“Roland Is Good; Oliver Is Wise”: Thoughts on Helping and Asking for Help

Roland is good, and Oliver is wise,
both these vassals men of amazing courage:
once they are armed and mounted on their horses,
they will not run, though they die for it, from battle.
Good men, these Counts, and their words full of spirit.
Traitor pagans are riding up in fury.
Said Oliver: “Roland, look – the first ones,
on top of us – and Charles is far away.
You did not think it right to sound your olifant:
if the King were here, we’d come out without losses.
–“The Song of Roland,” Stanza 87

The “Song of Roland,” composed anonymously some time in the 11th century,  is one of a handful of poems now considered national epics–works like the Aurtherian legends, El Cid, and the Nibelungenlied that helped the emerging nation-states of Europe create a future by convincing everyone that they had a common past. “The Song of Roland” is a little bit closer to history than other national epics. Its principal heroes–Roland and Charlemagne–actual existed, and the Battle of Roncevaux in 778, which the poem describes, really occurred.

This is not to say that poem is actual history. It may be the most wildly exaggerated of all of the world’s epic poems, and that is saying something. In the real Battle of Roncevaux, Charlemagne’s rear guard was ambushed by a Basqe army in a narrow mountain pass. An obscure count named Roland really was killed. But that’s where the similarities end.

In “The Song of Roland,” Roland is the greatest warrior in Christendom, and his small rear guard of 20,000 soldiers is ambushed, not by Basque nationalists, but by 400,000 Saracen (Muslim) troops bent on dominating and destroying the Christian world. Roland and his trusted lieutenant, Oliver, fight valiantly. Roland kills about 100,000 Saraceans all by himself. But, alas, the force is too great, and the Saracens are, unknown to Roland, aided by a traitor in their midst: Roland’s own stepfather, Ganelon.

The whole story is driven by a contrived, but still powerful conceit: before the battle, Charlemagne gives Roland a special horn that can be heard from miles away. He tells Roland that he should blow the horn if he encounters any trouble, and he will bring the main army back to help him. We need not ask if Charles would ever be too far away. It is a magic horn; if he blows it, they will come. In other words, all Roland ever has to do is ask for help.

When the Saracen army shows up, Oliver begs Roland to blow his horn. He reasons, quite persuasively in my view, that even the peerless Paladin core of the Frankish army can’t overcome a 20-to-1 numerical advantage. Getting everyone killed for no particular reason, Oliver suggests, is not wise:

Said Oliver: “The pagan force is great;
from what I see, our French here are too few.
Roland, my companion, sound your horn then,
Charles will hear it, the army will come back”
Roland replies: “I’d be a fool to do it.
I would lose my good name all through sweet France.
I will strike now, I’ll strike with Durendal,
the blade will be bloody to the gold from striking!
These pagan traitors came to these passes doomed!
I promise you, they are marked men, they’ll die.”

The rest plays out like it has to. Everyone dies. Well, everyone on Roland’s side at least. Roland is the last one to die, and, right before he does, he finally blows the horn so Charles can come and see how valiantly he fought. 

There are a lot of ways to read “The Song of Roland,” of course, but I have always read it as a cautionary tale for those of us who just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we need help. I’m that guy. I love to be the one to jump in and save the day. I want everyone to see that I am “good,” that I have things under control. Publication deadlines, family responsibilities, hundreds of thousands of Saracen hordes–no problem. I’m your guy. Just don’t make me ask for directions, ‘cause then I might die. And don’t make me ask for anything else, as that would require me to admit that I am not “good.”

The poet’s sly phrasing, “Roland is good, and Oliver is wise” packs a whole world of meaning into a single sentence. Roland, the poem tells us, is not wise. He is, in fact, quite stupid. He gets 20,000 people killed (including himself and his best friend) because he can’t admit that he needs help that has been freely offered. He allows himself to be overwhelmed and rendered useless when there are other options. Don’t be like Roland.

Because, for all of the hoopla about Roland being the ultimate Christian knight, he is motivated almost entirely by pride, the most un-Christian of all attributes. At the risk of wrenching the story out of context in the service of my sermon, he announces to the world that he does not need people because there is nothing that he can’t accomplish on his own. In doing so, he deprives himself of all of the benefits of meaningful human contact–love, affection, moral support, and not getting hacked to pieces by a half a million barbarians. 

And also, he deprives other people of the experience–necessary for their own development as human beings–of helping Roland. Perhaps the most important thing we learn from the New Testament is that the Kingdom of God is a community construction project. We build it as we lower our guard, overcome our pride, and learn how to become intimately and lovingly enmeshed in a community of fellow saints. This, I am pretty sure, is why Christ rebukes his disciples when they criticize the woman who anointed his feet with expensive oil. He knew that she needed the experience of serving him:

But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me.For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” (Matthew 26: 10-13)

Oliver is wise because he understands this dynamic. Unlike Roland, he understands that the world (or, at least, the part of the world that aspires to be the Kingdom of God) cannot be divided into helpers and helpees. It can’t be divided into any two categories or hierarchies at all. That’s not how it works. We all have to be helpers, and we all have to be helped. Because that is what “The Kingdom of God” means.

