maybe five years old, that the Queen was not Jewish: that my sovereign worshiped idols and ate pork. Being torn away from the universal: a sudden vertigo.
For me, at least, the solution to this kind of thing is always to recuperate. Don’t take these books off the syllabus, don’t replace them with lots of nice young adult fiction about discovering your inner strength—claim them back! My grandfather’s favorite work by Shakespeare was The Merchant of Venice; I think every Jew of his generation would have said the same. Not despite the play’s anti-Semitism, but because of it. You can try to read these texts against the grain: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” But the best way is simply to refuse to be cowed. Claiming TheMerchant of Venice for the Jewish canon was a way of healing that split between the man and the Jew: We can access the universal without losing what makes us distinct. This is why, when we finally stage Wagner in Jerusalem, it will be the day the Nazis finally lose the war. Frantz Fanon understood it, too: “I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass.” I would like to live in a world in which French Muslims could love the Song of Roland in the same way that my grandfather loved Shakespeare: in which they could also claim it as theirs—not despite their Islam, but because of it.
The Song of Roland’s depiction of Islam is not kind. It’s also not remotely accurate. These Saracens are idolaters: They worship statues of Mahound, but also the Greek god Apollo and Termagant, a “diabolic personage of unclear origin.” The distinction between Christians and pagans is not the only one that matters to our author; there is also the distinction of chivalry. Some of the Muslim characters are cruel and cowardly and traitorous, but so are some of the French. There are others:
From Balaguet there cometh an
His form is noble, his eyes are bold
When on his horse he’s mounted in
He bears him bravely armed in
And for his courage he’s famous far
Were he but Christian, right
knightly he’d appear.
On the actual field of battle, the poem shows the contest not between “two irreducibly antagonistic civilizations,” but between two parts of a single system: the system of knightly chivalry. This is clearest in the combat between Charlemagne and Baligant. This time, the poet doesn’t describe alternating blows. Instead, they move together, they dance, joined by a single pronoun:
They meet, they charge, exchanging
On the ringed shields crash home
the spearheads stout;
Clean from the bosses they break
them all about,
They break the hauberks, the mail-
rings fall in showers,
But both their bodies are left
untouched and sound,
The girths are burst, the saddles
They fall to earth, and both the
kings are down!
But to his feet each of them lightly
Great is their valor; at once their
swords are out.
For a moment, Charlemagne is fighting a mirror. Right in the heat of their differences in nation and religion, these two men are the same.
The cultural terrors feeding into the French election are not unique to France. They’re not even unique to Europe. In China, a small but growing contingent of people holds to its own version of the “Great Replacement” theory. There is a secret plot, they claim, to commit cultural and demographic genocide against the Han Chinese, and it’s all being masterminded by the Manchurians. The Chinese Communist party is a front for Manchu interests; the Manchu conspiracy extends into every organ of government. This sounds absurd, but they have evidence. China’s ethnic minorities were broadly exempt from the one-child policy; only Han were subject to overt population control. Ethnic minorities maintain their traditional customs and costume, but Han wear Western business suits and eat Western food and consume Western entertainment. In protest, some of these people have started wearing hanfu, the traditional dress of the Chinese people. The problem is that most of the familiar traditional Chinese dress comes from the Qing Dynasty, which ruled the country from 1644 until the beginning of the twentieth century—and the Qing were Manchu. So young nationalists trying to resurrect their ancient traditions will walk around in a half-invented costume, cobbled together from the clothes of Korea or Vietnam—anywhere, in fact, but China. (Imagine a modern American going outside with a codpiece over his toga, a tricorn, and a big frilly ruff.) Sometimes patriotic citizens, who see the silk robes and assume they’re Japanese kimonos, will yell obscenities at them on the street.
Whenever you start loudly mounting a defense of tradition, there’s always the risk of something similar happening: What ends up being defended is often a caricature of the past. So for an Éric Zemmour, history is the story of a single object, the French nation, moving through time. Things change: mirage jets instead of armored knights; Minitel instead of chansons de geste. But France was always France—until now. It’s worth pointing out that this is not remotely true. Before everybody was expected to be French, they were Gascon or Provençal or Breton or Champenois, entire cultures that have mostly disappeared, eaten up by a homogenized French identity that is, in the end, a very recent invention.
The Song of Roland might have become the French national epic, but it is far, far older than the nation. It belongs to a very distant world, operating on very different rules. What matters in the poem isn’t a people, a distinct group with its own character, but the shifting relationships between armed lords: the raw stuff of the feudal age. More to the point, it is not even from France.
When Francisque Xavier Michel found the manuscript in 1835, he was not scouring the Bibliothèque Nationale, but the Bodleian in Oxford. The first ever piece of secular French literature was not written in the French of Paris, but in Anglo-Norman, the courtly language of the Plantagenets in England. According to one theory, the author lived in Peterborough. If he ever set foot across the Channel, it may well have been with an invading army; the Anglo-Norman aristocrats who would have listened to his song were engaged in near-constant wars against the kings of France. They didn’t seem to mind that they were fighting the heirs of Charlemagne. Still, they were not quite—or not only—a foreign power. Before there were nations, identity was something much stranger, and being French had very little to do with any kind of collective project called France.
I think that texts like the Song of Roland—these last surviving fragments of an age that has utterly vanished, these glimpses of a brighter, more intense world—are part of our common heritage. They are for anyone who wants them. But if you want to project the modern nation-state backward in time, then the poem that kindled Éric Zemmour’s erotic patriotism doesn’t even belong to him. It belongs, funnily enough, to me.
Sam Kriss writes from London.