Eugen Weber: The ups and downs of honor:
The oldest poem in our Western tradition opens with a quarrel about honor…. If we look at it afresh, without the respect due to a classic, we will discover that the Iliad, chapter 1, presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women, and that the whole poem turns on plunder and pride and the sport of killing. Similar sentiments move another heroic figure, Roland--a reckless young fool who accepts combat at odds of ten to one; who refuses to call for help when only reinforcements can prevent annihilation; who sacrifices his men, his friends, and himself; and who endangers the interests of his lord and country in order to satisfy an ideal that even his best friend does not accept. Yet Roland's values were widely admired for centuries…. The Song of Roland is no more a handbook of what we would call chivalry than the Iliad is. It shows no sense of sportsmanship, no fair play, no chivalrous treatment of opponents. Roland gloats about previous victims, he brags about what he has done, he boasts of what he's going to do, and he taunts his victims when he's through with them, just as Achilles drags Hector's corpse through the dust. Roland's vainglory brings to mind the bumptious dances that football players execute after sacking a quarterback. They are exhilarated, and they show it in their uncouth prancing.