Song of Roland

The legend of Roland, also known as the song of Roland is an epic poem dating back to the 11th century and tells the story of the Battle of the Roncevaux Pass in 778AD during the reign of Charlemagne. It is one of the oldest surviving major pieces of French literature and various versions have been produced throughout the 12th to the 16th century. Today, the namesake of the story, Roland, is a celebrated German hero and several cities built statues in his honour. He represents freedom and autonomy, which makes him such an enduring character.

Roland with Olifanten, and his dead friend Olivier.
Roland with Olifant and his dead friend Olivier. Statue von Jules Labatut (1888) in Toulouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Plot Summary

Roland is one of the knights of Charlemagne’s army, who is waring against the Muslim rulers of Spain and besieging the last city in his way, Saragossa, held by King Marsile (or ‘Marsilio’ as he is sometimes called in German). Marsile seeks help from his most trusted advisor Blancardrin, who suggests beguiling the Franks with riches. Marsile sends a messenger to Charlemagne offering gifts to entice him to return home. Charlemagne and his men, tired from years of fighting want to settle for peace. Roland suggests the knight Ganelon to deliver the news, who in turn suspects Roland of plotting to have him killed. Ganelon betrays the Franks to Marsile and is richly rewarded. He suggests ambushing the Franks on their way home.

Roland leads the rear of the large force and decides to hold the valley of Roncesvalles together with his companions Oliver and Archbishop Turpin. The Christians are quickly overwhelmed but Roland refuses to blow his famous horn ‘Oliphant’, which he will only do in dire need. However, after intervention from his friends the mighty sound echos across the battlefield and is heard by Charlemagne, who returns with the main army. 

Olifant from the treasury of Aachen Cathedral
Olifant from the treasury of Aachen Cathedral, Carolus Ludovicus, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons

The rear under Roland’s leadership fight well despite being hopelessly outnumbered but one by one the knights are killed until only Roland is left, continuously blowing his horn he is finally struck down, dying a martyrs death. 

On arrival, Charlemagne discovers the dead bodies of his knights and pursues the Muslim army to the river Ebro where he forces them into the water and they drown, despite re-enforcement from Baligant, the emir of Babylon. Charlemagne rides on and conquers Saragossa, taking Marsile’ wife Bamimonde and Ganelon as prisoners. 

Back in his capital of Aachen, Ganelon argues that he had taken legitimate revenge on Roland, but a trial by combat between Ganelon’s champion Pinabel and the knight Thierry seals his doom. He is sentenced to be torn apart by four horses and 30 of his relatives are hanged. Queen Bamimonde converts to Christianity, changing her name to Julianna.

Historic Background

The eight phases of The Song of Roland
The eight phases of The Song of Roland in one picture, illuminated by Simon Marmion, Simon Marmion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The background to the poem is the war of 778AD in which Charlemagne invaded muslim Spain. Despite initial successes, the war was abandoned, due to the besieging army suffering from disease and a lack of provisions. Alongside these difficulties, a revolt by the Saxons might have forced Charlemagne’s decision. During his return journey, Charlemagne allowed the sacking of Pamplona, which descended into a bloodbath. The local Bask population created an ambush in the Pyrenees close to Roncesvalles. It is possible that the leader of the Frankish rear was Hroutland (the French name for ‘Roland’). The Song of Roland can therefore be seen as a piece of propaganda, reframing a retreat and crimes in Pamplona as a heroic deed of chivalry and bravery, suggesting that Roland the protagonist died a martyr.

The character of Roland is also linked to a number of castles along the Rhine river including the story surrounding the mysterious window frame of Castle Rolandseck.

To read a modern re-telling of the story, click below:

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  • Rolandstatue in Halberstadt
  • The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux