(La Chanson de Roland)
late 11th century
(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)
The year is 778. The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn. Roland will not. He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal. He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine. They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book– a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories. This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre– the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit, it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.
The poem has an interesting format in the original Old French. Ten-syllabled lines are grouped together in stanzas of different lengths, called laisses (to which the numbers in this post refer). The final syllables in each line do not rhyme, but are assonant (have the same vowel sounds). Thoughts end with the lines, a pleasing pattern that also renders the poem particularly suitable for reading aloud. Each line pauses in the exact middle, the resulting halves creating a sort of rhythm or cadence. The song also adheres to conventions of stress, for ease and aesthetics of recitation. An expert English translation, such as Dorothy Sayers’, will reproduce these elements closely. A rare and wonderful event in literature is when a great author happens also to be a professional linguist, and thus is able to translate a great work with technical skill as well as her own creative genius. Other examples from medieval literature are Tolkien’s translation of Pearl and Gawain and the Green Knight, and John Ciardi’s Dante. Sayers has also written a superb introduction which is a work of literature in itself, revealing the excellence of the poem and providing a background for appreciating it.
This story demonstrates that we pervert the knightly code of chivalry when we describe it with the concept of “might makes right”. To believe that strength determines rightness, or that God always takes the side of the physically stronger party in a dispute, would surely be barbaric. The chivalric ideal involves rather the notion that, in certain situations, might reveals right. God was viewed simplistically as the direct arbiter of every martial encounter (282). Whether a combatant fell or lived was God’s decision. So, like the drawing of lots in some religious stories, ritual fights were employed to determine God’s judgment in a matter. A misguided abdication of reason and a crude application of religiosity it may be, but at least it is not a beastly ethic where hacking up your enemy justifies your cause.
The Christians, though fighting ostensibly for their God, seem personally quite unspiritual. One might have expected more reverence in the French on a Crusade– i.e., using God as more than just a basis for oaths, a direction for laments, and a source to pray for help in battle. Even Charlemagne treats the wars in Spain as “his cause” rather than God’s– he never asks for God’s guidance, but only his help to succeed (226). Nevertheless, the poem is thoroughly Christian in its allegiance, needless to say. Moreover, its theology is more or less on track with basic or early Christianity in some respects: it engages in no Mary-worship, invocation of saints, or other additives that one might have expected to see in a medieval work in the Roman Catholic sphere of influence. Biblical imagery is pervasive: the twelve peers under Charlemagne easily invite comparison with the twelve apostles under Jesus, one of course being the betrayer (12); the pagans die like the Egyptians by drowning in a river; Charlemagne’s sword is tipped with the lancehead that pierced Jesus’s side; the sun is stilled for the Christians’ chase of the Muslims as it was for Joshua; and upon Roland’s death the Apocalypse is thought to be imminent (110).
Given our justifiable sensitivity today to the Crusades and to the brand of religion they represented, mention must be made of the genocidal tendency of the army and the questionable morality of the entire “holy war” enterprise, not to mention the conversion of a people by death threat (266). This chanson describes and sometimes endorses the ill-treatment and demonization of peoples of the Middle East and Africa, at least in the context of the holy war. Unabashed xenophobia is of course a fixture in literature– and, presumably, in people’s attitudes– in all but the very few most thoughtful and democratic of cultures, and often even in them. The pervasiveness of such attitudes can help to explain the unresolved inconsistency between the Bible-based tenets of Christianity (in which an encouragement for religious violence is absent) and some of the attitudes of the chanson author and characters. Incidentally, although the overall military campaign of the real Charlemagne was indeed motivated by a drive to expand Christendom, and although he did indeed desire to defeat the Muslims who were ruling Spain, the particular faith-based battle recounted in this legend (and in Italy’s Orlando Furioso) never really happened. The Battle of Roncevaux was actually between two Christian groups– the legend was strengthened by transforming the indigenous Basques into Saracens. A bit ironic, I suppose. Regardless, the details hardly matter. This is no more a morality tale than it is a historical document. Nor, by the way, are the supposedly more socially conscious adventures currently on our screens. We’ll decry certain prejudices but then sit down with enjoyment to a movie or TV series celebrating prejudices of other sorts that we tend not to mind so much. Perhaps the medieval French followers of the jongleurs and troubadours would be disgusted at us for all the murders of innocents we are enthused to observe on television! Who knows. We all select, perhaps with the prodding of our culture, some vices to hate, others to tolerate, others even to like. And the purveyors of entertainment, in the day of the chansons as of Hollywood, will insist on frosting all of our cakes with what they perceive to be our guilty pleasures. So if we cannot excuse the particular vices of the Song of Roland, perhaps we can look past them for the sake of its many virtues. This legend will continue to be read, with or without acceptance or even understanding of its background, by those who value the adrenalized power of its action and narration, the simple potency of its structure and wording, its vivid depiction of events and characters, and its virile tribute to courage and honor and steadfastness unto death. AOI!
