A Song for Roland
There was a village in the South of France, near the Pyrenees, called Roncevaux. Like most French villages, its narrow stone streets were flanked by ivy-covered stone walls. A river snaked through the town, where a mill blessed by Cardinal Richelieu once stood. In the center of town, near the old well, Roncevaux was also the home of a unique landmark, a stone statue of Roland, the first literary hero of France, a lieutenant of Charlemagne and a symbol of the fighting spirit of France and Christendom the world over.
Roland was commissioned by the Sun King, Louis the XIV, as a present to Fernan Colbert, a court poet from Roncevaux and friend to Jean-Baptiste Lully, who fell into obscurity after 1789. During the terror, Roland stood by and watched as the town mayor and several businessmen were killed by the starving mob of villagers, taking their queue from the butchery in Paris. Roland greeted Napoleon not long after when the emperor stopped by on his way to Spain in 1808. He watched Arago show off his Copley medal before his ill-fated executive commission in 1848. Roland sent off Roncevaux’s men to fight the Prussians, then the greater German Empire, and the Third Reich. Hermann Goering came to see the statue in 1943, but it had been “stolen” years earlier, hidden in a barn for the duration of the war as so many other great works had been. No bombers molested the village and it was instead a quaint destination for German officers, then Americans after the liberation.
In the 1990s, the quiet mountain village grew busier. Tourism brought money to the poor business owners and Roland brought the tourists in by their bus loads in between trips from Northern Spain to Nice. Weather had worn the statue down over the centuries, but there was never money to restore the great soldier to his former glory. Once, in the 1970s, Henri Du Pape fronted money for the restoration, but legal troubles with his mistress and illegitimate son complicated the issue. He was only in it for the headlines anyway and the scandal proved sufficient enough to stroke his ego and keep young women interested in him. The project was abandoned, much to the village’s relief, who did not want the indentured service Pape would expect from his “generosity”.
Today, Roland looks formless, a stone, man-shaped object in the center of town with a bronze plaque explaining who he was in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. No more tourists come through Roncevaux, the European highway system took care of that. Roland now stands, covered in graffiti, his sword Durendal, made to resemble a penis more than a knight’s noble weapon. The makeup of the village has grown less French, as Mediterranean refugees landed on the shores of Southern France and spread throughout the countryside, bringing their foreign language, foreign food, and foreign religion for the betterment and cultural enrichment of France, at least that was what the promise was.
Oliver grew up in Roncevaux, he could trace his roots to the land all the way back to the Roman legions who marched through on their way to Spain and its rich lands promised to Rome’s veterans. His father owned the local newspaper, Oliphant, and voted for Macron while holding his nose. His mother was from Cannes and was the daughter of a French film director of no renown. She was once a model for a line of soap, whereupon she walked down the street naked as men turned their heads to get a look at her. It ended with a close-up of her saying the brand name and it seemed to work, as the company reported record profits that quarter. This was the zenith of her career and after birthing a child, she pretended she was content as a marketing associate and as a mother to her only child.
Oliver went to church every Sunday, a practice that confused his parents, as neither of them was religious, and his mother wasn’t even baptized, a fact that her father noted with pride whenever he was in the room with American directors visiting from Hollywood, pitching himself as more modern than his Countrymen. At first, he did so to hear Isabel Burgundy sing in the choir. She was a year older than him and was interested in other boys in their small village, but he figured that if he went to Church and the others didn’t, he would win out. This line of thinking stopped when he was fifteen and realized she only sang in the choir because her parents made her. After getting to know her, it seemed to him it would be easy to bed her, that he would not have been the first, and by that time, he’d spent so much time at the church that not even the raging hormones of a young French man could make him give away his virginity. He got to second base with her, it was true, but God could forgive him his weakness for her.
Oliver kept going to church because of the local priest, named Marcel Turpin, who often spoke of a more muscular Catholicism and waxed nostalgic for the times of the Crusades, a period he didn’t know but spoke of them as if he’d just returned from Jerusalem. Where the stereotypical priest in France admonishes the rejection of same-sex marriage in his parishioners or perhaps an ongoing climate catastrophe, Father Turpin was radical in both his love of France and his chauvinism towards other people and their way of life. Oliver would never be an alter boy, finding the ones who volunteered were too smarmy and not destined for anything beyond being clerks their whole lives, but Oliver respected the Priest and would often speak with him like they were old friends.
