Both these epics of contain themes that fascinate us and keep us enchanted through the centuries. The basic plot of the two epic poems is the oldest theme in the history of literature, that of good vs. evil. However, we find that through the centuries there has been a change in the concept of good and evil. What was seen through the veil during the pagan era comes out in plain sight during Christendom. The good and the bad are clear-cut. One of the main components of good is the loyalty of the hero and heroine towards each other as well as to their motherland. We find that this allegiance too shows a difference in the two poems. The unknown author of the song of Roland has converted historical ambiguities and defeats in such a way that the demarcation between good and bad is vivid.
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The older epic begins with Agamemnon’s murder. We find that Aegisthus has murdered the king and brought upon himself the tragedy. He had given in to temptation.
“That’s what Hermes said, but his fine words
did not persuade Aegisthus in his heart.
So he has paid for everything in full” (Johnston. 2009).
Therefore, it is clear the yielding to temptation is punishable and is justified before the gods. However, at the same time we find another person, the hero Odysseus being tempted ‘by the daughter of Atlas’ (Johnston. 2009).
He is a captive, yet he is not. He yields to temptation but is favoured by the gods, that is, by Homer himself. He longs for Penelope and fears that Penelope may be succumbing to infidelity at home. But he stays at the island of Calypso but he does not do much about it. Odysseus is very much a typical hero according to the standards of Homer, but it seems that Homer allowed him to ‘wander’ a bit in morality too. He never indicates these escapades as immoral or takes this infidelity seriously. This shows the double standards of those times for men and women (The Odyssey Study Guide. 2009). While Penelope raises “a sacred cry” to Athena to save her child and is plagued by suitors, her “lion-hearted man, whose qualities made him pre-eminent among Danaans” lies in the arms of Calypso. She is constantly in tears. Calypso herself, Hermes when he visits her to convey the order of Zeus, refers to these standards.
“…………They are unhappy
if goddesses make mortal men their partners
and take them to bed for sex…” (Johnston, 2009).
What Calypso complains is that male gods are allowed to have mortal lovers but female goddesses are not. We find that women in general are chastised for lack of chastity. But the hero’s argument to Circe,
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“But I won’t agree to climb into your bed,
unless, goddess, you’ll agree to swear
a solemn oath that you’ll make no more plans
to injure me with some new mischief.” (Johnston, 2009).
Is very weak indeed. Of course, it is to Odysseus’ merit that his heart is heavy and he is ultimately faithful to his wife. However, the line of demarcation towards morality and immorality is not clear at all. The hero passes across without a second thought.
Coming to the Song of Roland, we find no such confusion between the sexes, even allowing for the fact that the poem has been written for propaganda. And always
“Pagans are wrong and Christians are right.” L. 1018
These words should be seen from the background of an impending war in the form of the Crusades. Therefore, the horror of war is glorified and presented, often glamorously. Justifications, often confusing and ambiguous are not given for the war as in Homer. The only women of consequence are Roland’s fiancée Aude and Bramimonde, the wife of the Saracen king. Both are presented as being noble and committed. Charlemagne confronts Aude, with the news of Roland’s death, himself. She cries out,
“Never, please God, His Angels and His Saints,
When Rollant’s dead shall I alive remain!”
Even the offer of his own son’s Louis’ hand would not soften the news and “she falls down dead”. Her chastity and commitment to the hero, is evident. No confusion at all. It is delivered in pure black and white. Bramimonde is offered a chance by Charles to be converted “by love”. When she reaches Aix the Capital city of Charles, she readily accepts conversion. And her soul is saved. The hammer strikes again while the iron is red (Song of Roland.2009).
When the urge of Odysseus to return to his capital Ithaca is considered we find that often the will to return is tempered down. This is so especially when he is in the company of beautiful goddesses. Often he himself is the cause of delay. He invites delay when he shouts out to Polyphemus while escaping the island. The hero himself comes under the light of folly. His folly is pride. He gives his exact home address, unbelievably.
He tells Polyphemus;
“Odysseus destroyed your eye,
a sacker of cities, Laertes’ son,
a man from Ithaca.” This leads to vengeance from Poseidon.
While at the house of Circe Odysseus is completely overwhelmed by the beautiful goddess and stays there for one whole year.
“Our proud hearts were persuaded by her words.
We stayed there, day by day, for one whole year,
feasting on sweet wine and large supplies of meat.”
The wine and the woman sway the heart of the hero. Ithaca disappears from the globe for almost a year.
However, in the latter epic, there is no such confusion with Rolland. When the battle is inevitable, Oliver conveys it to Rolland. Then Rolland replies “And may the Lord grant it to us”. He is sure that he will not the reputation of his family suffer. His allegiance to his duty is unshakable. It is like this through out the poem. Good is good and Evil is Evil. We find that Ganelon is the creation of the unknown author of the chanson de geste, after the model of the devil himself. He is presented as outstanding outward appearance, but the deeds belie the real man. As is expected he sides with the pagans. This specific demarcation between the good and evil is very much characteristic of this epic (Burgess, 1990).
Finally, we come to the question of duty and commitment of the followers to the leader, the question of allegiance. Here, we find that Odysseus, is committed to his soldiers, but their commitment to him and his orders is not where we would like it to be. When he defeats the Cicones he
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“… Took great pains
To see that all men got an equal share.”
However, when he gives them orders, they refuse to obey. They drink too much wine, and pays for it when the battle ensues. And when they reach another destination they are turned to pigs. Odysseus interferes again to make them complete again. When Aeolus gives the bag of winds to Odysseus, they doubt him and open the bag.
Compare this with Charlemagne who is presented to us as the very embodiment of goodness. Often actual history is altered to present Charles and his commitment towards his vassals and how he avenges the death of Rolland. They in turn are ready die for him. The King accepts loyalty and receives unquestioning authority. It is that Charles represents God and vassalage to him, represents Christianity. Even when they are going to die, Oliver laments that
“Charles will never again receive our service… Charlemagne will have no aid from us” (Burgess, 1990).
Therefore, we find loyalty to their master and Lord very different from that of the older epic.
The quality and superb morality in the latter epic is so fantastic that it sounds very much beyond the actual of life and characters. Homer’s characters are picked out of the public and carved into a hero’s place, but we find the French epic straight out of Disneyland. This is because these chansons de geste were to be performed and not actually to be sung. The weaknesses and fickleness of characters make them real in Homer. This goes for the popularity of the epic. Anyway, since, these poems are both epics, the staring difference of evil and good in both their themes and characters cannot be overlooked.
Burgess,G.S. The song of Roland. London: Penguin books. 1990.
Johnston, I. (2009). Book OneAthena Visits Ithaca. Web.
Johnston, I. (2009).Book Four Telemachus Visits Menelaus in Sparta. Web.
Johnston, I. (2009).Book Ten Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, and Circe. Web.
Song of Roland. (2009). Web.
The Odyssey Study Guide by Homer. (2009). Web.