(numbers refer to laisses)
1-25: The setting is the 8th century, when Charlemagne (also called Carlon) had sacked all of Moorish Spain except Saragossa, where Marsilion (or Marsilla), the enemy of Christendom, holds an army. A Muslim knight Blancandrin devises a plan to rid Spain of the French Christians: give them treasure and some men as insurance, and promise that Marsilion will come soon to France and convert to Christianity, if only Charlemagne goes home immediately. Then, of course, the Saracens will simply renege and sacrifice the sureties. They proceed with the plan. Back in the French camp, despite misgivings (especially of the knight Roland, hero of the Spanish conquests), Charlemagne agrees to send someone to parley with Marsilion. Roland wishes to go himself, but Charlemagne refuses to let him. Roland then delegates his rash stepfather Ganelon (also called Guènes), who is furious at this and promises to take vengeance (two other knights sent on a similar mission earlier had been killed by Marsilion).
26-52: Ganelon rides and catches up to the “Paynims” (pagans), still seething at Roland. He and Blancandrin become fast friends and promise to kill Roland together. Upon meeting Marsilion, Ganelon delivers terms: unless Marsilion converts to Christianity and accepts Roland’s conquest of half of Spain, Charlemagne will drag him back to Aix in France as a slave. In addition, in compensation for the two barons killed earlier, Charlemagne wants Marsilion’s uncle the caliph. Marsilion is initially irate, but once calmed he marvels at Charlemagne’s might. Ganelon offers his aid to their scheme by pledging to betray Roland and his comrade Oliver to Marsilion, after Charlemagne returns to France. Ganelon is made a friend and given a sword and helmet.
53-78: Ganelon brings the sureties to Charlemagne, and lies that Marsilion’s army, including the caliph, are drowned at sea, and that Marsilion will accept Christianity. Charlemagne prepares to leave for France. He has threatening dreams as the Saracens gather for the attack on the rearguard to be left behind in Spain. Ganelon volunteers Roland to lead the rearguard, which Roland accepts boldly even as he is angry at Ganelon’s treachery. Charlemagne offers Roland half the army, but Roland only takes twenty thousand men, including all twelve peers. On the Saracen side, Marsilion’s nephew wishes to strike the first blow in the upcoming battle, and assembles twelve warriors to fight the 12 Christian nobles. Each is introduced in turn.
79-111: As 100,000 Saracens approach Roland, Oliver notices their might and realizes the full extent of Ganelon’s betrayal. He begs Roland three times to blow his horn for Charlemagne to return, but Roland will have none of that shame; he trusts to God, the French, and his sword Durendal. Roland gives the French a rallying speech and the Archbishop Turpin gives a sermon and blessing. They fall to battle. Marsilion’s nephew badmouths Charlemagne, and Roland repays by skewering him. The Franks fight valiantly, killing eleven of the twelve Saracen warrior “peers” and nearly the entire army. But the French lose many also, and storms meanwhile in France herald the coming death of Roland as if it were the Apocalypse. Marsilion’s main force has yet to arrive.
112-160: Marsilion’s great army eventually clashes with them with disastrous results on both sides. The French warriors take specific revenge on each of their own great knights killed. Eventually they defeat the Saracens, despite the difference in numbers. Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin are the most valiant heroes. When only sixty Christians are left, Roland wants to blow his olifant horn at last for Charlemagne to return, but Oliver is against it, and angry at Roland for not having done it when it could have done some good. Turpin urges Roland to indeed blow it, and he does. He blows the horn so hard that blood vessels in his head burst, and his ears bleed. Charlemagne hears it, has Ganelon arrested, and rides back at full speed. Roland renews the fight, cuts off Marsilion’s hand, and kills his son, sending his army to flight. But Marsilion’s uncle Marganice remains with his Negro army. Marganice strikes Oliver mortally from behind. Before dying, Oliver takes his own revenge and then reconciles with Roland. Roland faints. Upon reviving, only he, Archbishop Turpin, and Walter Hum are left alive of the French, and the last is mortally wounded. They fight on together courageously. In a volley of javelins, Walter dies and Turpin fights on despite four javelins in the chest. Finally four hundred warriors descend on Roland but cannot prevail, and the horns of Charlemagne can now be heard. The pagans flee.
