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What a Heartthrob

Please note: this article was written in 2001 and is part of my Master's thesis. It is here for archival purposes only. See the bottom of this page for licensing information.

-Vika Zafrin (email me with any questions)

As all heroes of epic proportions, Roland was a heartthrob. Handsome and valiant, he was betrothed (or, according to some, married) to Alde. In addition, he was susceptible to love spells, which almost got him killed on several occasions. Once, for example, he was bewitched by a young pagan girl and fell madly in love with her. Some say he even slept with his stepdad's wife (the one Guenelun married after he and Roland's mother split up).

Women play interesting roles in each work about Roland, they impact our knight in different ways and different measures from tale to tale. In the French Song of Roland, the only mention of a woman occurs when Oliver, aware of the rearguard's inevitable impending death, bemoans the fact that "Now by my beard, hereafter / If I may see my gentle sister Alde, / She in her arms, I swear, shall never clasp you." This short but poignant bit contrasts with the rest of the poem, which is not concerned with Roland's amorous affairs. The more important role this passage plays in the corpus, however, is an indirect one: it will allow for the development of the character along the line of interpersonal relationships by other cultures, at later dates.

Already with the Karlamagnus Saga, this further development of Roland's non-warrior personality takes place. It begins with the attempt at an explanation as to his parentage, which necessarily involves a woman (Gilem, Karl's sister who bears Rollant, Karl's child). When the boy is born, he is given into the care of an abbot and "four foster-mothers." Other than in this role as caretakers, women do not impact Karlamagnus Saga much - unless you count the temptation presented by Guenelun's wife, referenced above.

Priest Konrad of Germany made a religious martyr out of Roland, and when you are a martyr, you do not have a lot of time or energy for worldly affairs. To his credit, in his retelling of the French epic Konrad did not omit any of the mentions of Roland's promised bride, which appear pretty much exactly in the same contexts as they do in the Song of Roland. There are three of these instances: when Oliver begs Roland to blow his horn and summon Charles' help; when Oliver (as above) is lamenting Roland's impending death; and when Alde, having discovered that Roland is dead, herself dies. (However, Konrad does make this last scene more religiously dramatic than the French do.)

The Italian Roland/Orlando is another story entirely. (For a fuller description of Roland's history in Italy, click here.) Much of his development as a character is directly dependent on amorous pursuits and, accordingly, women are a huge presence. Barbara Reynolds, speaking of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, said the following, which may as well be applied to the whole of the Italian canon:
"In romance... love luxuriates like an overgrown plant. Women are everywhere, on horseback as warriors, indistinguishable from the men until their helmets are knocked off and their golden hair streams out, as damsels in distress, requiring to be rescued, continually distracting the knights from their primary responsibilities, as symbols of self-indulgence, as sorceresses, good or evil, or as inspirations to valour." (60)

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