Critical Essays The Song of Roland and Slaughterhouse-Five


In the many wars fought throughout history, the proclamation "God is on our side!" has been used as propaganda to justify the validity of waging battle. Warring parties often use God's blessing to rationalize the killing of human beings. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut examines the nature of this self-righteous proclamation through the creation of the character Roland Weary. Until his death in Chapter Four, Weary serves as a contrast to the medieval French knight Roland, a character immortalized in the French ballad La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), who commanded the withdrawal of French troops during an eighth-century battle fought by Roland's uncle, Charlemagne. Vonnegut parodies Weary's actions in World War II to the actions of the French knight to show that wars are still fought by armies proclaiming God's support when, in fact, they are never divinely justified. To better understand the relationship between the French knight Roland and Vonnegut's Roland Weary, we should review the French knight's tale; only then can we grasp Vonnegut's intentions in Slaughterhouse-Five.

During the Middle Ages, French troubadours, or minstrels, sang of the deeds of Charlemagne and his followers in a number of ballads, including La Chanson de Roland, which relates an incident during the withdrawal of Charlemagne's armies from Spain. In the Chanson, Charlemagne wages a campaign of some thirty years throughout Europe and the Middle East to defend onslaughts by heathen Saxons and other non-Christians. In one of these campaigns, Charlemagne carries out an operation against a group of Spaniards, the Saracen Muhammadans. After receiving the surrender of all of their towns and fortresses, he prepares to return to France. To carry out a successful withdrawal, he places his nephew, Roland, in command of the rear guard.

In a dense forest on top of a mountain, the Saracen Muhammadans ambush Roland's troops. Seeing that he is overpowered by the attackers, Roland is urged to sound a horn that will signal trouble and bring the main body of Charlemagne's army to the rescue. Out of arrogance and overconfidence, however, he refuses to blow the horn: He savors the opportunity to defeat the entire Saracen army with his own small body of soldiers. Surprisingly, the French manage to hold their own in four separate skirmishes, but the fifth battle is a disaster, and Roland now chooses to sound the horn. For the sake of honor, his close comrade, Oliver, feels it would be shameful to summon Charlemagne to see the tragedy, for already it is too late for him to help them. Roland acknowledges that the battle is lost and that his soldiers will be killed, but he insists on summoning Charlemagne. Wounded and bleeding profusely, he fights on. He climbs a hill and, preparing to die, prays to God, asking forgiveness for his sins. Crying out to God, he dies. The Song of Roland ends with Roland's soul being carried up to heaven by Saint Michael, the Archangel Gabriel, and a spirit with golden wings.

Drawing on this tale, Vonnegut develops a parallel between Private Roland Weary and the French knight. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Weary carries a whistle that he plans to keep hidden until he gets promoted. His whistle corresponds to the horn that Roland carries, and which he plans to use only if he needs his uncle's help. Weary's imagination leads him to fantasize that he and the two scouts with whom he wanders in the forest are as inseparable as the Three Musketeers, even though the scouts eventually leave Weary and Billy to wander in the woods alone. In the French ballad, Roland and his companion, Oliver, are portrayed as inseparable comrades, although they argue over whether or not to blow the horn. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the German soldiers have no trouble following the Americans, including Billy, because they leave tracks in the snow. On the Spanish border, the Saracen Muhammadans have no trouble following Roland, whose withdrawal route they know beforehand because a traitor has divulged the plans.

In Chapter Three, Billy, a pacifist, rather than Weary, a man who delights in physical cruelty, looks at a young German soldier and likens the youth to a blond angel, an important image that recalls the spirit with golden wings who carries the French knight Roland's soul up to heaven. By having Billy — and not Weary — see what he thinks is an angel, Vonnegut turns the similarities between The Song of Roland and Slaughterhouse-Five upside down. Because the French knight's soul is lifted to heaven by angels, we would expect the same for Weary, who is similar to his namesake in many of the actions he performs. However, Vonnegut suggests that God is not on anyone's side in war. After all, the French knight and Weary are both soldiers, yet Weary sees no angels when he dies. Ironically, it is Billy, the character most unlike a soldier, who sees the angel-like youth. Using the analogy of The Song of Roland, Vonnegut shows that the notion of God as an ally, or a partner, in war is not true. Instead, such a self-righteous notion is simply a tool of propaganda, used to validate one warring party over another.

Back to Top