Blancandrin was one of the most cunning pagans,
By his courage he was very much a knight:
He had all the required qualities to help his lord.
And he said to the King: "Don't be alarmed!
Offer wicked and fierce Charles
Loyal service and great friendship." (3.24-9)
Blancandrin gets the honor of being the first deceiver in the Song of Roland. In order to save Spain from further Frankish destruction, he wants to deceive Charlemagne with promises of cooperation and conversion.
The ambassadors mounted,
In their hands they carry olive branches.
They came to Charles, who rules over France:
He cannot help being deceived by them in some way. (7.92-5)
We know these ambassadors are bringing lies with their olive branches, but Charlemagne didn't get to sit in on Blancandrin's conference with King Marsile. That means he's completely in the dark and even though he is wise and experienced and good, he can't know the full truth the same way we can. He's doomed to be deceived!
And he said to the King: "Believe a fool and you shall rue the day!
Don't listen to me, I mean, or to anyone else unless it's to your advantage […]
Anyone who advises you to reject such an offer
Doesn't care, sire, how we die." (15.220-22, 226-7)
This is Ganelon telling Charlemagne not to listen to Roland, who immediately dismissed Marsile's messengers as liars. It's unclear whether Ganelon is speaking sincerely here or whether he already has thoughts of treachery. In other words, does he genuinely believe that Marsile will convert and serve Charlemagne? Or is he already plotting Roland's destruction?
"If God wills that I should return from there,
I'll take such great vengeance on you
That it will last you all your life." (20.289-91)
Now the treachery is clear. Ganelon is mad as a medieval hornet that Roland volunteered him as ambassador to Marsile and publicly swears that he will be revenged. But Ganelon is a slippery fish. How much does he have planned already?
But Ganelon took him by the fingers of his right hand,
He leads him into the garden up to the King.
There they negotiate the wrongful act of treachery. (38.509-11)
Gasp. If you were a faithful medieval Christian, the image of Ganelon taking the wicked pagan Blancandrin by the hand would fill you with horror. What is this good Christian knight doing making friends with a pagan? Side note: the fact that they're planning Roland's downfall is also bad.
He dreamed he was at the main pass of Cize,
He was holding his ashen lance in his hands.
Count Ganelon seized it from him
He twisted and brandished it so violently
That its splinters fly toward heaven.
Charles sleeps, he does not wake up. (56.719-24)
Even though Charles doesn't get it at first, the meaning of this dream is pretty obvious, right? What kind of dude messes up your lance? Answer: one you can't trust! Gabriel is clearly sending Charlemagne a coded message here to look out for Ganelon's betrayal.
"Comrade, sir, you surmised quite correctly
That Ganelon betrayed us all;
He took gold and riches and pieces of silver.
The Emperor will surely avenge us well.
King Marsile made a deal for our lives,
But he shall have to dispute them with swords." (90.1146-51)
This is one of Roland's biggest aha! moments. Ten stanzas before he was telling Oliver off for suspecting Ganelon of anything out of line. Now he finally realizes that Marsile's army didn't just randomly catch up with them in the mountain pass and wallop them into pieces. Ganelon's deception is behind it all. What's more, Roland's emphasis that Ganelon did it for "god and riches and pieces of silver" links him directly with Judas Iscariot in the New Testament, who betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver.
"Vile Frenchmen, today you are going to close with our men.
The one who was supposed to protect you has betrayed you:
The king who left you in the pass is contemptible." (93.1191-93)
The pagan who shouts this is reversing the narrative. Instead of calling out Ganelon's treachery, he accuses Charlemagne of betraying them. True, he didn't negotiate an elaborately deceptive scheme with Blancandrin and Marsile, but he is betraying his duty as a king: his duty to protect them. By leaving them alone in the pass, he has given them to death. But Charlemagne didn't know Marsile was going to attack! you cry in defense. But what about those dreams, hmmmm? Could this pagan be speaking with a grain of truth?
Ganelon replies: "There's no battle!
