The Song of Roland
For seven years, Charlemagne has made war in Spain against the Saracens. He has conquered the entire country, except for the stronghold of Saragossa, which is held by the pagan King Marsile. Seeing that defeat is inevitable, King Marsile, in repose in his garden, calls an assembly of 20,000 men to ask their advice. Only the lord Blancandrin speaks up, and he offers a plan of treachery. Marsile should sue for peace, offering to be Charlemagne's tribute-giving vassal and to be baptized as a Christian in Charlemagne's capital, Aix. To guarantee good behavior, they will offer their own sons as hostages. Charlemagne will leave Spain, to await Marsile in Aix. But neither the promised treasure nor Marsile will arrive. Although the French king will then kill the hostages, the military threat will be over. The Saracens unanimously approve of this plan, and Marsile sends "ten of his most treacherous men" (l. 69) to act as emissaries.
Charles, having just conquered the city of Cordoba, is resting in a garden, surrounded by some of his vassals. Marsile's emissaries, led by Blancandrin, approach bearing olive branches and a gift of ten white mules. Blancandrin gives Charles Marsile's offer. Charles considers carefully: although he does not exactly trust Marsile, he has been in Spain for seven years and is an old man. He calls his vassals to discuss the proposal. Roland, one of Charlemagne's twelve peers and the most beloved of Charlemagne's vassals, urges the king to refuse the offer. Marsile has proved treacherous in the past; he sued for peace on a previous occasion, but when Charlemagne sent two trusted emissaries Marsile had them beheaded.
Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, speaks next. He brutally criticizes Roland's advice, characterizing it as foolhardy and uncaring about the Christians who will die if the war continues. A wise duke named Naimes speaks next, in more measured tones: since Marsile is in effect already defeated, and is now begging for mercy, it would be sinful to proceed. Charles asks whom they shall send as the emissary. Duke Naimes immediately volunteers, but Charlemagne cannot spare him. He needs the trusted councilor by his side. Roland volunteers, but his friend Oliver, another one of the twelve peers, voices disapproval, because Roland is far too hotheaded for the job. Oliver volunteers. Charlemagne again vetoes these proposals, saying he cannot spare any of the twelve peers. The warrior-archbishop Turpin volunteers next, and is likewise shot down.
Roland nominates Ganelon, who is furious, and believes that Roland wants him to do. He threatens Roland, but Roland coldly dismisses the threat and says that he only sought a wise emissary. He offers to go in Ganelon's place, which makes Ganelon angrier. Ganelon accepts the task, certain that he will die. He tells Charlemagne that he hates Roland, and he also hates Oliver and the rest of the twelve peers because they love Roland. Charlemagne rebukes him, insists on him going, and invests authority in him by giving him his staff and his glove. But Ganelon drops the glove, which the rest of the Franks take as an evil premonition.
Blessed by Charlemagne, Ganelon departs with staff and letter in tow. During the journey, he talks to Blancandrin, and the two villains plot Roland's death. Ganelon and Blancandrin go before Marsile, who is seated outdoors and surrounded by opulence. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, as Ganelon tells Marsile that if he does not comply with Charles demands, he will be captured and executed. Marsile is furious, and moves to strike Ganelon, but he is restrained. Ganelon holds his ground, impressing the Saracens.
Marsile reads Charlemagne's letter aloud. Charlemagne bids him to remember Basan and Basile, the executed Frankish emissaries, and says that if he wishes to redeem his life, he should send his uncle the caliph. Marsile's son demands the right to kill Ganelon for his insolence; Ganelon brandishes his sword, ready to fight. But Marsile goes into private council in his garden, where Blancandrin tells him that Ganelon is willing to help them. They summon Ganelon into the garden, and begin to plot Roland's death.
Marsile apologizes for his earlier anger and promises great wealth to Ganelon. Marsile asks Ganelon three times if the two-hundred-year-old Charles will ever tire of war; Ganelon replies that Charles will continue to wage war as long as Roland is alive. Ganelon suggests an ambush: as Charles pulls out of Spain, going through the pass of Cize, he will live a rearguard of twenty-thousand men, led by Roland and Oliver. Marsile should attack the rearguard with a force of a hundred thousand pagans.
