Study Guide

Song of Roland Analysis

  • Tone

    Somber, Reverent

    Given that thousands of Franks die, not to mention hundreds of thousands of Saracens, you'd hardly expect Roland to be a cheery ride. Funny one-liners? Knock-Knock jokes? Moments of innocent physical comedy such as slipping on banana peels? Not a chance. Bananas weren't even invented then. (jk, Dole just wasn't exporting to Carolingian Europe yet). Who's making jokes now, eh? Not this poet, that's who.

    He keeps a straight face throughout, describing Frankish exploits with awe, triumph, and tenderness and Saracen exploits with anger and moral superiority. When we first meet Charlemagne, for instance, the poet is all respect, pointing out his age and experience but still great-lookin' bod:

    There sits the King, who rules fair France.
    His beard is white and his head is hoary,
    His body is well proportioned and his look is fierce:
    Anyone seeking him needs no one to point him out.
    (8.116-19)

    Since God's the guy who made Charlemagne great, the poet keeps things reverent.

    Plus, his tendency to tell us what's going down before we have a chance to see it happen gives a kind of gloom-and-doom feeling to the action. There's a great example in the 12th stanza, when the poet's describing the various peers summoned to advise Charlemagne and everything sounds normal until he adds this dark note of foreshadowing:

    Now begins the council that went wrong. (12.179)

    See how that casts a bleak mist on things? Chock-full of these zingers, the Song of Roland can't help being a somber ride.

  • Genre

    Epic Poetry; Tragedy

    The Song of Roland belongs to the epic genre: long poems that tell the adventures of heroic or legendary figures. Clocking in at 291 stanzas, the Song of Roland tells the story of both heroic (Roland, Charlemagne) and legendary figures (Oliver). Check, Check, Check. For more on chansons de geste and how much of Roland is historical and how much is fictional, see "In a Nutshell."

    But with so much doing and battling and killing, this epic chanson de geste also falls unavoidably into tragedy. In casual conversation "tragedy" can refer to anything from Fantine's death in Les Mis to a C+ on a biology test.

    But when it's referring to a drama or poem written in the classical tradition (i.e., according to the ancient Greek style), "tragedy" has some more specifications: (1) it concerns someone of high birth; (2) this well-born person has a fatal flaw, like pride or immorality; and (3) that fatal flaw leads to his or her untimely death.

    Now, grab a hankie because we're going to see how Roland stacks up to this three-part requirement. The first and third are easy As the nephew of Charlemagne himself and one of the Twelve Peers, Roland is very well-born and he definitely dies as a result of his decision not to blow the oliphant.

    But what about (2)? Is Roland's decision not to call for help evidence of a fatal flaw? Oliver certainly thinks either pride or stupidity is behind it. And Ganelon frequently cites his arrogance. Granted, Ganelon isn't Roland's greatest fan, but these guys do know him best. Pure-hearted devotion to God and country or short-sighted arrogance? For more discussion of this (non)fatal flaw, head back up to "Roland" under "Characters."

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "Song" refers to the orality of the poem. This was "written" to be recited, probably with harp or lute accompaniment, which also explains the variations in the surviving nine manuscripts, the mysterious AOI that ends many of the stanzas, and the formulaic language. What AOI means is anyone's guess, but some scholars speculate that it might be a signal for the harp accompaniment or maybe a short chorus that the jongleur sang.

    As for the formulaic style, yeah, it can get kind of old when a pagan is tossed a "spear's-length" from his horse for the tenth time, but how would you like to memorize 291 stanzas of old French verse? Cut the jongleurs some slack. These guys relied on repetitive phrases and simple images to keep the memorization manageable.

    The interesting part about the title is that this song is of Roland. Why isn't it the Song of Charlemagne? You could make the case that he is the more prominent character. His emotions give the poem its human structure. His reactions and decisions shape the narrative. Even Roland's failure to blow the oliphant can be traced back to old Charlemagne himself, who received a clear-as-glass news bulletin dream from God that Ganelon was up to no good. He could have stopped everything. Although he says he can't know Marsile's mind, Charlemagne actually knows a lot—he just doesn't put it to good use.