You're old now, you're grizzled and white-haired,
Yet such words make you seem a child.
You know Roland's great folly perfectly well,
It's a wonder God suffers him so […]
He sounds his horn all day long for a mere hare.
He's showing off now before his peers,
No force on earth would dare challenge him in the field.
Ride on! Why are you stopping?
The Fatherland is very far ahead of us." (134.1770-74, 1780-4)
Dude, enough already. Roland and Oliver know you betrayed them. Charlemagne and his knights hear the oliphant and know it means the rearguard's in hot water. But Ganelon won't drop the ruse. He insists that there is no battle and that Roland is only blowing his horn to show off. Notice how Ganelon uses every opportunity to blacken Roland's name to Charlemagne. Not only is Roland not hurt; he's also arrogant as heck.
"Even if Roland had wronged Ganelon,
The fact that he was serving you was sufficient to safeguard him!
Ganelon committed a felony because he betrayed him,
He perjured himself and broke his oath of fealty to you.
For this reason I condemn him to hang and to die." (277.3827-31)
This is Thierry speaking, the guy who fought Pinabel to the death just to prove that Ganelon should also be put to death. Although he admits that Roland might have wronged Ganelon, he argues that this is no excuse. Roland should have been protected by his position as Charlemagne's right-hand man. By the same reasoning, Ganelon should have known better than to stir up deceptive trouble because he was also in Charlemagne's service. His betrayal is both morally and legally bad: treachery against the state and against his own oath of loyalty.
Ganelon died as befits a dirty miscreant,
Any man who betrays another must not be allowed to brag about it. (289.3974-75)
This is probably the poet's opinion, but the way he phrases it makes it also sound like a Frankish law. According to this interpretation, the main reason to execute a traitor is to stop him from bagging. In other words, it's one thing to arrange the death of your stepson in a remote mountain pass; but it's much, much worse to brag about it later. What does this say about the values held in Frankish society?
Ganelon is riding under a tall olive tree.
He has joined up with the Saracen messengers,
But now Blancandrin lags behind to be alone with him;
They speak to each other with great cunning. (28.366-9)
Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other's gold. Blancandrin arrives as an enemy messenger but returns as Ganelon's best pal. This spontaneous friendship is not a positive thing though. If Ganelon is willing to get buddy-buddy with the enemy, what else will he stoop to? This is the first step on his slippery slope to treachery.
Roland is worthy and Oliver is wise:
Both have amazing courage. (87.1093-4)
Roland and Oliver are besties, but that doesn't mean they're always on the same page. Yes, they're both first-class knights and honorable guys, happy to chop down hundreds of pagans. But when it comes to thinking about these things and why they should do them, they part ways. Roland wants to do what's right and honorable, for God and country, even if what's right and honorable is also really stupid. Oliver wants to do what is reasonable and sensible, even if that makes him look weak.
"Comrade, you brought it on yourself,
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!" (131.1723-26, 1731)
Even though Oliver and Roland are the two amigos, Oliver still chews Roland out for his decision not to blow the oliphant. Their friendship is not based on white lies. Oliver could have said, "OMG Roland, I love you so of course I think you're right. It's a really unique idea, fighting a gazillion pagans with 20,000 Franks without calling for help." But real friends don't let friends die fighting stupid wars. Oliver does his best to dissuade Roland precisely because he's such a good friend.
"Oliver, my friend, I must not fail you,
I shall die of sorrow if nothing else kills me.
Comrade, sir, let's go strike again!" (140.1866-68)
Once Roland sees the devastation of the battle, Franks dying left and right, he realizes there's no way out of this but spearing, swording, and pagan-killing. The irony here is that Roland promises not to fail Oliver by fighting more, not by actually following his advice. To be fair, it's too late now to win this battle, and both Oliver and Roland know by now that they'll soon be dead.
He calls Roland, his friend and his peer:
"Comrade, sir, do come next to me!