161-176: Roland helps the wounded Turpin and gathers the bodies of the nobles to lie in one place. Eventually Turpin dies, and Roland, mostly from his own horn-blowing, feels he is close to death as well. A Saracen who had been feigning death tries to steal Roland’s sword, but Roland kills him with his horn. Worried that the sword Durendal will fall into pagan hands when he dies, he tries to break it, but cannot. He lies beneath a pine, faces Spain as a conqueror, confesses his sins and faith, and dies. He surrenders his life to God as a knight surrenders a fief, with the handing of a glove.
177-213: Charlemagne arrives to see his army slaughtered and the Saracens in flight. He pursues, and with the help of God who stills the sun while they ride, they catch up to and rout the pagans, most of whom drown in a river. The French then sleep. Charlemagne sleeps in his armor with Joyeuse, his sword, whose blade is the head of the lance that pierced Christ’s side. He dreams of two conflicts yet to come, in imagery of beasts. Meanwhile the defeated Marsilion destroys images of his peoples’ gods Mahound (Mohammed), Termagant, and Apollyon because of their failure to aid the Muslim cause. He sends word to Baligant of Babylon, Emir and king of all Paynims, for aid. This Eastern horde sails by magical lights (carbuncles) and lands in Spain. Baligant sends for Marsilion, wishes him to pledge his fealty to him and opposition to Christianity; and pledges to seek out Charlemagne and defeat him. Marsilion is near death from his wounds, so Baligant rides to him at Saragossa, where Marsilion pledges his fealty to Baligant. The Arabs then ride towards Charlemagne at Roncevaux. Meanwhile Charlemagne has found Roland dead and mourns aloud piteously, wishing for his own death and worrying for the safety of the realm. They bury the dead and prepare to return home with the bodies of the nobles.
214-257: Suddenly Baligant’s scouts gallop forth and challenge Charlemagne to fight the horde. Charlemagne rouses the men to arms and they form columns of 15-40 thousand men, by nation of origin, each under a great warrior. Ten columns are formed, totaling around 350 thousand men. Charlemagne prays for aid, and they array themselves. Meanwhile, the mighty enemy Baligant is readying his host. His son Malpramis is given the honor of meeting the first two columns of the French. Thirty columns, the least having fifty thousand men [!] are arrayed, mostly repulsive rogues from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. They call upon their gods, and the two hosts meet. Both armies are skilled, and all realize that the fight will be great. All columns engage and there are immediate melees and losses on both sides. Malpramis achieves great slaughter until Duke Naimon of the French strikes him down. Charlemagne then rescues the wounded Naimon. He and Ogier the Dane distinguish themselves. The tide turns in favor of the French, and the Paynim standard goes down. Baligant is disheartened.
258-266: Charlemagne and Baligant fight well and hard. Charlemagne will not be Baligant’s vassal, nor will Baligant accept Christianity, so they continue. Baligant cuts Charlemagne’s scalp to the bone, but Charlemagne, inspired by Gabriel, recovers and promptly kills Baligant with a blow to the head. The Paynims flee, and Charlemagne chases them all the way to Saragossa, where Marsilion dies even as he watches the rout. Saragossa is taken, and all the remaining vestiges of paganism destroyed. The people are baptized on pain of death.
267-291: Charlemagne leaves a garrison at Saragossa, and returns to France with the Muslim Queen Bramimonda, hoping to convert her with love. He arrives at his citadel at Aix and calls for judges from all areas of the empire. At the word that Roland has died, his young betrothed Aude dies of grief. Meanwhile, the traitor Ganelon is shackled in a public square and beaten as he awaits trial for treason. Ganelon objects that he was merely acting vengeance against Roland, and sets thirty of his kin, the greatest of them Pinabel, to defend him. All of the judges except Thierry want to give up the case for fear of Pinabel. Charlemagne is disturbed at their cowardice; but Thierry sentences Ganelon to death, and puts his sword where his mouth is. Pinabel and Thierry fight, neither will yield, and sparks fly so thick that they catch fire to the grass, which soon is also spattered with blood. Pinabel slices into Thierry’s cheek, but Thierry crashes his sword into Pinabel’s brain. As per their code, the thirty sureties standing behind Pinabel and Ganelon also forfeit their lives, and are hanged. The judges agree that the sentence for Ganelon is death by torture. He is pulled apart by horses, and justice is thereby served. Queen Bramimonda is baptized, and all is peace—until Gabriel comes that very night and tells Charlemagne that his services to protect Christendom against the Saracens are again required.