    This failure to act on knowledge ultimately contributes to the slippery slope leading to Roland's tragedy. And that's the real reason this is Roland's song. It's his tragedy. He is the one who suffers the most. It's his tragedy that leads to the eventual taking of Saragossa and the securing of the Frankish empire.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Things seem to be ending neatly with Ganelon's drawn-out trial and gruesome sentencing, Spain safely conquered, and the rest of those pesky pagans converted. But there are rumblings of discontent in this pretty picture.

    First, there are the deep divisions on display at Ganelon's trial. Pinabel thinks the Franks should cut their losses, call it good, and pardon Ganelon in the name of family honor. A lot of the Franks agree, either because they actually agree or because Pinabel has threatened them. Thierry, on the other hand, just as passionately believes that justice—the bloodier the better—needs to be done. Perhaps all is not so well. How will the Franks negotiate this major rift between honor/appeasement and justice/violence if it persists after Ganelon's execution? Will it hamper further warfare?

    Then we get to the actual last two stanzas and all neatness is exploded into bitty pieces. Gabriel the angel is back again, but this time he's not here to deflect spears or give advice or carry good souls away to heaven. He's got some news. Christians are under pagan attack in the city of Imphe and Charlemagne needs to invade with his Franks. Charlemagne answers not as a fiery soldier or an imperial emperor or as an avenging leader of the Christian world, but as a very tired, sad, old man. "The Emperor would rather not go there," the poet tells us and then Charlemagne himself voices his sadness:

    "God!" said the King, "my life is so full of suffering!"
    He weeps and twists his beard.
    (291.3999-4000)

    What?! Isn't this Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, the fighting emperor? The guy who just spent seven years doing exactly what Gabriel's talking about in Spain? Well, yes and no.

    At the beginning of the poem Charlemagne would never have gotten his beard in a twist over a new war to fight. But a lot has happened since that peaceful stanza 8 when a "jubilant" Charlemagne was hanging out, ready to fight more or go home (8.96). With Roland and some of his best men dead, Charlemagne has started thinking a little more deeply about death and destruction, about the fragility of his own empire (209), and the possibility of losing more in war than he gains.

    He didn't act his age when the poem started (most 200-year-olds are dead), but by the end the years have caught up with him. We are introduced to a king but we say goodbye to a very tired old man, aged by grief and despair.

  • Setting

    France, Spain, Pyrenees Mountain Pass

    Big Picture

    Welcome to Carolingian Europe, folks, the next-best thing since the fall of the Roman Empire. In 481, when the Romans were still sputtering along, Frankish land was a dinky northern kingdom of zero interest to anyone.

    But with the help of his land-conquering grandfather and father, Charlemagne was crowned emperor on Christmas Day, 800 C.E. of an enormous empire that stretched from the edges of Scandinavia down to Spain and Italy. 9th-century Europe, meet the new Roman Empire.

    But how did one man control so much geography? Answer: by outsourcing. Think of the Carolingian Empire as an even bigger, medieval United States. If the guys in D.C. had to govern every single state on their own, it would turn into the Disunited States of Chaos. Instead, the federal government outsources power to each state government, granting it the rights to make state laws, hire state police, form state schools, etc.

    Rewind to 800 C.E. and you've got a similar picture. Through a system of feudal relationships, that granted local power to less-powerful kings and nobles in exchange for military service and political allegiance, Charlemagne and his Franks were able to keep control of their far-flung empire. These secondary rulers were called vassals. Most of the time they were already ruling the land when Charlemagne conquered it. If they agreed to submit to the Franks' feudal conditions, they were allowed to keep ruling it as vassals.

    Not such a shabby deal, right? But joining the Frankish Empire also meant joining the Frankish way of life. For non-Christian people, like the Saxons and the Normans, this meant immediate conversion to Christianity. Others had to give up their own forms of government in order to adapt to Carolingian centralization. They paid taxes and were recruited to fight in almost constant wars as the Franks continued expanding their lands.

    On the other hand, being part of the Carolingian family meant they also reaped the benefits of the Carolingian Renaissance, a 9th- and 10th-century revival of scholarship, art, and literacy.

    But what about the poem itself?

