France versus Spain in a fight to the death: the Song of Roland is like the World Cup… but with swords.
The first stanza plonks us down right in the middle of it. Charlemagne and his Frankish army (the good guys) have already conquered most of Spain and are now debating whether to capture one more city, Saragossa, ruled by King Marsile (the Big Bad of the bad guys) or just chuck it and head back to France for some bacon-and-egg croissants. When a traitorous Frank named Ganelon allies with Marsile to get Roland and his rearguard massacred, it's on.
Like a lot of medieval bestsellers, the Song of Roland was written by Anonymous. You know that dude—he/she/they is/are also responsible for Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It doesn't help that this poem survives in nine different manuscripts, each with its own set of frustrating variations.
We do get a tantalizing authorial hint in the last line of the Oxford manuscript, the oldest (1140-1170 C.E.) and longest of the Roland manuscripts, and the one that's usually translated: "Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet" or in English, "Here ends the story that Turoldus tells" (291.4002).
Bingo? Not quite. Problem is, "declinet" is one of those slippery, fish-like words with a number of possible meanings. This translation goes with "tells," but it could also mean "transcribes" or "composes." So was Turoldus the poet who invented everything? A scribe copying an earlier, lost manuscript? Or some groupie writing down the lyrics to his favorite song? No one knows.
So what do we know about this long, bloody poem about good and evil? (1) the Song of Roland originated in the medieval oral tradition of memorizing and performing songs; and (2) it's based on a kernel of actual history.
In ye olde medieval times, when everything was written in Latin, dudes called jongleurs were some of the few artists composing and performing in the vernacular (i.e., in spoken languages, like the early forms of German, French, and Italian). Some stayed year-round at royal courts, others traveled from place to place with harps strung on their backs, but all of them tried to please their high-ranking listeners with juicy, heart-thumping, epic poetry. We're talking split bones and smashed faces and brave Christian knights triumphing over the wicked forces of Islam.
This is the environment that our Song of Roland grew up in, from the factual story that took place in 778 to the 12th-century written-down poem you're reading right now. It's hard to know exactly how much of the existing poem was collaboratively written by generations of jongleurs and how much was added by later scribes.
But at least everyone started with the same basic story. King Charles or Charlemagne was an honest-to-goodness real-life dude who conquered and ruled a lot of Europe way back in the 8th and 9th centuries C.E., including modern-day France. We also know that Roland and Archbishop Turpin were both Frankish noblemen, and the rear-guard really was destroyed in 778—but by Basque rebels, not Spanish pagans.
The really good stuff—the oliphant and the angels and Roland's unbreakable sword named Durendal—was added on to make the Carolingian history even more rockin'. By the time the Oxford manuscript was written, Roland had been reborn as a legendary hero in the epic tradition.
…and when we say epic, we mean epic.
It's a poem. It's long. It's from the Middle Ages. That's three strikes against Song of Roland before you've even read the first stanza. If you're into old French poetry or Carolingian history, this baby is just naturally interesting. The rest of us might need some a little guidance to point out the good bits.
Riddle us this: how is Song of Roland like Gone with the Wind? Both are about beautiful southern belles who survive the American Civil War? Close but no cigar: they're both super-famous works of historical fiction. In Song of Roland, one of the first works of historical fiction in the Western tradition, many of the characters (as well as the basic plotline) are taken from Carolingian history.
But like the immortal tale of Rhett and Scarlett's love, the tragic tale of Roland's death, Ganelon's treachery, and Charlemagne's bloody revenge is way more legend than history. The 12th-century poet responsible for the Oxford version of the poem started with a few facts from the 8th century but expanded from there, adding stuff he knew his contemporary audience would like.
So, like a lot of historical fiction, Song of Roland tells us more about the 12th century and its history than about the Carolingian past. In a century when the Crusades were in full gear and France was starting to define itself as a nation, that meant any popular poem would concern religion and warfare, good v. evil, and a lot of statecraft. The Song of Roland delivers.
And just like Gone with the Wind made every American woman long to wear a hoopskirt petticoat, the Song of Roland is responsible for romanticizing the earlier Middle Ages. This was the first time the Middle Ages were deemed vintage instead of just "over"… but it wasn't the last.