“My boy, you look troubled. What is on your mind?” the priest asked. They sat together outside the Priest’s home near the church, enjoying the sunshine and cloudless sky, as they had for the last few months.
“I can’t hide anything from you. Have you ever felt stuck? Or, at least, kept down? Like elephants are standing on your chest.”
“I’ve heard this is the sign of a heart attack. Perhaps you should consult a doctor, not a Priest.”
“You know I don’t mean literally.”
“A doctor can prescribe something for malaise as well, though a French doctor would suggest some of this”, the priest pulled out a bottle of wine, pouring two glasses. They toasted and Oliver sipped.
“A priest is supposed to heal spiritual wounds.”
Turpin laughed. “You’re too young to have deep spiritual wounds. Shouldn’t you be chasing young women with your friends? What are you doing hanging out with a priest? I assure you the rumors aren’t true. I don’t like boys.”
Oliver looked into his glass. “I feel called to do great things. I wake up at night, full of fire, but I don’t remember the dreams I have. I want to go out into the world and conquer, like Napoleon or Caesar, or Alexander. But instead, I am here and my phone is full of men my age doing what I dream to do.”
“Oliver, you wish to conquer the world like the great men of history. But none of these men were French. Not even Napoleon, he was Corsican. France, my young friend, in many ways, is the world. Conquer her before you try to take the rest of the Earth.”
“I thought you would understand me”, Oliver plead. “You always go on about crusading.”
“I would not go to Jerusalem unless God willed it. As such, for now, God keeps me in France. He has all eternity to retake the holy land in his due time. My advice to you is this, pray to God and ask him where you belong. If you are so consequential, like you believe you are, then he will reveal it to you.”
Oliver felt dismissed, but instead of pushing the subject, he lifted his glass, finished the drink, and said his goodbyes. They shook hands like Englishmen and Oliver went home. A gaggle of migrants was gathered in the town center, around the old well, keeping away from Roland. They spoke foreign languages that Oliver did not understand and stared at him like he was the foreigner. He avoided eye contact and instead, went into the shop to grab fresh bread. Later that evening, around Nine, he and his family ate, discussing their days and challenges and successes.
“My day was good, Mama. I spent some time with Father Turpin after school. He’s interesting. I don’t know anyone who talks like him.”
Oliver’s parents looked at one another with concern. His grandfather wore a scowl of disgust.
“My Oliver, who did this to you? Who made you into a soldier for the Pope? Why, when I was your age, I stopped going to church and focused on more important things. Fame, fortune, women.”
“I’m surprised that isn’t the motto underneath the French flag, Grandpa”, Oliver muttered.
“Why I never even got your mother baptized”, his grandfather declared. “As a protest against their rampant pedophilia.”
“We did not know about that back then, Papa” his mother answered. “I wasn’t baptized because you wanted to look cool to any Hollywood producers you met.”
“And I did look cool, thank you”, he drank from his cup. “I should have directed Leon: The Professional. That would have made us all fabulously rich. Instead, we live in this ruin on a paper merchant’s salary.”
Oliver’s father cut through his fish and made a scraping sound against the plate with his knife.
“You’re lucky that you are here and not in America, where they ship their old men off into nursing homes and leave them to get dementia and die alone”, his father replied.
“Enough, both of you”, his mother cut in. “Oliver, my love, what is so interesting at that church? Your father and I worry that you’re being…” she trailed, looking for words.
“Weird. It’s weird, Oliver” his grandfather butted in.
“Papa!” his mother yelled.
The rest of the meal was filled only with the sounds of shuffling forks and knives. Oliver yawned and headed upstairs.