    The action in the Song of Roland may take place in Carolingian Europe, but the Oxford manuscript was written at least 4 centuries later, between 1140 and 1170 C.E. By that time, Charlemagne's empire had fractured into two big pieces, the Frankish kingdom (ruled by the Angevin kings, who were also rockin' the throne in England) and the remaining Holy Roman Empire (basically modern-day Germany).

    Friends, a lot of stuff can happen in 400 years. By the time Turoldus wrote this poemdown, the Normans had invaded England and their Angevin successors ruled an Anglo-Norman kingdom with a different set of laws and government institutions. The second Crusades were kicking off as Christian Europe continued their fight for control of the Holy Land, pumping knights up with ideas of good v. evil and the importance of holy war.

    Meanwhile, in between managing statecraft and war, European courts started developing chivalric ideals. Yes, good knights fought God's enemies, but they also needed to look good at home—dress well, appreciate poetry, and woo lovely damsels.

    The Song of Roland reflects its 12th-century world just as much as its Carolingian setting. For more on how 12th-century ideals make their way into the poem, head back up to "Why Should I Care?"

    France

    Geography is not this poet's strong point. "France" sometimes means the land where the Franks live, but just as often it refers to Charlemagne's entire empire, including France and all the nearby lands he's conquered, like Saxony and Normandy.

    Whatever it refers to, France is always described as a beautiful place, fair, lush, and sweet, where the knights long to return. It is the heart of Christianity and godly civilization. This is the setting for the Franks' bittersweet homecoming and Ganelon's trial and execution. When the Franks finally get back at the end of Charlemagne's battle with the Emir, most of the action takes place inside—inside Charlemagne's palace at Aix, inside the chapel—reinforcing the link between France and civilized government.

    Spain

    Charlemagne and his guys have been here seven long years, besieging cities and converting Spanish land into Frankish marches. Although Saragossa seems like a pretty cosmopolitan place, with churches and palaces and turrets, the poet makes it clear that wickedness and bad religion have poisoned this land. The Franks are eager to subdue it, but they certainly don't want to stay in Spain forever. They want to turn it into marches—i.e., Frankish land held in a non-Frankish country (Spain) and fortified against it (swords and soldiers!)—and hightail it back to France.

    Mountain pass in the Pyrenees

    This is the site for the Battle of Roncevaux (translation: where Roland and his men meet their bloody end). By catching the rearguard in this narrow pass, Marsile is able to cut it off from the rest of Charlemagne's army. The shadows and looming cliffs make the Franks' trek spooky even before Marsile makes his surprise appearance. The trickery of their attack makes their wickedness even wickeder.

    The open plain in Spain

    The men of Spain fight bravely on the plain. This wide-open field becomes a battlefield in the poem's second big fight, when Charlemagne fights Baligant's army to avenge Roland's death and Baligant fights just as hard to avenge Marsile's death.

    In contrast to the narrow mountain pass where Roland died, this battlefield is flat and open. No one is being surprised and no one is being tricked.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Tree-Line (5)

    Although the plot is straightforward (bad guys attack good guys in some mountains) and the language is simple without a lot of abstract talk or imagery, the historical references and medieval style can be a drag. What the heck is a hauberk anyway?

    Luckily, it's also really repetitive, so once you've mastered the basic formula, you can start thinking about some of the cooler ideas, like what it means to be a Christian knight or how to sever a horse's spine.

  • Writing Style

    Simple, Formulaic

    The poem's long, the fighting's bloody, but, gee, does this poet keep things simple—at least on a sentence level.

    The language is plain without a lot of description. Sure, you can trip up on all that armor bling, like the hauberks and byrnies and carbuncles, but adjectives and adverbs are scarce. Plus, the sentences themselves tend to be straightforward clauses with subjects verbing things to objects.

    And instead of chaining these sentences together with conjunctions like "therefore" and "because of this," the poet skips the connecting words altogether and lays the sentences out, one after the other, like beads on a necklace. Called parataxis, this style leaves the reader to make the causal connections between sentences.

    When you keep your sentences simple, you limit variation. That's right, folks, the Song of Roland is mind-numbingly repetitive. Remember all those pagan-on-Frank clashes, when each pagan was cleft in two and tossed a "spear's-throw" from his horse? Or all the stanzas that describe some sad Frankish death and end with a punchy summarizing line like, "The French say: "God! What a pity to lose such a worthy man!" (114.1501)?