The Song of Roland was created and modified multiple times between about 1040 and 1115. It is anonymous, but a hint at the end indicates the importance of someone named simply Turold. Interestingly, Turold is also a named figure (a person with dwarfism) in the Bayeux Tapestry, which was also constructed during this period (in the 1070s). The Belgian historian Rita Lejeune noticed that the tapestry Turold is dressed as a jongleur (a bard), precisely the sort of person who would be singing chansons. Still, this is probably a coincidence, as Turold was a common name in northern France at the time.
- A theme of courageous honor versus cowardly betrayal is stressed in the work, with Roland the incarnation of the first and Ganelon of the second.
- Even the Saracen horde gives Charlemagne fair warning, in contrast to the cowardly treachery of Ganelon and Marsilion. A man can approach nobility and honor no matter who he is, as the praising description of Baligant illustrates (228). However, as is indicated by several passages below, Christianity is deemed necessary to fully attain these virtues.
- Vibrant battle scenes are portrayed as by an enthused medieval sportscaster. Description enters and exits the scene repeatedly during battles: closing in to view an individual fight, then receding to view the host as a whole.
- Combat sequences are often ritualized, with certain phases of the battle always following others. A good example of a duel is that of Pinabel and Thierry in 278f. The battle cry is “Montjoy!”. Horses and swords are often named. Individual melees are important; a whole war may depend on the outcome of its leaders’ duel.
- Some deeds are exaggerated; for instance, a favorite stroke is that which slices the head, body, armor, saddle, and horse in two (e.g., 119, 124).
- Soliloquies on the brink of great scenes are common, as in Shakespeare. These often reveal the values of nobility and chivalry (although never in a didactic or unnatural way) and build suspense for the deeds to come.
- The giving of a glove as a pledge of fealty or in surrender at death is recurrent. Roland gives his glove to God, whereas Marsilion gives his to the pagan king Baligant.
- Energy and suspense swells powerfully from 214 through the 230’s and onward, to the great battle. A similar intensification also occurs before the first battle, 68f.
- The satisfying ending, with Charlemagne at temporary peace until Gabriel appears to him again, is remarkable and seems far ahead of its time.
Tidbits of Significance
(translated from the French by Dorothy L. Sayers; the numbers refer to laisses, the divisions of Old French poetry)
-Exclamation at the end of many laisses, thought to be a shouted refrain (perhaps related to “Ahoy!”)
The Emperor bode long time with downcast eyes;
He was a man not hasty in reply,
But wont to speak only when well advised.
-of Charlemagne, 10.
God kindled in him a courage so supreme,
He’d rather die than fail his knights at need.
-Ganelon, of Charlemagne, 40.
Then said Marsile: “One thing alone remains:
There’s no good bond where there is no good faith;
Give me your oath Count Roland to betray.”
Guènes replies: “It shall be as you say.”
Upon the relics of his good sword Murgleys
He sware the treason and sware his faith away.
-King Marsilion and Ganelon, 46.
“You are both bold and wise.
Now by that faith which seems good in your eyes
Let not your heart turn back from our design.”
-King Marsilion to Ganelon, 52.
“Never fear man so long as I draw breath.”
-Roland to Charlemagne, 63.
High are the hills, the valleys dark and deep,
Grisly the rocks, and wondrous grim the steeps.
King Corsablis now springs from out the host,
Barbarian born, the magic art he knows.
Like a brave man thus valiantly he spoke:
“No coward I, no, not for all God’s gold!”
Were he but Christian, right knightly he’d appear.
-of an Emir of Balaguet, 72.
Ladies all love him, so beautiful he is,
She that beholds him has a smile on her lips,
Will she or nill she, she laughs for very bliss.
-of Margaris of Seville, 77.
“Curst be the breast whose heart knows cowardise!
Here in our place we’ll stand and here abide:
Buffets and blows be ours to take and strike!”
“Men must endure much hardship for their liege,
And bear for him great cold and burning heat,
Suffer sharp wounds and let their bodies bleed.
Smite with your lance and I with my good steel,
My Durendal the Emperor gave to me:
And if I die, who gets it may agree
That he who bore it, a right good knight was he.”
-Roland to Oliver, 88.
“Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.”
-Archbishop Turpin to the French army, 89.
On Saracens he throws a haughty glance
But meek and mild looks on the men of France.
-of Roland, 91.
“By God I charge you, hold fast and do not fly,
Lest brave men sing ill songs in your despite.
Better it were to perish in the fight.