That night, Oliver kicked and shuffled in his bed. The statue of Roland spoke to him, knighting him with his sword and handing him a horn, beckoning him to call out for help. Battle raged all around him and an army massed in the distance. A rainbow crested from one end of the army to the other and a cavalry charge flooded the field until only he and Roland were left standing. Oliver woke in the night and understood, at least in part. As if divined to him, he knew his purpose was linked to the statue in town.
In school, Oliver’s teacher described him as the embodiment of “Mieux vaut tard que jamais”. Late is worth more than never. He often looked outside, staring at birds that landed on the ancient, wooden windowsill. He sketched them later from memory and of all his pursuits, this gave him the most satisfaction, next to, of course, his afternoon chats with the priest. During his lunch, he ate near the river, where many of the other students sneaked away to and the teachers could do nothing but hope they returned. Oliver supped on Brie with bread and shared the fresh baguette with a swan.
Half of his class were not French, but rather the children of refugees who popped up one spring like wildflowers, though he could hardly say they smelled as fresh. One boy, Mohammed, who was one of fifteen Mohammeds in the school, approached with two goonish friends, each of them leering at a few girls nearby. He tried to ignore it as she did, all of them growing accustomed to the new normal they found themselves in. Lunch ended with a sense of dread and one by one the students went back to school, Oliver not first, yet also not bringing up the rear. That afternoon they studied French History and were assigned a project to present to the class. Mohammed protested, as he often did.
“I am not French, I don’t know French history. Perhaps I will present Algerian history instead. After all, the French colonized my home for so long, their stories are intertwined.”
The teacher submitted and this came with calls from all the Muslim students who did not want to glorify colonialism. The project was changed to world history and the snickering from the gallery simmered, content with their victory. Oliver, who before then would never describe himself as a nationalist or chauvinist, knew at an instant that his project would revolve around Roland and Charlemagne.
Later that day, he spoke with the Priest about school. He found it much easier to speak his mind with Turpin than his family, which knotted his heart, but to be depressed was to be French, or at least that was what he read online. The opinions of foreigners seldom bothered him, yet he took the insights like a doctor’s advice. He told Turpin of the dream and asked his council, not ever experiencing such a visceral dream. Often he forgot his dreams not long after waking, but this one stuck with him like a nagging cold or a buzzing mosquito.
“My young friend, I prayed you would get some clarity and it seems my prayers were answered. Perhaps I should now play the lottery, but of course, God does not work like this.”
“You could always rob a bank and ask forgiveness.”
“I’ll pretend you did not say that”, Turpin replied with a smirk. “Do your project, my young friend. The dividends of which you may feel long after you’ve left this hamlet. Perhaps…” he trailed off, saying nothing else. Oliver went home to research, reading for hours. The excitement built with every typed word and he went to bed hoping he would present first. His dreams were uneventful that night and he woke the next morning consumed by purpose.
Mohammed presented first, describing the Muslim conquest of Algeria, which at that time was known as Numidia. Oliver feigned his attention, instead stoking the fire inside. He felt like what the Americans called a geek, but that did not matter. He was already a devout Catholic in a classroom of Muslims and atheists. What could be done? Mohammed finished with the bloody details of murdered Christians, which bothered none but Oliver, who took solace that he would return the blow with his own.
“I present to you, one of the great heroes of France, Roland, whose last stand against the Muslims in the Middle Ages, where the armies of the Moorish king attacked and were prevented from getting to Charlemagne. To be like Roland is to be like France, you see.”
There were glares from the Muslim students and before he could continue, the teacher stepped in.
“Oliver, this is history class. You want to talk about Poems, save it for literature class.”
“There is much evidence that Roland existed, I have done my research.”
The teacher looked around the class and saw the rage building in his student’s eyes. Oliver was then taken aside by the now more present educator.
“Oliver, perhaps this story is not the one you’d like to present, no? Perhaps it would be better if you redid the project and submitted it to me tomorrow. You don’t even need to present. This is my fault, I should have stipulated more.”
“We have a statue of Roland in this town and yet I cannot speak of him? A great French Man and I cannot even utter his name for what? Politics?”
“That’s what that statue is?” Mohammed shouted and was joined in anger by his cronies. “That’s offensive to the Muslims in France.”
The teacher grumbled.