    In addition to keeping it simple, this poet keeps it formulaic. Boring, right? Not so fast. Not only does this structure the poem and give its 291 stanzas some coherence; it was also essential to the poem's survival. Because Roland was composed and passed down orally, formulaic phrases and stanzas were critical to people remembering them.

    Plus, even though the poet isn't shy about what is Good and what is Evil, he keeps the stanzas focused on actions rather than abstractions. This is a chanson de geste we're talking about (head up to "In a Nutshell" to find out more). That means that big ideas and philosophies take a backseat while warfare of all varieties hogs the spotlight.

    Speaking of stanzas, in chansons de geste, the stanza unit is called a laisse. Each laisse contains a varying number of ten-syllable lines, which are split by a caesura, or pause, that usually comes after the fourth syllable. You'll also notice that these lines don't rhyme—not even in the original French. Instead, they are connected by assonance: in a given laisse, every line ends in a syllable of the same vowel sound. English translations usually don't even try to replicate this, but if they did it would look more like this:

    The sword sliced the hog
    Whose brain spilled on the sod

    rather than this:

    The sword sliced the hog,
    Whose brain spilled on the bog.

    "Hog" and "sod" are connected by assonance; "hog" and "bog" are connected by rhyme.

    Despite its formulaic action-based simplicity, the poem does do wild stylistic things when it comes to laisses similaires, or parallel laisses. These are consecutive laisses that describe the same event but with slightly different details or from a slightly different viewpoint.

    They usually occur at the most dramatic moments in the poem, when tensions are high and people's reactions are key, like when Ganelon accepts his nomination as the envoy and when Roland accepts his nomination as leader of the rearguard, when Roland and Oliver argue about the oliphant, and when Roland dies.

    This technique can be disorienting because at first it gives the impression that something happened three times and differently each time. Instead, think of it as the poet slowing the action down for a bit, considering something from a few different angles, intensifying the emotion, all in order to build dramatic effect.

    When Roland dies, for instance, it stretches across so many similar stanzas that you might think he's drifting into delirium and repeating himself without knowing it. In fact, the poet might be trying to reproduce exactly that. But even more important is the slowing-down effect. This is the most tragic moment in a very tragic poem, and the poet wants to make sure that we truly savor it, meditating on Roland's last moments and thoughts as time is suspended—a little like Charlemagne halting the sun for three days.

    Finally, you may notice that the tense swings back and forth between past and present, giving a sense of immediacy and then of distance. Example:

    Because of the vexation he feels, he bewails his miserable lot.
    Now a knight came before him.
    (277.3817-18)

    No one's really sure why the poet chose to do this. Sometimes the change sharpens the sense of drama, other times it seems totally random.

  • Glove/Gauntlet

    Charlemagne has a man purse: his glove. Technically, he doesn't carry anything in his glove, but since we're in the "Symbols" category that's what's important here. This glove is symbolically stuffed with the most important thing floating around the Frankish kingdom: power.

    But why should gloves be linked with power? As early as the 10th century, and maybe earlier, French bishops wore blinged-up gloves during their consecration ceremonies as an overall outfit enhancer. Eventually this custom took on symbolic significance: when a priest was made into a bishop, his new powers were symbolized by this ceremonial pair of gloves, as beautiful and clean as his heart (hopefully). Once the French kings borrowed the ceremony for their coronations, they started re-gifting gloves to their own followers.

    Charlemagne usually keeps his glove with him at all times but grants it to people who are invested with some critical task. Remember when he gives Ganelon a glove right before he heads down to chat up Marsile and your response was, "Why would Ganelon need a freaking mitten for his trip?"

    Sure, a Lonely Planet Guide to Spain would probably be more helpful, but the conferring of the glove is all about the symbolic delegation of power, from Charlemagne to someone who's going to act in Charlemagne's name.

