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13th Century Stained Glass Roundel from Chartres Cathedral, showing Roland Attempting to Break Durendal and Blowing His Olifant

"Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!"
—Roland's battle cry

The Song of Roland (Old French, La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving work of French literature, dating from the late 11th century. Taillefer, William the Conqueror's minstrel, charged into battle at Hastings singing a version of it, and if you read the version we have, you can definitely see how it would get the soldiers' blood pumping. A relatively short epic poem, having 4,000 ten-syllable verses, Roland is the closest thing to a Christian Iliad. Like the Greek epic, it was only one, though almost certainly the greatest one, of a large body of now mostly forgotten works[1] called  Chansons de Geste or "Songs of Deeds." Its influence was enormous, and adaptations soon appeared in several European languages such as Latin, Occitan, and Middle High German.

Technically, the poem is written in ten-syllable lines, with strong pauses in the middle of each, and ending in assonances (or what might seem to us "bad rhymes"). Lines are divided into stanzas (or laisses) of no fixed length. The language of the poem is Old French, i.e., the language spoken in the Northern half of what is now France from about the 9th to the 14th centuries. Thus:


 Carles li reis, nostre emper[er]e magnes

Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:

Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.

N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne

Mur ne citet n'i est remes a fraindre,

Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.

Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet;

Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:

Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet. AOI.

Charles the king, our great emperor, has been in Spain a full seven years: he has conquered the high land up to the sea. There is no castle that remains against him; there is no wall or town left to conquer, except Saragossa, which is on a mountain. King Marsilie holds it, he who does not love God; he serves Mohammed and calls on Apollyon; he cannot ward off the ill that will reach him there. AOI [2]


The plot is a wildly fictionalized version of the Battle of Roncevalles or Roncevaux Pass that was fought as Charlemagne's army left Muslim-controlled Spain in 778. In the opening scene, the Spanish king Marsile hatches a plot to end his seven-year war with Charlemagne by pretending to convert to Christianity and become his vassal. Receiving the Spanish messengers, Charlemagne and his barons debate who to send to Marsile. Our hero Roland volunteers his stepfather Ganelon, to his outrage. Ganelon goes, but conspires with Marsile to ambush the French in the narrow passes of the Pyrénées. The Spaniards fall upon the rearguard led by Roland, the other eleven paladins, and Turpin, the sword-wielding archbishop. The rearguard is slaughtered to a man, and when Charlemagne finds out, he gets mediæval on the Spaniards. All looks lost for the Muslims, until the Emir arrives with an enormous fleet of troop transports. Thus, we have a family conflict, nested within a conflict between France and Spain, nested within a world war between Cross and Crescent.

It can be found online here.