Ganelon returns to Charles, bearing gifts from Marsile. The traitor claims that the Marsile's uncle the caliph, along with four hundred thousand Moslems, died in a God-sent sea storm. The Franks celebrate, suspecting nothing.
As the Franks are withdrawing, heading toward the pass of Cize, Charles has strange dreams. He dreams that at the pass of Cize Ganelon seized and broke the king's ash lash. He also dreams that he is at Aix. A boar bites his right arm, and a leopard come from the direction of the Ardennes and attacks him; then, a hunting dog appears and fights the other two animals.
The next day, when Charles asks who should head the rearguard, Ganelon nominates Roland. Roland excepts, although his comment indicate that he is angry at his uncle. He willingly take the king's lance, making a show of not dropping it, as Ganelon dropped the king's glove. He refuses the king's offers of retaining a large force. Oliver will join Roland, as will the archbishop. Other volunteers to stay include the rest of the twelve peers: Anseis, Berenger, Engeler, Gerin, Gerer, Gerard of Roussillon, Oliver, Oton, Samson, Yvon, and Yvoire.
Gautier patrols the heights. Charles treks back toward France, and when at last the men see their native land, they weep. Charles is anxious about his dreams; he fears that they portend treachery and Roland's death.
Marsile assembles his men. Marsile's nephew wants to strike at Roland first. He asks Marsile to select twelve barons to lead the Moslem force. The barons are described in some detail; Falsaron, Corsalis, Malprimis, the emir of Balaguer, an alcamor from Moriane, Rugis, Escremiz, Estorgans, Estramariz, Margariz, and Chernubles.
The Christians hear the Moslem force approaching, and Roland welcomes the chance for battle. He has absolute confidence that they will win: "The pagans are wrong and the Christians are right" (l. 1015). On the hill, Oliver sees the Moslem army and reports that their force is vast. He asks Roland to blow his oliphant horn to summon Charlemagne's forces, but Roland refuses. Oliver pleads for Roland to blow the horn, but Roland will do no such thing. They will fight this battle alone.
Roland, ready for battle, encourages his men to fight bravely. He readies his sword, Durendal. Archbishop Turin tells the men to ask forgiveness for their sins, for which he will absolve them, and promises that all who die will be rewarded with martyrdom and a place in heaven. Roland reminds them of the spoils they will win. Oliver, protesting one last time, tells the men to fight bravely. The two armies clash.
Marsile's nephew, Aelroth, insults the Franks, and an angry Roland immediately dispatches him for it. Falsaron, Marsile's brother, is killed by Oliver. Archbishop Turin kills King Corsablix. Gerin dispatches Malprimis of Brigal. Gerer kills the emir. Duke Samson defeats the almacor. Anseis kills Turgis of Turteluse. Engeler kills Escremiz. Oton slays Estorgans. Berenger strikes down Estramariz. Ten of the twelve Saracen peers are dead: only Chernubles and Count Margariz remain.
Margariz makes for Oliver. He smashes through Oliver's shield, penetrates his armor, and destroys his lance. Only God's intervention protects Oliver from being seriously wounded. Meanwhile, Roland is fighting so fiercely that he wears his own lance to splinters. He fights with his sword, Durendal, and kills Chernubles. The twelve peers fight bravely. Oliver, too, wears his lance down to a stub, and then at Roland's suggestion unsheathes his sword, Halteclere.
The battle goes on, with the Franks slaughtering the pagans even though the Christian force is vastly outnumbered. But the Franks, too, suffer heavy casualties: "How many lives of fine young Franks are lost!" (l. 1401). Midbattle, the poet breaks to remind us that all of this carnage was caused by Ganelon's treachery, but assures us that Ganelon will get his in the end: "In the trial at Aix he was condemned to hang / And thirty of his relatives with him" (ll. 1409-10). In France, as the battle in Spain continues, storms and earthquakes ravage the land. The disasters are signs of God's sadness for Roland.
An even larger pagan force, led by Marsile, appears on the horizon. The battle now begins to turn against the Christians. The archbishop is the first to dive into battle against the new force, and he kills the mighty pagan Abisme. The courage of the Franks begins to falter, and Turpin tries to encourage them. He tells them that death is certain for all of the Christians on the field, but paradise awaits them. They must fight bravely.