    When this glove-giving ceremony goes wrong, disaster can result. Isn't it weird when Ganelon drops the glove and the Franks collectively gasp, as if he had just dropped his pants instead? The problem is not that he might have damaged or desecrated the glove itself; the very act of dropping it carries bad symbolic weight, giving off majorly uncomfortable ceremonial vibes. It is a bad omen that foreshadows all the tragedy and treachery that is to come:

    The French say: "God! What does this mean?
    We will suffer a great loss because of this message."
    (25.334-35)

    For the Emir (yes, he has a man purse, too), giving a glove is more about demonstrating than conferring power. After declaring his intention to revenge Charlemagne for making seven years of trouble in Spain, Baligant "slaps his knee with his right gauntlet," emphasizing his commitment and his power to make good on it (192.2664). Similarly, when he sends a glove to Marsile, it is a token of Baligant's power over him, intended to remind Marsile that he is Baligant's faithful vassal and that Baligant will protect him (193).

    As you might expect, for the very Christian Franks, gloves are also tied to heavenly power. In the deeply religious world of the Song of Roland, the earthly power of a king is merely a smaller and weaker version of the heavenly power of God. He is the one who is really wielding power. In a metaphorical sense, he gives the kings their gloves, in the same way a king gives a knight a glove, granting them the specific task of ruling over a kingdom.

    But just as Ganelon's envoy-task was a temporary duty, ruling a kingdom can't last forever. Not to get grim here, but everybody dies, including kings. That's why Roland gives his glove back to God when he dies.

    In a reverse of Ganelon's glove-giving ceremony, Roland gives up his earthly power and returns it to God. (Roland was actually given Charlemagne's bow when he was appointed to the rearguard (61), but by the time he's dying on the hill, the bow has weirdly morphed into a glove). If Charlemagne had been with him on his hill of death, Roland might have given it to him, but ultimately he must return it to God because God is the fount of all power.

  • Beard

    Beards are an old man's game in the Song of Roland, which is kind of a bummer for the young hot shots because, boy, are those beards full of feeling. The first time we meet Charlemagne, his beard gets top billing:

    His beard is white and his head is hoary,
    His body is well proportioned and his look is fierce.
    (8.117-18)

    So what exactly does this beard signify? First off, the possession of a beard indicates age, experience, and wisdom. And it's not dependent on goodness either. Charlemagne has a rich long beard but so does Marsile and the Emir, and they're no Santa Clauses (Christian and jolly). Symbols of battle prowess and bravery, beards can also terrorize under the right circumstances, like when Charlemagne and his men ride into battle with their white beards flowing. As Baligant's brother reports,

    "The Emperor is riding forth very fiercely,
    He is in the rear with the bearded men,
    Over their byrnies they have displayed their beards,
    Which are white as snow on ice."
    (238.3316-19)

    And since he mentioned it, why is the whiteness of these beards so important? Because only old men have white beards, they directly indicate age and thus also signify the experience and wisdom that are supposed to go along with it. But this whiteness is also beautiful in an awe-inspiring way.

    Let's face it, most old guys are not the prettiest people around. And if you believe Marsile's guesstimate, Charlemagne is over 200 years old while the Emir has been around since Homer (189.2616). But in the descriptions of beards as flowers, we get a different kind of fashion statement: it's cool to be old 'cuz that means I'm good at fighting and full of wisdom. Take this description of Baligant:

    The Emir looks a good deal like a true knight:
    He has a beard that is white as a flower.
    (229.3172-73)

    With his daisy-white whiskers, he looks good enough to be a Christian.

    But beards are more than fashion. They are also super-sensitive conveyors of emotion, capable of expressing the profoundest despair or the deepest anxiety by being pulled, tugged, torn, or stroked. Instead of telling us directly how someone is feeling, the poet shows us through the beard action.

    Imagine you were watching a film of the Song of Roland. The camera pans to Charlemagne at Roncevaux, surveying the dead. Would a voice-over say: Charlemagne is bitterly disturbed at the thought of his young nephew being murdered in a mountain pass? Only if it was a lame film.

    A good director would try to convey this emotion through visual cues, like tears and beards. All this beard-pulling gives the Song of Roland a cinematic but intimate feel, contrasting the big grandeur of battle with the small intimacies of facial expression.

  • Sword

    Oh man, are swords important, not only because about 99% of the Song of Roland is about fighting, but also because these babies are extensions of their owners' personalities—their awesomeness in fighting, their devotion to God, and yes, even their manliness (how's that for innuendo?).