We shall part with great sadness today." (147.1975-77)
Although Oliver has been majorly ticked off at Roland, this speech announces his forgiveness. The poet reaffirms that Roland is his friend, and Oliver himself tells Roland to fight next to him. They know they don't have long to live, so they should spend their remaining time together.
With both hands joined and raised toward heaven,
He prays God to grant him paradise,
He blessed Charles and fair France,
And his companion Roland above all others. (150.2015-18)
Even in his moment of death, Oliver thinks of Roland and asks God to bless him, demonstrating just how much he cherished their friendship.
He asked him softly and gently:
"Comrade, sir, are you doing this on purpose?
Look, it's Roland who loves you so!
You haven't challenged me in any way!"
Oliver said: "I hear you speaking now.
I do not see you, may the Lord God see you!
I struck you, please forgive me for this!
Roland replies: "I have suffered no injury,
I forgive you this here and before God."
After he said this, they bowed to each other,
See them now parting with such affection! (149.1999-2009)
This is either an unexpected moment of slapstick or a small example of the tragedy of death. Did you laugh when Oliver accidentally hit Roland? Neither did we. But when you think about how it might play out in a movie, for instance, it starts to seem kind of funny.
On the other hand, when you realize that Oliver is so blind and incapacitated that he mistakes his best friend for the enemy, it isn't funny at all. It drives home the message that war destroys friendship—by killing people, yes, but also by drawing them apart. Roland and Oliver have the biggest argument of their lives over this war and whether to fight it unassisted.
"Companion, sir, what a pity, you were so brave!
We were together for years and days,
You never did me harm and I did not wrong you.
Now that you are dead, it is painful for me to live!" (151.2024-30)
It's a little ironic that Roland is upset because Oliver was so brave, as if Oliver were the one to blame for his own death. Wasn't it Roland who had the hissy fit over the oliphant? But once Oliver is dead, Roland only remembers how much they loved each other—so much, in fact, that he doesn't want to live without him. Sadly, he won't have to for long.
"Oh, noble man, pray give me leave!
Our companions, whom we held so dear,
Are dead now and we must not abandon them.
I want to go look for them and identify them,
To lay them out and line them up before you." (161.2177-81)
The poet makes it clear that Roland and Oliver are best buds, but Roland through his actions proves his friendship for all the rest of the Franks as well. These aren't just men fighting for him; they are "companions" who were very dear to him.
"Roland, dear friend, may God have mercy on you!
No man ever saw a knight better able
To fight great battles to a finish.
My honor has fallen into decline." (206.2887-90)
Note the softening of Charlemagne's tone from the formal way he spoke to Roland at the beginning of poem. No longer is he speaking as Roland's king and commander-in-chief but as his friend. Death seems to make Roland dearer to everyone.
"Lead the army you have summoned to Saragossa,
Lay siege to the city, put all your heart into it,
And avenge those the villain had killed!" (14.211-13)
Roland doesn't believe Blancandrin's promises, but the real reason he wants to continue fighting in Spain is revenge—not just general revenge, as in, You are a wicked pagan and I will take revenge on you, but a specific revenge relating to two high-rankin' Franks. The way Roland tells it, these Franks were killed while on a diplomatic mission to Saragossa. Now it's time to kill some Saracens.
"If God wills that I should return from there,
I'll take such great vengeance on you
That it will last you all your life." (20.289-91)
This is the ever-pleasant Ganelon, publicly announcing vengeance on Roland for nominating him as envoy to King Marsile. But what's up here? Is Ganelon seriously ticked that he's going to talk to Marsile? Based on the experiences of the two Franks Roland mentions (i.e. death), that seems a reasonable reaction. On the other hand, is it possible Ganelon is already revolving thoughts of revenge against Roland? Plus, his trip down south turned out pretty well. As usual, it's hard to tell with this guy.
"Charlemagne left you in the pass, that's his misfortune!
He did us wrong, it's not right that he should boast about it,
For on you alone I have taken ample revenge for all our losses." (145.1949-51)
The attack on the rearguard may be Ganelon's personal revenge against Roland, but it's also a chance for the Saracens to avenge the seven years of war they've endured during Charlemagne's campaign. Because Roland is so beloved and important to Charlemagne, they can accomplish their revenge just by doing him to death.
