The Song of Roland (French: La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various different manuscript versions which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these is the Oxford manuscript which contains a text of some 4004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero.
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For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Muslim stronghold remains: the city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne’s vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne’s departure. But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive Marsile’s messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at Marsile’s court on Charlemagne’s behalf.
Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne’s nephew, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his diplomatic mission he plots with the Saracens, telling them that they could ambush Charlemagne’s rear guard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with Roland dead, Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.
After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile’s good faith, Roland, as predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve peers, later known as the Paladins, Charlemagne’s greatest and most beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent man and Roland’s best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery Archbishop Turpin, a clergyman who also is a great warrior. At the pass of Roncevaux, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering four hundred thousand. Oliver counsels Roland to blow his olifant horn, to call back Charlemagne’s main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland gives three long mighty blasts on his oliphant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples burst from the force required, and he presently expires. He positions himself so as to face toward the enemy’s land before dying, and his soul is escorted to heaven by Saint Gabriel, Saint Michael and assorted cherubim.
Image of the devastation of the frank troops (from a book of the song of Roland)
Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a miracle of God; the sun is held in place in the sky so that the enemy will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the river Ebro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned.
Marsile has escaped, though Roland succeeded in cutting off his right hand in battle. Wounded and demoralised, he returns to Saragossa, where the remaining Saracens are plunged into despair by their losses. But Baligant, the incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived to help his vassal. The emir goes to Roncevaux where the Franks are mourning and burying their dead. There is a terrible battle which climaxes with a one-on-one clash between Baligant and Charlemagne. With a touch of divine aid, Charlemagne slays Baligant, and the Saracens retreat. The Franks take Saragossa, where they destroy all Jewish and Muslim religious items and force the conversion of everyone in the city with the exception of Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne wants her to come to Christ through the agency of love. With her as a captive, the Franks return to their capital, Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle.
Ganelon is put on trial for treason. Pinabel, Ganelon’s kinsman and a gifted speaker, nearly sways the judges to let Ganelon go. But Thierry, a brave but physically unimposing knight, says that Ganelon’s revenge should not have been taken against a man in Charlemagne’s service and constitutes treason. To decide the matter, Pinabel and Thierry fight. Though Pinabel is the stronger man, God intervenes and Thierry triumphs. The Franks give Ganelon a traitor’s death: “Four chargers are brought out and tied to Ganelon’s feet and hands…four sergeants drive them past the spectators towards a stream…Ganelon is lost, his ligaments will be stretched intolerably until all his limbs are torn apart.” They also hang thirty of his kinsmen, not including Pinabel, who is already dead.
Charlemagne announces to all that Bramimonde has decided to become a Christian. Her baptism is celebrated, and all seems well. But that night the angel Gabriel comes to Charlemagne in a dream and tells him that he must depart for yet another war against the pagans. Weary and weeping, but resigned to the will of God, Charlemagne inwardly prepares himself for what is to come.