    The swords even have names that express their personalities and the joys of war: Roland's is Durendal (probably from the French "durer," "to endure); Oliver's is Harteclere ("high and pure"); and Charlemagne's is Joyeuse ("joyful"). These are cherished objects, almost like pets. It's no coincidence that in addition to being celebrated for their strength in battle, they are also treasured for their trueness—they are as loyal as dogs.

    Oliver, Roland, and Charlemagne are all rad fighters, but at least part of their victories has to be attributed to their swords. In the heat of Roncevaux, Roland shouts to Oliver to draw his sword, for Pete's sake, and quit bumbling around with a shattered spear:

    "I have no use for a stick in a battle like this,
    Iron and steel must prevail.
    Where is your sword that is called Halteclere?
    Its hilt is made of gold and its pommel of crystal."
    (107.1361-64)

    It's not just that it's dangerous to fight Saracens who have swords with a chewed-off wooden stick; Oliver's sword itself will bring something to the fight. It's renowned, with its own history of victory. So are Joyeuse and Durendal.

    During the fight and his death scene, Roland frequently recalls how many victories he owes to Durendal's swiftness and sharpness (172). This is also why it's such a tragedy to think of your sword falling into the hands of the pagans. It's a dishonor to the sword for all its fine work conquering infidels and spreading Christianity. As Roland dramatically puts it,

    "I would rather die than have it remain with the pagans.
    God, our Father, do not let France be dishonored in this way!"
    (172.2336-37)

    This is when the swords get even weirder. Just when you thought dog-swords with names were the pinnacle of weirdness, you get Roland's dying soliloquy. He's trying to break his sword so it won't be taken by Saracens but the sword is so good and Christian and true that it just won't break. Whenever he smacks it on to the rock, it rebounds towards heaven. The sword is freaking immortal, an angel of swords. Unlike Roland, it cannot die (173).

  • Landscape/Pathetic Fallacy

    You know how annoying it is when you're having a terrible day—you've failed a test or been dumped by your girlfriend—and the weather is just so dang unfeelingly beautiful? Well, poets have a way of getting around that annoyance. It's called the pathetic fallacy and it means that the weather and landscape mirror the emotions of the characters. Cool, right?

    We've got a lot of pathetic fallacies happening in the Song of Roland. And given all the fighting and dying and weeping and wailing, you might be guessing that the weather forecast is pretty grim.

    Just think about what happens when Roland is being decimated in the mountain pass. Back in France, people think the world itself is ending. There are violent thunderstorms, lightning, darkness at noon, even earthquakes. This is the poet's way of really emphasizing the tragedy of Ganelon's treachery and Roland's death:

    Many say: "This is the end of all things,
    The end of the world that we are witnessing!"
    They do not know, they do not talk sense;
    This is the great mourning for the death of Roland.
    (110.1434-37)

    The universe is just as angry as the Franks.

    We get a different phenomenon later when Charlemagne and his pals are hurrying after the Saracens to avenge Roland. This is no time for sobbing heavens and shaking earth, not when Charlemagne is trying to fast-track it down to Marsile.

    Instead of letting the earth respond to human emotion, the poet lets human plans control the earth. Charlemagne needs more time to march? Well, then, let's just stop the sun. For three days the sun does not set at all, allowing Charlemagne and his men to march and march without stopping for the darkness (179).

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Peripheral Narrator)

    Although the poem is technically in first person, the narrator is so rarely part of the story that it reads more like straight history (but way fictionalized).

    We get occasional "I" references, including the famous last line when the poet names himself (hi Turoldus!). But where the narrator really makes himself felt is in (1) his commentary on the action, both subtle and obvious, (2) his references to other documents for corroboration, and (3) his really obvious foreshadowing of what's going to happen.

    It's no secret that the poet is pro-Frank and pro-Christian. He labels the Saracens "wicked," "evil," "dishonest," and a lot of other unflattering things, biasing our opinions of them from the very start.

