Study Guide

Oliver in Song of Roland


Roland's best friend, equally fantastic knight and high-ranking nobleman, Oliver is the wise and sensible foil to Roland's passionate convictions. Since he is the closest to Roland, he's also the most up-to-date on Roland's drawbacks. And he's not afraid of speaking up about them. When Roland volunteers to be the envoy to Marsile, Oliver shouts him down, knowing that his hotheadedness will only get everyone in trouble:

"You have a very bad temper:
I'd be afraid that you would pick a quarrel
," (18.256-57)

he says bluntly. Where he really comes into his own, however, is at Roncevaux when he tries to avert the coming battle. Described as "wise" as opposed to the "worthy" Roland, Oliver argues that it's more rational and therefore moral to seek help (87.1093). He thinks Roland's stubborn sense of duty is foolish and dangerous. As he says later, once the Franks have died like flies:

"For heroism tempered with common sense is a far cry from madness;
Reasonableness is to be preferred to recklessness.
Frenchmen have died because of your senselessness.
We shall never again be of service to Charles…
I have come to rue your prowess, Roland!"
(131.1724-26, 1731)

But even more important than Oliver's devotion to logic is his devotion to Roland. When Roland refuses to summon help and instead stays to fight, Oliver gives in. Instead of arguing more or running away or mounting a coup against Roland or even wresting away the oliphant, he submits and gives all his energy to fighting and all his authority to convincing the other knights. To Roland he says, "I don't feel like talking" (92.1170), clearly signaling that he's still angry. But to the knights he shouts a different tune:

"Now ride with all your might!
My lord barons, keep the field!
I beseech you in God's name, be completely absorbed
In striking blows, in giving and taking!"

His encouragement inspires the Franks to their most ruthless and courageous fighting, yet he remains unconvinced the whole time. Friendship and loyalty ultimately win out over reason. And even though it's obvious that Oliver had the right idea all along, the poet's reverent portrayal of Roland and his faith makes it clear that by choosing to honor his commander Oliver goes out a hero—a dead hero, but a worthy one.