The Song of Roland provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The only historical mention of Roland (from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne) is as the warden of the Breton Marches, who was one of several nobles to be killed at Roncevaux.[3] Later medieval tradition managed to transform this barely notable figure into a Memetic Badass with his own legendary cycle.
  • Badass: Lots of it. Roland is of course, the standout.
    • Badass Family: Charlemagne and Roland are related. Baligant, his brother, Canabeus, and his son, Malprimes, are the "evil" version of this.
    • Badass Grandpa: Charlemagne and Baligant.
    • Badass Preacher: Archbishop Turpin racks up more kills than any of the paladins.
  • Battle Epic
  • Bling of War: The Muslim generals wear golden armor with helms encrusted in gems and decorated with flowers, which both go rolling to the ground when one takes a blow to the head. It's like a jihad planned by She-Ra.
  • Co-Dragons: Baligant's son (Malprimes) and brother (Canabeus) play this role to him. They're the only members of his army to get any characterisation after him, are the Badass fighters, killing several key Christian knights, and are his most trusted advisers. Both of them have to die before Baligant faces Charles to boot.
  • Combat Pragmatist: The oh-so-sneaky King Marsile of Saragossa.
  • Cool Sword: Wagonloads of 'em, but pride of place must be given to Durendal, which even Roland can't break.
  • Death by Despair: When Roland's fiancée Aude (or Alda) hears of his death, she immediately falls down dead. So much for strong female characters in this poem; Aude only got about two lines.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Each of the Twelve Peers gets his own stanza in which to die; Oliver (or Olivier)'s death is drawn out over seven stanzas, and Roland takes upwards of 30 finally to kick the bucket.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Olivier.
  • Did Not Do the Research: Saracens aren't called Muslims, they're called Pagans, and they worship idols of Mahomet (!), Apollo (!!), and Termagant (who?[4]).
    • Furthermore, in real life it was not Muslims, but the local Navarrese who ambushed the baggage train. The Franks had demolished the walls of Pamplona, and their duke was not amused. Thus (at least according to Einhard), the Battle of Roncevaux Pass wasn't against Saracens at all; it was against the Basques, who were Christian.
    • And, oh, yeah, Charlemagne didn't reconquer Spain. He took back a tiny piece of the Spanish marches for use as a buffer against Muslim raiders. So yeah, kind of an Epic Fail on the whole "research" thing.
    • The whole "and calls on Apollyon" thing was probably just propaganda, similar to saying "and they eat babies."
  • Doomed by Canon: In this case, history is canon. Charlemagne's baggage-train, and the historical Roland of the Breton Marshes, died in an ambush in the Pyrenees Mountains in 778 that came to be known as the Battle of Roncevalles, and then was later elaborated into the Song of Roland.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Charlemagne has animal-themed dreams foretelling both the disaster at Roncevaux and the trial of Ganelon.
  • Duel to the Death: Pinabel vs. Thierry, Charles vs. Baligant. That last one's epic.
  • Dwindling Party: The 20,000 knights in the rear guard are all doomed to die, ending with our hero Roland.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: First of all, none of the Saracens killed Roland. He died of an aneurysm, because he blew his horn too hard when sounding a summons to Charlemagne, and his brains started to leak out his ears. Then, after mourning over his fallen comrades, Roland staggers towards Spain, tries to destroy his holy sword Durandal and ends up carving a huge cleft in the canyon wall, kills one last Saracen by smashing his horn into his head, then dies with his face turned towards Spain, and the angels Michael and Gabriel come personally to escort him to heaven.
  • The Emperor: The Good and the Bad kings, Charlemagne and Baligant.
  • Evil Counterpart: Baligant, Emir of Babylon, and fellow Badass Grandpa is pretty clearly the Evil Counterpart to Charles, who he engages in an epic duel by the end.
  • Expansion Pack Past: If you take what happens in Orlando innamorato ("Roland In Love") and Orlando Furioso ("Roland Goes Crazy") as canon with The Song of Roland, then Roland had a pretty interesting life.
  • The Hero Dies: Yup.
  • Historical Domain Character: Karl, King of the Franks and Roman Emperor (Charlemagne); Hruodland, prefect of the borderlands of Brittany (Roland); Tilpin, Archbishop of Rheims (Turpin); possibly others.
  • Ho Yay: Roland's supposed to be engaged to Olivier's sister Aude, but he seems to like Olivier himself a lot more. He doesn't even think of Aude as he dies, but when Olivier dies Roland weeps and hugs his "ami's" body to his chest.
  • Invincible Hero: Roland simply cannot be killed by the enemy. He dies blowing his horn so hard to summon Charlemagne that his brains run out his ears.
    • And even after that happens, he still has enough energy to kill many more enemy soldiers before wandering off and finding a poetic place to die.
  • Kill'Em All: Again, yup.