"If old Charlemagne doesn't flee now,
King Marsile shall be avenged this day:
I shall give him a head for the right hand he has lost." (200.2807-09)
Charlemagne, you're going down. This is the Emir Baligant boasting that he will revenge Marsile's crushing losses. His claim that he will take a head to avenge Marsile's hand (cut off by Roland) may be the poet's reference to Hebraic law of the Old Testament—you take my eye, I'll take your eye. Only notice here that the Emir is not keeping things balanced: Marsile lost a hand, goshdurnit if I don't chop off that emperor's head.
"If the Arabs don't change their minds about advancing,
I intend to make them pay dearly for Roland's death." (216.3011-12)
Of course, while the Emir is declaring revenge on the Franks, Charlemagne isn't exactly advocating brotherly love. He's happy killing Saracens at any time, but when his beloved nephew is lying slaughtered in a mountain pass, his war turns to revenge.
"Through your mercy, if this be agreeable to you, grant
That I may avenge my nephew Roland!" (226.3108-09)
We're listening in on Charlemagne's prayer here, and if you listen closely you might put your finger on an interesting religious paradox. Charlemagne's asking that through God's mercy he will be able to achieve his revenge on the Saracens. Mercy delivering revenge? Now that sounds weird.
I recognize full well that I owe you a reward for this,
Redeemable with my body, my lands, and my wealth.
Avenge your sons, your brothers, and your heirs,
Who died last night at Roncevaux!" (246.3409-12)
Understandably, Charlemagne's army is not stoked to confront a kajillion Saracens, so Charlemagne tries to lift their spirits by (1) promising them rewards at home and (2) reminding them that among the dead at Roncevaux are their best buds—their families and friends. And what can you do when Saracens massacre your homies? You take revenge!
"I issued a formal challenge to that fighter Roland,
To Oliver and to all their companions;
Charles and his noble knights heard it.
I avenged myself, but there is no treason here." (273.3775-78)
Ganelon is attempting a tricky defense here. He is claiming that his actions were only a matter of private revenge rather than political and religious treason. It's hard to know if Ganelon truly believes this. Even if he does, it's hard to argue that arranging the obliteration of tens of thousands of Franks constitutes private revenge.
Having wreaked his vengeance, the Emperor
Called his bishops from France. (290.3975-76)
Once Charlemagne's revenge against the Saracens is exhausted, conversion begins. Although it isn't violent (usually), is it possible that converting these pagans to the Christian faith is actually the ultimate revenge the Franks can take? Why destroy a pagan life when you can destroy his soul?
"Wage war the way you set out to do:
Lead the army you have summoned to Saragossa,
Lay siege to the city, put all your heart into it,
And avenge those the villain had killed!" (14.210-13)
Roland advocates total war instead of bargains with Marsile. The only way to respond to the deaths of the Frankish messengers is with violence towards Marsile and the whole city.
Blancandrin said: "Roland is a maniac
To want to subdue all peoples
And assert a claim to all lands!
What people does he count on to accomplish such exploits?"
Ganelon replies: "French people.
They love him so much they will never fail him […]
He holds sway over the Emperor himself.
He will conquer for him all the lands from here to the Orient." (30.392-97, 400-01)
To Blancandrin, who is using all his cunning to get peace in Spain, Roland's infatuation with warfare is insane and dangerous. He can't understand the Franks' imperialism, their desire to conquer any country within reach. Ganelon also makes it sound like Roland's personal love of fighting is behind it all. The Franks fight for him because they love him.
"He has conquered his way across so many lands,
He has taken so many blows from good sharp spears,
He has slain and vanquished in battle so many powerful kings:
When will he ever forsake waging war?"
"Not," said Ganelon, "so long as Roland lives." (42.553-57)
Charlemagne is also a huge fan of fighting, but Ganelon believes that Roland is the engine propelling the Frankish war machine. If he died, Charlemagne might go on a war-free diet.