The pagan Climborin kills Engeler, one of the twelve peers. Oliver avenges him. The pagan Valdebrun kills Samson, another one of the twelve peers. Roland avenges him. Malquiant, an African, slays Anseis. Anseis is avenged by Archbishop Turpin. A mighty pagan named Grandonie kills a number of Franks, including three of the twelve peers: Gerin, Gerer, and Berenger. The Franks are falling fast. Roland charges after Grandonie and defeats him. He and Oliver work themselves into such a great frenzy that the Moslem forces begin to retreat. With the Archbishop, Roland and Oliver head up a strong offensive: "Those whom they kill cannot easily be counted. / It is written in the charters and records, / That, as the annals state, there were four thousand" (ll. 1683-5). But the Franks suffer heavy losses, until only a handful are left, and Roland tells Oliver that he wants to blow the oliphant to call for Charlemagne's help. Oliver condemns the action as coming too late to do any good. The two friends argue, but the Archbishop begs them to set aside their anger. Although blowing the horn will not save the rearguard, the Archbishop says, at least Charlemagne will hear the horn and come to avenge their deaths. The Franks can also come back and bury their dead.
Roland blows the horn. The effort is so intense his temples burst: three times, Charlemagne hears the horn. Each time, Ganelon denies that the sound indicates a battle. Finally, Duke Naimes says that Roland, to continue blowing so long, would need to be in great danger. Duke Naimes also says that Ganelon's advice reveals that he has betrayed Roland. Charlemagne and the Franks prepare for battle. Charlemagne has Ganelon chained and put in the custody of the cooks. The main Frankish force sets off, but they are too late.
Roland mourns the deaths of his men, and spurs himself on to kill as many Moslems as he can. Marsile fights fiercely as well, killing several of the twelve peers. Roland's fierce response terrifies the pagans, and a hundred thousand of them, including Marsile, flee. But his uncle Marganice remains, along with his fearsome entourage of troops from Africa. His assembly of warriors includes the contingent from "accursed" Ethiopia, where the men are black and have "large noses and broad ears" (l. 1918). The sight of them unsettles even Roland, who feels certain that the Franks will die. The Ethiopians alone number fifty thousand, and the Franks have only sixty men left.
Marganice battles Oliver, and manages to mortally wound him, but the dying Oliver strikes Marganice a lethal blow. He calls for Roland's help. Oliver fights on, asking Roland to come and fight by his side one last time. On seeing Oliver wounded, Roland faints, but he is so securely strapped to his horse that he cannot fall off. Oliver's sight is so blurred that he cannot recognize Roland, and strikes him a might blow; luckily, Roland is not hurt. When he hears Roland's voice, he apologizes to him. Roland forgives him, and they bow to each other. Oliver dies, and Roland bellows and wails in grief. He faints again.
Now all the Franks are dead, save three: Roland, Gautier, and the Archbishop. The three make a last stand. Gautier is killed by the first volley of lances and spears; the Archbishop fights on bravely, despite being horribly wounded. Roland and the Archbishop fight on. Roland's temples are burst from his last attempt to blow the oliphant, but he blows the horn again, feebly. Far away, Charles hears it, and orders his men to blow their horns in reply. The sound frightens the pagans, who know now that Charlemagne is coming. The pagans let loose a volley of missile weapons, killing Roland's horse right from under him. They flee, and Roland has no way to pursue. He tries to make the Archbishop comfortable, and then goes to search for the bodies of their dear friends. He brings the bodies of the twelve peers back to the Archbishop, who absolves them. Roland weeps and swoons again. The Archbishop goes to get water for him from a stream. On the way there, he collapses, confesses his sins, and dies. Roland wakes and mourns for him.
Roland climbs a hill, faces Spain, grasps his sword and his oliphant, and collapses. A pagan who was playing dead attacks him, but Roland comes to and kills him. Roland begins to strike mighty blows against a stone nearby, recounting the many victories he won for Charles. He hopes to break the sword because he fears it will fall into pagan hands; the sword is full of holy relics. He wears down the stone, but the sword does not break. Roland senses death is near. He confesses his sins. He holds his right glove up to God, and Angels come down to him from heaven. He lays down beneath the pine tree, turns to face Spain, and reflects on his life and struggles. He dies. A cherubin angel, along with Saints Michael and Gabriel, come down to bring his soul to heaven.