    Just look at the first stanza. Marsile is described as someone "who does not love God" even though in the next line the poet tells us that he "serves Mohammed and prays to Apollo" (1.7, 8). It's clear whose "God" is the only "real" one in this poem. And the final line of the stanza gives away a lot of the story: "he cannot prevent misfortune from befalling him there" (1.9). Boom. We already know that Marsile and his guys are non-Christian and therefore wrong and that nothing but bad will happen to them. A similar slime-job happens to Ganelon, who is introduced from the get-go as a treacherous wretch:

    Ganelon, who committed the act of treachery, came too. (12.178)

    Thanks, Turoldus. Worried that we might reach the wrong conclusions, the poet is quick to make all the judgments for us.

    Another way the poet makes himself felt in the poem is through his sporadic references to supposedly historical documents. These aren't nearly consistent enough to actually convince us that he's writing accurate history, but they could offer a little corroboration—that is, if we knew what sources he was referencing. When he says that:

    It is written in the venerable chronicle
    That Charles summons vassals from many lands
    (271.3742-43)

    …there's still some confusion. What is the "venerable chronicle" and who wrote it and about what? And could we get some actual quotations while we're at it? Basically, the narrator is "peripheral" because he doesn't take an active role in the story, but he's also central to our entire understanding of the poem because it's his facts and his interpretation that frame everything.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation)

      France on My Mind

      The Franks are coming out of a seven-year war in Spain with only Saragossa left unconquered. We get to hear both sides of the situation: the Franks want to go home but they also kind of want to get Saragossa before they leave; Saragossa just wants to be left alone. 

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)

      Do I Smell a Traitor?

      Ganelon plots with King Marsile to kill Roland, decimate the cream of Charlemagne's army, and ensure a peaceful Spain forever. This treachery sets the conflict in motion by putting Roland in the wrong place (a narrow mountain pass) at the wrong time (just ahead of more than 100,000 Saracens on the warpath). Sensible Oliver sees the danger, but Roland decides that God and bravery are more important than the safety of his men. Bring it on, Marsile!

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)

      Oliphants and Woozles

      The Song of Roland has two potential turning points. In the thick of fighting, Roland realizes Ganelon's betrayal and knows that the Franks can never prevail. Later, once his Franks are destroyed, he seems to also recognize his mistake in not using the oliphant before (duh).

      When he finally does blow, he is both admitting the disaster and communicating it to Charle-magne. It is the moment of greatest peril in the poem: Roland's men realize they are done for and Charlemagne's men realize on a bigger scale that France's reign of glory also might be done for. Cursing Ganelon's treachery, Charlemagne rushes to Spain to take revenge.

      Falling Action

      But aren't we still fighting here?

      Charlemagne destroys the rest of Saragossa's army and allies, revenging Roland and restoring France's Christian glory. Even though this seems like some important fighting going down, Charlemagne's war is actually just an extended response to the real meat of the poem, which is Roland's battle in the mountains.

      Resolution (Denouement)

      Kill the Beast!

      With Saragossa tied up like a Christmas present, the Song of Roland gets down to the final business: converting the rest of the pagans, including Marsile's grieving queen, Bramimonde, and getting Ganelon on trial.

      But even then the bigger struggle of pagans v. Christians is not over. In the final scene the angel Gabriel visits Charlemagne with news: the fighting ain't over yet, kid.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      From Ganelon's scheming to Roland's decision not to blow the oliphant. The Frankish rearguard is doomed! And so is France!

      Act II

      From the beginning of the Battle of Roncevaux to Roland's death on the hill. The flower of France has been cut down.

      Act III

      From Charlemagne's arrival to the end of the poem. Take revenge on Marsile, fight off the Emir, and execute Ganelon.

    • Allusions

      Biblical References

      • Daniel (of the lions' den): (176.2386), (226.3104-05)
      • Lazarus: (176.2385)
      • Saint Michael of the Peril: (176.2394)
      • Jonah: (226.3101-02)
      • King of Nineveh: (226.3103)
      • "the three children burning in a fire" or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: (226.3106)

      Christian References

      • Saint Peter: (74.921), (173.2346), (225.3094)
      • Saint Basil: (173.2346)
      • Saint Denis: (173.2347)
      • Saint Mary: (173.2348)

      Non-Christian References

      • Apollo: (1.8)
      • Mohammed: (1.8)
      • Tervagant: (47.611)

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Unknown, "the venerable chronicle": (271.3742)
      • Unknown, "the Annals of the Franks": (11.1443)