"We must make a stand here for our king:
One must suffer hardships for one's lord
And endure great heat and great cold,
One must also lose hide and hair […]
Pagans are in the wrong and Christians are in the right.
I shall never be cited as a bad example." (79.1009-12, 1015-16)
According to Roland's ideal of duty, warfare is central. If you're not willing to fight wicked pagans, even when the odds are totally against you, then you might as well unbuckle your sword and start robbing monasteries because you are no better than a villain.
"I can't believe there'd be any blame in what I propose.
I have seen the Saracens from Spain,
The valleys and mountains are covered with them,
The hillsides, too, and all the plains.
The armies of that foreign people are huge,
We have a mighty small company."
Roland replies: "My determination is greater because of it." (86.1082-88)
Although Oliver fights with the best of them, he provides a powerful anti-war voice as well—at least, anti-stupid-war. As long as the odds are even, he's all for massacring pagans. But when 100,000 Spanish knights are just rounding the bend, his reasoning takes him to the logical conclusion: don't fight without help. Roland, on the other hand, is even more excited to fight when he's the underdog.
He bares Durendal, his good sword,
He spurs his horse and goes to strike Chernuble.
He smashes his helmet where the carbuncles glow,
He hacks through the body and the scalp,
He hacked through his eyes and his face,
Through the shiny hauberk, whose chain mail is close-meshed,
Through his entire body down to the crotch,
Through the saddle, which is wrought with gold.
The sword has come to rest in the horse;
He hacks through the spine, he never sought out a joint,
He throws him dead in the meadow on the thick grass. (104.1324-34)
Does this passage seem familiar? Maybe because you've read a variation of it about a hundred times. This is the poet's classic formula for fighting scenes: the knight rides up on a horse, cleaves his enemy down the center of his body, splits the saddle and the spine of the horse, and then tosses him dead to the ground. Even small touches like the description of fancy armor or the fact that Frankish knights never need to cut horse spines through a joint but can just sever them at random are repeated all the time.
Also, notice how juicy with action this is, using simple sentences with lots of violent active verbs like "he bares," "he spurs," "he smashes," "he hacks," and "he throws." Our attention never wavers from Roland's powerful hand wielding his powerful sword.
"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." (131.1724-26)
If only he'd been alive to protest in the 60's. Oliver gives the best anti-war argument of anyone in the poem. Of course, in a poem this saturated in pagan blood, that's pretty faint praise, but still, Oliver seems to be the only guy articulating an actual reason for not fighting sometimes. Maybe not all war is a good idea. Maybe instead of recklessly allowing 20,000 Franks to perish at the hands of 100,000 Turks, we should have used some common sense—and the oliphant.
"Oh, Durendal, how beautiful you are, how clear, how bright!
How you shine and flash against the sun!" (172.2316-17)
Is anyone else uncomfortable when Roland starts talking to his sword like it's his teddy bear? A lot of knights in the Song of Roland fetishize their swords, seeing them as the symbols of their manhood and knightliness and Christian faith. In this sense, the sword both embodies the glorification of war and also humanizes it. Oh, hey there wicked pagan, this isn't a sharpened metal blade cleaving your skull, it's just my best friend Durendal!
The opposing armies are vast, and the divisions are in fine array.
There is no mountain, valley, or hill between them,
No forest or wood can offer a hiding place,
They see each other clearly in the middle of the open area. (237.3291-94)
Contrast this battle with the battle of Roncevaux: Roland's rearguard was taken by surprise and cut off from the rest of the army in a treacherous mountain pass. Now the war is out in the open with nothing to hide or hinder anyone. This is a more evenly matched conflict: good faces off with evil, no treachery involved.
"Charles, summon the armies of your Empire!
You shall invade the land of Bire,
You shall aid King Vivien at Imphe,
The city the pagans have besieged,
The Christians implore and cry out for you."
The Emperor would rather not go there:
"God!" said the King, "my life is so full of suffering!"