Charlemagne and his army arrive to find the fields of the dead at Rencesvals. There is great mourning for the dead, and Charles decides to pursue the enemy. He leaves a contingent of men in charge of guarding the bodies, and then sets off in hot pursuit of the pagans. He prays to God for aid, and God performs a great miracle: he stops the sun's movement, prolonging daylight so that the French can catch up to the Saracens. They catch the Saracens in the Val Tenebro, and the slaughter begins. Many of the pagans drown in the River Ebro as they try to escape. The Christians enjoy great wealth. The Franks make camp in the Val Tenebro, exhausted. Charles remains in full armor. The poet takes a moment to describe Charlemagne's sword, Jouise: embedded in its pommel a piece of the lance that pierced Christ.
Charlemagne has strange dreams that night, sent by Angels. He sees a great battle between his army and an array of terrifying beasts; the dream does not make clear who will win. In his second dream, he sees a chained bear. Thirty bears descend from the hills, and ask to have the bear back again. From Charlemagne's palace a hunting dog comes, attacking the largest of the bears. Again, Charlemagne cannot see who wins.
Marsile returns to Saragossa, badly wounded. He has lost his right hand. The Moslems weep because of their losses; the desecrate the statues of Apollo, Tervagant, and Muhammad. They are sure they will lose the war.
But years ago, Marsile wrote to the emir of Babylon, Baligant, begging for aid. Now Baligant has finally arrived, with a vast pagan host. The force lands, and then Baligant sends his knights Clarifan and Clarien to tell Marsile that the emir will make war against Charlemagne. Bramimonde, Marsile's wife, receives them coldly. When they great her in the name of their gods, she says that their gods have abandoned them. When the messengers say the emir will hunt Charles down, she informs them that Charles is no more than seven leagues away, and that he fears no one. Because Marsile is wounded, Baligant comes to meet him. Marsile surrenders all his lands to him.
Meanwhile, the Franks are tending to their dead. Charles seeks out the body of Roland, remembering that Roland once promised that if killed on foreign soil, he would advance beyond all the men and die facing the enemy. Charlemagne finds Roland, and mourns bitterly for his nephew. He fears he will not be able to carry on without the help of his best knight. Wise Duke Naimes is by the king's side, offering comfort and advice. The bodies are buried. But Roland, the Archbishop, and Oliver receive special treatment. Their sacred hearts are removed and wrapped in silk, and the bodies are prepared specially, wrapped in silk, and put in carts so that they can be brought home.
The pagans arrive. Charlemagne puts trust in his vassals, delegating responsibility and asking Rabel and Guineman to take on the responsibilities of Roland and Oliver. Following is a lengthy description of the troops assembled on both sides: on the Frankish side, valiant knights from all over Christendom are ready to fight. Charlemagne prays to God for victory. On the pagan side, heathen knights from all kinds of exotic and strange lands prepare for battle. Malprimis, son of Baligant, requests the honor of first strike, and Baligant grants it. Malprimis will bring Torleu, King of Persia, and Dapamort, King of Lycia, to head up the front line. There is more organization of divisions, and then the battle begins.
Rabel kills Torleu. Dapamort is slain by Guineman. Malprimis makes his way toward Charles, and both Charles and Baligant call out encouraging words to their troops. Duke Naimes kills Malprimis. Canabeus, brother of the emir, wounds Naimes horribly; only divine intervention saves Naimes's life. Charles is horrified to see his good friend so hurt, and kills Canabeus. The emir himself slaughters Guineman.