Comments

  1. Sometimes it’s better not to admit how much you strike home, Michael.

  2. “I love to be the one to jump in and save the day. I want everyone to see that I am “good,” that I have things under control. Publication deadlines, family responsibilities, hundreds of thousands of Saracen hordes–no problem.”

    Not speaking of you specifically but it’s been my experience that people with the savior complex, the ones that are always, in their mind, coming to the rescue of everyone and for everything, almost always act like Roland, the will never accept any kind of help that they so freely offer to everyone else. And to me that demonstrates that it is not just pride in being seen as good, but also a kind of hierarchical positioning that is going on. Coming to the rescue elevates the savior and positions those saved below him. So receiving help is out of the question because it reverses those roles.

  3. stephenchardy says:

    I’d like to say that your posting really helped me. But then I am pretty sure that I don’t need help. Ever. Now…. where’s that horn….

  4. Thank you for this. True on so many levels.

  5. Within the Church, I frequently see an over emphasis on self reliance functions in this way. Some love to see themselves as the ones giving service and deny the reality that they also will require it at some point in their lives. They then feel superior to those who require assistance of some form or another. In other words, they are among the good. But I have witnessed these same people use ward members as unpaid labor as servers at their child’s wedding reception, without ever seeing themselves as recipients of service.

  6. Wonderful post. Having never heard of The Song of Roland, I appreciate the background information. Your work is very insightful.
    Now for a little thread jack. I can envision an alternate timeline where Christianity had an epilogue to the New Testament, recording the testimony building experiences of Christianity, in which The Song of Roland was included because of the insight it provides. But then a few centuries later, fundamentalist Christian types want to use it as physical evidence of their being armies of Muslims where there weren’t. It makes me think about how we should approach some parts of the Bible. It’s likely that not every author of every book, recorded just the literal things that they witnessed; and that fact has been lost on many.
    I think that currently I land more in the ‘good’ than the ‘wise’ category. I don’t have to deal with disappointment of no one showing up to help, when I don’t ask for help.

  7. Rumpel Stiltskin says:

    With respect, I see the issue a bit differently in my life. If I need to get something done, I sort of have 3 options: I can do it myself, I can pay someone else to do it, or I can ask for help. If I can afford to pay someone else, but prefer to do it myself, it feels wrong to ask for help.

    As an example, I recently dug the hole necessary to add a third pad to my driveway. That entailed digging out a LOT of dirt and rock (8″ down), and then backfilling 4 inches of that with gravel. As I worked at that, I thought a lot about whether I should ask for help. It would have been done much more quickly, but I’m not sure that would have been appropriate. I wasn’t sure then, and I don’t know now. But I didn’t.

    Having spent quite a bit of time in YM over the past decade, I wasn’t surprised when a few of them offered to help. They claimed to be having fun, and maybe digging really was fun. (I’m skeptical, but boys can be weird in wonderful ways.) I was happy to have them help. But I didn’t ask any of them to, nor would I have asked them to help. After all, I could have afforded to pay for someone else to do it, but chose to do it myself.

    Each time they helped. afterwards we biked over to get a flavored soda, and they got to play around on my tall bikes. Those are a hoot, and I suspect playing on the tall bikes was much more valuable to them than me buying the flavored sodas. But those gestures were thanks, not payment. Perhaps they would have accepted payment; I don’t know. In any case, no payment was expected.

    As I was going through this process, I told the story to my parents, and heard a remarkable story back from my Mom. She is undoubtedly the most saint-like person I have ever known. Pride is as far from her being as my riding speed is from the speed of light. And yet this story.

    In their late 60’s, my parents moved back to Utah. Having lived in the east for some 30-plus years, they had accumulated more than a little stuff, and they couldn’t bring all of it with them. In fact, they were determined to bring very little of it with them. They gave grundles and grundles of stuff away: tools, furniture, etc. Thousands of dollars of stuff. Probably tens of thousands of dollars.

    Despite their age, they did not ask anyone in the ward, home teachers or anyone else, for help in moving their stuff. They were capable. Plus, and this was part of what surprised me, but at least only a little, they had heard ward members complain about cleaning up others’ messes. And so my parents were never going to ask them for help.

    They had and continue to have great relationships with people in that ward. I have no doubt that people would have heard and responded to their horn, if they had sounded it. But they didn’t. And I didn’t either. I don’t recall my parents ever “teaching” us a lesson about self-reliance or helping, We played an awful lot of “Jots and Tittles” on Sunday evenings, but I don’t remember a single lesson about help this person but don’t ask for help. But somehow I learned their standard.

    I don’t know if my parents and I are foolish or wise. But if I can pay for it but choose to do it myself, it seems awfully hard to justify asking others for help. Pride? Maybe, but I tend to think not.

  8. Rumpel Stiltskin – be very grateful you (and your parents) have been able bodied and wealthy enough to never need to ask for help.

  9. “Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.l
    Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

  10. Truth is… as we say in the South, we are all a hot mess, and need help. The imperatives of entropy ensure we all come to that pass. Things going good? Feel like you are handling it, maybe dialing it in even? 🎶 just you wait🎶. Thank goodness Christ and his true minions have been and are there for me. Thank you for this Michael.

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