The same thing happened in the 19th century when Romantic poets resurrected the Middle Ages again, polishing the dust off King Arthur, Guinevere, and Merlin. And The Lord of the Rings? A three-volume idolization of the Anglo-Saxons.
Yup: Frodo lives and it's all because of Roland.
This a lot of stuff to fit into a single poem—we said it was long, didn't we?—but if there's one thing this poem has it's energy. It's even in the name. Check this out: technically, Song of Roland falls under the genre chanson de geste, which is French for "song of actions."
Poetry gets a bad rap for being boring—plotless, hard to understand, stuffed with long descriptions of the meaning of life. But back in the good ole' days (we're talking 1100 C.E. here), when knights speared each other like cocktail sausages on toothpicks, poems were different.
These chansons de gestes are all about the vim and vigor, as action-packed as The Fast and the Furious. The heroes do things. They fight in foreign countries. They betray their people. They convert and cry. They war with Evil. This is all radically different than how we think of poetry today.
"Poetry makes nothing happen," Auden wrote in his poem about another poet, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats." But not in Roland's world. This is muscular, powerful, action-packed poetry. It makes everything happen.
Hath you an online version of the text?
This translation by John O'Hagan goes the archaic route, with some weird verb forms and even weirder spellings. Charlemagne is Carlemaine and Marsile is Marsil or Marsilius, depending on his position in the sentence. And if you like your kings rhyming with rings, this one's for you: in full rhyming gear and raring to go.
Poem in Prose
A more modern, prose version of the poem.
The Skinny on the History
Go crazy with this detailed background to Carolingian Europe and Charlemagne. Click through lots of primary documents, like excerpts from Einhard's biography of Charlemagne.
What Really Happened
Get your low-calorie Song of Roland fix under Section Nine, "Spanish Expedition," of Einhard's biography of Charlemagne. This leaner version is how it really went down.
Don't you love obscure French films from the 70s?
Frank Cassenti's La Chanson de Roland is a 1978 movie about a group of medieval performers taking their Roland show on the road, although it's more about peasant rights and universal suffering than the poem itself.
Low-key introduction to the poem with some interesting context for Ganelon's revenge/treason.
A fanciful and grisly re-telling of Roland with blue and red oompa loompas. How could this get better?
Fact and Fiction
Interesting article exploring the intersections of history and story in the Song of Roland, with particular focus on the medieval and modern history of Spain.
Scene from Frank Cassenti's 1978 La Chanson de Roland
Note: If you speak French you might get more out of this scene.
This is the oldest and most famous of the Roland manuscripts, and the basis for all modern translations. Click through high-quality images of the manuscript pages, in all the red and green glory of their medieval handwriting. Don't miss the ginormous hole in the parchment in folio 36.
8 stages of the Song of Roland in one picture
From a medieval French manuscript, this illumination features the "continuous narrative" of medieval art. In other words, everything is drawn in the same frame and no one worries about sequence or size.
Stained Glass Roland
Photographs (of variable quality and tilt) of the famous Charlemagne window at Chartres Cathedral in France.
Oy! An Oliphant!
This is Charlemagne's oliphant on display in the treasury at Aachen Cathedral, Germany, dating from c. 1000. Could this be the very horn Roland blew his brains out on? No way to know.
Map it Out
See where it all went down, in relation to the rest of Europe. Saragossa is Zaragoza here and Roncevaux is Roncesvalles. Historical battles are marked with Xs.
Fruit of the Loom
Click "La Tapisserie" to read Roland in modern or Old French, complete with tapestry illustrations by creator-enthusiast Dominique Tixhon.
Soprano does the Song of Roland
Tune into Luigi Dallapiccolo's 1946 "Rencesvals: Trois Fragments de la Chanson de Roland." This setting follows the 12-tone scale, which is why it sounds kind of spare and screechy. Find a hit-and-miss English translation of the French lyrics here:
Roland as a Viking
Ever wondered how the Song of Roland would sound translated into Norwegian and crooned ballad-style by a punk-rock band? Yeah, neither did we. But the Norwegian folk-metal band Glittertind delivered anyway.
Electronics make it even Sadder
Nova Nova's "Chanson de Roland" mixes Gregorian chant and breathy electronic elements, trying to capture the tragedy of Roland's youthful death.