Soon, very soon we all are marked to die,
None of us here will see to-morrow”s light;
One thing there is I promise you outright:
To you stand open the gates of Paradise,
There with the holy sweet Innocents to bide.”
-Archbishop Turpin to the French barons, 115.
“The devil take the hindmost!”
-Oliver, 144. [This quote is attributed by Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Beaumont and Fletcher’s 1620 play Philaster (V.iii), but here it is five centuries earlier! The original line in Roland, “Dehet ait li plus lenz!”, is literally translated something like “Cursed be the slowest!”, so it expresses essentially the same idea. I pointed it out to Old French scholar Donald Maddox, who agrees that it is close enough to be the new locus classicus. He also told me that the phrase smacks of the idiomatic, and so was most likely current long before its appearance in this work.]
“I am not beaten yet!
True man failed never while life in him was left.”
-Archbishop Turpin, with four lances stuck in him, 155.
“Father most true, in whom there is no lie,
Who didst from death St Lazarus make to rise,
And bring out Daniel safe from the lions’ might,
Save Thou my soul from danger and despite
Of all the sins I did in all my life.”
He that has suffered learns many things in life.
In a fair meadow, beneath a laurel-tree,
A snow-white cloth is spread on the green lea;
On it they place a throne of ivory.
There Baligant the Paynim takes his seat,
And his whole train stand round him on their feet.
“Alas! My glory is sinking to its end!”
-Charlemagne, upon seeing Roland dead, 206.
“Roland, my friend, heart valiant, goodly youth,
When I’m at Aix, beneath my chapel roof,
Many will come, and they will ask for news.
Then must I tell them the strange and heavy truth:
Dead is my nephew that all my realms subdued.”
So there they leave them; what else were in their power?
-after the ceremony and burial of the dead French, 212.
He spurs him hard, shaking the bridle free,
And goes a-gallop for all his men to see,
Calling on God and him that bare the Keys.
“In such as these a man may well have his faith”
-Charlemagne of his army, 216.
Great troops are they, and he a warrior dread.
-of a Bavarian contingent under Ogier the Dane, 218.
Now Baligant mounts up upon his horse
(Marcule of Outremer his stirrup caught);
Stalwart is he, capacious in the fork,
Large in the ribs, lean in the flanks and small;
Broad in his breast and beautifully formed,
His shoulders wide, his colour fresh withal,
Warlike his bearing, his curling locks unshorn
White as a flower upon a summer’s morn,
His valour proved in battle o’er and o’er;
Were he but Christian, God! what a warrior!
Large is the plain and widely spread the wold.
Bright shine the helms with jewels set in gold,
The gleaming shields, the byrnies’ saffron folds,
The glittering spears from which the pennons float.
The clarions bray with loud and piercing notes,
High sounds the charge from Olifant’s clear throat.
-238 (Olifant is Roland’s horn).
“Justly, you know, I fight the infidel.”
Whoso had seen those shields smashed all to bits,
Heard the bright hauberks gride as the mail-rings rip,
Heard the harsh spear upon the helmet ring,
Seen all those knights out of the saddle spilled,
And the whole earth with death and death-cries filled,
Might long remember the face of suffering!
Then the Emir begins to be afraid
The wrong’s with him, the right with Charlemayn.
Their naked swords they brandish now on high,
Lay on the shields stiff strokes from either side,
Shearing the leather and wood of double ply;
The rivets fall, in shreds the buckles fly.
-Charlemagne and the Emir, 259.
“Never to Paynims may I show love or peace.”
The Paynims fly, for God has willed it so.
Comely his body and fresh his colour was;
A man right noble he’d seem, were he not false.
-of Ganelon, 273.
His brow grows dark, his countenance is burdened
With grief to see a cowardice so scurvy.
Where his blow lands, the sands of life are run.
-of Pinabel, 278.
“Right base were I the least thing to concede.
May God do justice this day ‘twixt me and thee!”
-Pinabel to Thierry, 283.
Treason destroys itself and others too.
‘Twere wrong that treason should live to boast the deed.
READ THIS WHEN…
…your arm itches to swing sword and hurl spear in burnished armor beneath a noble standard;
…you want to experience the culture and attitudes of the Age of Chivalry.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D ALSO LIKE:
(for the knight in quest of mighty deeds:)
- Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain (late 12th century)
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1375)
- Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (1470)
- Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1819)
(for the Crusader:)
- Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (or The Arabian Nights) (8th-14th centuries)
- The Romance of ‘Antar (or Sirat’Antar) (8th-12th centuries)
- The Song of the Cid (1207)
- Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1532) [Orlando is Roland]
Here is the Sayers translation! Good stuff, great introduction.