  • The Lancer: As the famous line in stanza 87 goes, "Roland is brave and Olivier is wise; they are both marvellously courageous." Olivier is a pretty straight-up Lancer to Roland; his clear-headedness balances Roland's recklessness, and, as the second-best knight of France, the closest to a rival that the mighty Roland can have. There's even a little Ho Yay to round it out.
  • Last Stand: Roncevaux
  • Long List: Several laisses are devoted to lists of warriors or countries supplying warriors for both sides.
  • The Low Middle Ages: The setting.
  • Manly Tears: They flow copiously. There's even manly fainting.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The kill counts racked up on each side, particularly the Saracens, is pretty unbelievable.
  • Multinational Team: Not the troops who perish at Roncevaux, who are all pure French [5]. However, the armies in general of Charlemagne, Marsile, and Baligant are drawn from a variety of nations.
  • Named Weapons: Roland's sword Durendal, Olivier's sword Hauteclere, Charlemagne's Joyeuse, Baligant's sword Preciuse (literally, precioussss). It is uncertain if Roland's horn, "Olifant," is a particular or generic description.
  • Narrative Poem
  • Noble Demon: Baligant, Malprimes, Canabeus, Margariz.
  • Plot Armor: When Oliver has lost so much blood that he can't tell friend from foe, he strikes and Roland, cutting his helmet from top to nosepiece. Roland is not injured in any way.
  • Right Makes Might: In the trial by combat at the end, it's explicitly stated that Pinabel, Ganelon's champion, is the taller and stronger man; one of his blows is enough to kill even the strongest knight. Charlemagne's champion, Thierry, is described as thin, wiry, and rather scrappy-looking. Nevertheless, Thierry survives a head-on blow from Pinabel, and then kills him with one stroke.
  • Say Your Prayers: Upon learning that Saracens are approaching, Roland and his 20,000 knights hear mass and confess their sins. Both Roland and Olivier also dramatically confess their sins and pray to God as they die.
  • Self-Destructive Charge: The entire Battle of Roncevaux is pretty much one big Self-Destructive Charge, but one of the most poignant individual examples is when Olivier is stabbed through the chest with a spear and nevertheless charges into the enemy ranks with a fervour so intense that, blinded by his blood loss, he accidentally strikes his best friend Roland on the helm.
  • Shut Up, Kirk: Baligant's reply to Charlemagne saying "Accept Christ, and your first friend I'll be!" is "Your sermon's ill-preached." and a blow with his scimitar.
  • Traitor: Ganelon, who becomes, with Mordred and Judas, one of the great exemplars of treachery for the mediæval period.
  • Trial by Combat: This is how a Carolingian court decides if Ganelon is guilty of treason or not.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: When the city of Saragossa falls, Charlemagne has his army demolish the mosques and convert everyone at swordpoint. It would be Values Dissonance, except he decides it would be unethical to force Christianity on Queen Bramimonde.
  • Viewers Are Goldfish: This may be the effect of the poem's habit of repeating descriptions of important actions or speeches, viz., Marsile's asking Ganelon if Charlemagne will ever tire of going to war. Such repetitions seem to have been a convention in mediæval literature - this is due to the fact that traditional epic poetry, such as The Iliad, the Aeneid, and of course this poem, was meant to be memorized and recited to an audience. The repetition is a memetic tool for the reciter, who would otherwise have his hands even more full.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Think it's a sexist cliché? Roland got a wicked stepfather back in the 11th century.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Fate is a constant motif in the Song of Roland. The narrator frequently informs readers that Roland's days are numbered, and the weird thing is, most of the characters seem to know it, too, although "fate" prevents them from doing anything about it.
  • You Shall Not Pass: Sort of. The strategic intention of the battle in Roncevalles would be to keep the Saracens from entering France. However, it's clear in the poem that the Saracens, having just suffered seven years of war under Charlemagne's Spanish campaign, have no interest in following the Franks back home; they're just glad they're gone, and seized the chance to kill Roland as he left. And Roland is very clear that he's fighting for his own honour and pride, and for Charlemagne and France. The strategic necessity to hold the pass doesn't ever cross his mind.
  • Your Head Asplode: Most brass players will tell you not to use quite as much pressure as Roland did. Unless you have a thing for brains coming out your ears.
  1. ...e.g., The Song of William or The Four Sons of Aymon
  2. ...And if you want to know what AOI means, join the club — generations of mediæval scholars have failed to determine its significance conclusively.
  3. "Eggihard, the King's steward; Anselm, Count Palatine; and Roland, Governor of the March of Brittany, with very many others, fell in this engagement"
  4. The strongest theory is "God of the mages," i.e., Ahura Mazda. Essentially, they saw a new empire pop up in the East and thought "Islam" was just an Arabized Zoroastrianism.
  5. ...And not even from all of what we think of as France, but from the much smaller historic Ile-de-France province surrounding Paris