The battle escalates. Gemalfin, a trusted counselor of the emir, informs him that his brother Canabeus and son Malprimis are dead. Baligant grieves. He asks his trusted friend Jangleu if they will win the day, and Jangleu tells Baligant that their gods will not help them: Charles and his Franks will kill them all. Baligant's resolve is unshaken: "Come what may, he does not wish to hide" (l. 3522). He blows his bugle, rallying his troops, and they mount a brutal assault against the Franks. Count Ogier scolds Charlemagne, reminding him that they must avenge these deaths. They fight boldly, and Count Ogier strikes down Amborre, bringing the dragon pennon to the ground. On seeing Muhammad's standard fall, Baligant "begins to realize / That he is wrong and Charlemagne right" (ll. 3553-4).
The battle continues on through the day, and evening falls. As Charles calls out "Monjoie," the Frankish battle cry, and Baligant calls out "Precieuse," the pagan battle cry, the two kings recognize each other's strong voices. They clash, shattering each other's shields and knocking each other off of their horses. They get up and fight with their swords. Each offers the other a chance to be his vassal in exchange for peace, but both offers are refused. Baligant delivers Charlemagne a powerful blow, exposing the Frankish king's skull, but the angel Gabriel speaks words of encouragement in the king's ear. Charlemagne smashes Baligant's skull. The pagans retreat and the Franks give chase, slaughtering almost all of them.
The chase goes all the way back to Saragossa. Marsile and Bramimonde are horrified by the sight; Marsile dies of grief, and the devils carry his soul to hell. The Franks take Saragossa. Bramimonde surrenders the keys to the towers. The Christians smash the holy relics of the Jews and the Moslems, and Charlemagne proclaims that those who do not convert to Christianity will be put to death. Bramimonde is the exception. She will be taken to France as captive, so that she can become a Christian by her own decision.
Charlemagne leaves a garrison and returns to his capitol, Aix, passing through many French cities along the way. He deposits the oliphant at a sacred site, and leaves the bodies of Roland, Oliver, and the Archbishop at the church of St. Romain. He arrives in Aix and summons his judges: the trial of Ganelon will begin soon. But first, Charlemagne must give Aude, Roland's wife, the news of his death. She dies of grief on the spot.
Ganelon, brutalized by the servants, faces the charge of treason. He argues that though he arranged for Roland's death, it was in reaction to Roland's nomination of him as envoy, which Ganelon thinks was an attempt to kill him. Though he betrayed Roland, he did not betray the king. Thirty of Ganelon's kinsmen speak for him. Among them is Pinabel, a mighty knight and gifted speaker. Pinabel is so persuasive that the judges, who are collected from all over Charlemagne's realm, are inclined to seek peace and let Ganelon go free. Charlemagne is grieved by their choice. Only Thierry, brother of Lord Geoffrey, is willing to fight for the case that Ganelon is guilty of treason.
Thierry argues to Charlemagne that "whatever Roland may have done to Ganelon, / The act of serving you should have protected him. / Ganelon is a traitor in that he betrayed him" (ll. 3827-9). Thierry is willing to fight against any who say otherwise, and Pinabel accepts the challenge. Pinabel is by far the stronger and larger man.
The men make confessions at church and return to fight. The combat is fierce. The audience is moved to weeping with worry and sorrow for the men: they quickly dehorse each other and destroy each other's shields, leaving the combat to the sword. Pinabel offers to be Thierry's vassal if they cease the combat, and let Ganelon live. Thierry refuses, and offers to reconcile Pinabel to the king, if Pinabel will stop fighting and let Ganelon die. Pinabel refuses, saying he will stand by his kinsman. They continue fighting, and, as Pinabel is stronger, he wounds Thierry badly. But Thierry is protected from death by God, and he rallies to deliver the killing blow. The Franks proclaim that God has worked a miracle. They decide to have Ganelon's thirty kinsmen executed along with him. Ganelon's kinsmen are all hanged, and he himself is drawn and quartered (each limb is tied to a horse; the horses run in opposing directions, ripping the victim apart).
Charlemagne announces that Bramimonde, having heard the gospels and the articles of Christian faith, wishes to be baptized. She is christened Juliana. That night, Gabriel appears to Charlemagne in a dream, telling him that he must aid King Vivien of Imphe, a Christian monarch besieged by pagans. His reaction is weary and sorrowful: "ŒGod,' said the king, Œhow wearisome my life is!' / He weeps and tugs at his white beard" (ll. 4000-1). Thus the poem ends.