“No, it’s history. Your people were pushed out of Europe many times before. It might even happen again”, Oliver said, without thinking. There were gasps across the classroom. The teacher, finding his balls, sent Oliver out of the classroom. No doubt his parents would find out about the whole ordeal. He went straight to the church and could not find the Priest. There was a line outside the confessional and Oliver took a spot. An hour passed before it was his turn. Oliver entered, crossed himself, and did the necessary rituals.
“Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been six days since my last confession.”
“What are your sins, my son.”
“I am a frequent masturbator. I disrespect my parents’ wishes for me to be an agnostic. I am proud of being French.”
“That last one is not a sin.”
“It is outside these walls, father.”
“50 Hail Marys for the masturbation. These other sins, I find no fault in you. Now, go with God and his divine mercy. And if you come back next week telling me you’ve masturbated again, I swear, I’ll have the Pope excommunicate you.”
He did as he was told, but could see the smile on the Priest’s face as he said that last part. That night at dinner, there was still only the clattering of forks and knives, Oliver unwilling to speak of his day. Only his grandfather seemed willing to discuss the matter.
“Of all the foolish ideas. Are you trying to get killed? Get us all killed.”
“Papa!” his mother shouted.
“No, he needs to hear this. These people, they are not… They’re going to..”, he could not finish, but instead growled. Oliver saw his father still eating.
“It was a history assignment. I did the assignment.”
“Your teacher called you an extremist on the phone. He asked if we were feeding you these ideas. I was shocked to hear any of this”, his mother cried, tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
“It’s that damn priest. Trying to stir up trouble. Bad enough he’s got you wrapped around his finger, now he’s using you like a megaphone. There ought to be a law against it.”
“Against what? Being French?” Oliver snapped.
“I am French, we’re all French. You and your priest don’t get to define this country, especially if it means dividing the population.”
“You would sell this country to the Americans if they gave you a movie deal. You’re no Frenchman. It’s you and yours that gave this country away for nothing and now I am here to inherit your failures.”
Oliver stormed out of the house, his mother chasing him until he rounded the corner. He headed for the Church, he’d sleep there for the night. Many nights if he had to. Turpin would allow it, of that Oliver was sure. He wanted to cry, he’d never yelled at his family like that. He remembered the first time his grandfather showed him a film and the sparkle in the old man’s eyes. They were once so close and though he did not regret how he felt, a sinking feeling in his stomach gave filled his person.
He passed the statue on his way to the Church and found Mohammed and his friends around it with rope and shovels. They were shouting at each other, not in French, but it was clear they were frustrated at one another.
“What are you doing?” Oliver shouted. Lights from inside the homes surrounding the town center were turning on, faces peering through the windows.
“Go away, Colonizer. We’re reclaiming this space. This statue offends Islam and therefore, it must go.”
“No”, Oliver replied. There was no grand speech prepared. No reasoning, no appeals to the ideas of a liberal market of ideas. Just a line that Oliver drew before his feet. He positioned himself between them and Roland. And it was as if his life culminated into one moment and Oliver rejoiced that his purpose was at once clear to him.
“I said move”, Mohammed shouted, shoving the tip of his spade at Oliver. His shirt ripped and a slight cut appeared on his chest.
“No”, Oliver replied. The anger grew in Mohammed’s eyes and he tried to again, push Oliver out of the way with the shovel. Oliver grabbed the handle and would not let go, instead attempting to wrestle it from Mohammed. Not long after, the other Muslim boys joined in and overwhelmed him, kicking and punching, but Oliver did not let go. Mohammed pulled and pushed, then let go of the shovel, sending Oliver flying back, smacking his head against the ground. He tried to get up, but the boys started kicking him. Oliver tasted blood and looked up at the statue. His ears were ringing and he swore he could hear a horn calling.
By then, the town was a stir and the police were called. The statue, which had stood for over three hundred years, stood one more night. Oliver looked up at Roland and smiled and Roland stepped down from the pedestal and stood the young man back on his feet. The blood was gone and he was cleaned and he rose a knight, like so many great men before him. Oliver thanked God and entered the gates of Heaven.