As a self-proclaimed lit geek, I have to confess... I never finished the French epic, Song of Roland. Sure, that doesn't sound so bad. Plenty of people never even start Song of Roland. The thing is, from the half I read Song of Roland is a terrific story. You have Roland and his best pal Olivier taking rear guard for King Charlemagne's army. You have all sorts of fighting and sacrifice and sinister betrayels, everything that makes a great Midevil Romance. The problem isn't the poem; the problem is that I'm too used to modern storytelling conventions.
Song of Roland follows the same pattern as Shakespeare's Julius Ceaser, and I hit the same snag when I tried to read it: the hero dies halfway through. Okay, maybe it's more like two thirds into the story. The point is, the hero's gasping his last and there's a whole bunch of book left. I can't help going `what gives?' Whithout a centeral character, who am I supposed to root for? What holds this story together?
In both tales the hero's death comes through betrayel, and neither book is over until the wrongdoer is properly punished. That means the focus changes from a single character (Roland or Julius Ceaser) to those left behind. (Mark Anthony and his followers, Charlemagne and his courtiers). The book feels like two stories sandwitched together; one story about the tragic loss of the title character, and one story about a vendetta against someone who betrayed a group.
Maybe the poets thought the audience needed to `live' with the title character and get the full impact of his death in order to feel the need for justice. After all, the stories were written before modern police work or easy travel. Communities would have been closer. Matters of justice would also be personal matters -or someone else's problem. Which makes me think of another point; both Julius Ceaser and Roland are politically important. Roland is Charlemange's right hand guy, and Julius Ceaser is... well... Ceaser. There is no `somebody else's problem here. The death of these guys is a national matter.
So that brings up the question, is this story structure obsolete- at least in Western culture? Justice isn't carried out by the nearest relative anymore, or even the community. And people don't need convinced that having a murderer running around is a bad thing. Plenty of mysteries plop a body on stage in chapter one and that's enough to convince the audience that the murderer must be brought to justice before he or she can strike again.
Or maybe it's just hard to sell a story where the hero dies halfway through. (Though from what I've heard, Game of Thrones never had a problem...)