His eyes are brimming with tears, he tugs his white beard. (291.3994-4001)
For a man who loves war Charlemagne is oddly upset when Gabriel commands him to do more. Could Ganelon be right when he says that Roland is the only reason the Franks keep fighting? Or is this the tantrum of an old man who just wants to get a good night's rest?
He summoned ten of his most wicked men. (5.69)
The poet is not subtle about telling us who is good and who is evil. King Marsile could have summoned "ten of his men," but the poet wants to make it clear from the beginning that this is not a story about two medieval rulers who happened to duke it out. This is good fighting wickedness.
"The Franks are most worthy men.
Those dukes and counts do very great harm
To their lord when they counsel him thus." (29.377-79)
Most of the pagans have pretty one-dimensional opinions of the Franks: "blah blah every Frank is wicked blah blah." But Blancandrin presents a more nuanced picture in his conversation with Ganelon: they are well-meaning knights but can give unwise advice. Do we detect some grudging admiration in Blancandrin's voice? Or is he just buttering up Ganelon?
The French say that there is a great battle,
They do not know which one of them will win it.
Charles sleeps, he did not wake up. (57.733-36)
Charlemagne's dreams are often moments when good and evil are not obvious and clear-cut. You might guess immediately that this dream is about Ganelon the treacherous snake, but the Franks in the dream and Charlemagne the dreamer are both confused. They see the battle but they don't know which side is true or which will win. This suggests that the issue of treachery occupies more grey area than religious differences.
Charlemagne and his Franks would understand if they were betrayed by a wicked pagan—what else can you expect from those rascals? But being betrayed by another Frank, (and a good Christian knight!) is a whole different game.
He has a well-proportioned body and his face is fierce and open.
When he is mounted on his horse,
He bears his arms very fiercely.
He is renowned for his bravery,
If he were a Christian he would be a very worthy knight. (72.894-99)
The Saracen knights are evil because they are non-Christian, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad knights. A lot of them are cowardly or ugly, but some of them are so brave and talented that the Franks can't help but admire them.
The women love him for his beauty,
Not one of them sees him without becoming all aglow,
When she sees him she cannot help becoming all smiles.
No other pagan has such knightly qualities. (77.957-60)
Not only are some pagans brave and valiant; some are total lookers too. The Song of Roland was written a little before the great age of chivalry, when good knights were supposed to write poetry and play lutes to beautiful ladies in walled gardens—in addition to riding out and fighting bad guys. But even here you can see that being attractive and elegant to women is already a knightly quality. Although most of the pagans are described as ugly, this dude is hot, a small plus.
"Strike, Franks, the first blow is ours!
We are in the right and these wretches are in the wrong." (93.1211-12)
Roland urges his men to battle with a simple but powerful argument: Christians are right and the pagans are wrong. That's the only justification they need to dig in.
"Oliver, companion, friend,
Ganelon the traitor has conspired to have us killed,
But the betrayal cannot be concealed.
The Emperor will take great revenge for this." (112.1456-59)
Ganelon's evil is more ambiguous than the Saracens' evil and fools Roland for a while. But once he discovers it, he claims that finding it out was inevitable: nothing wicked can be concealed. This is the same belief behind the poet's descriptions of all the hideous Saracens. True evil seeps out of your heart and into your skin.
"I cannot brook you people,
Your side is evil and wrong." (117.1548-49)
No wonder Oliver said Roland would be a terrible ambassador to Marsile. Granted, the heat of a battle is not a great place for diplomacy, but this declaration is pretty much expressive of Roland's basic philosophy. It's no use considering the pros and cons of the situation because there are only cons. And the cons are the pagans.
There was no viler man than he in his company.
He has evil vices and has committed many great crimes,
He does not believe in God, the Song of Holy Mary;
He is as black as molten pitch. (125.1632-35)
This killer description belongs to Abisme, a close friend of Marsile, who is a great example of evil not being hidden. According to the poet, black skin = not good, and in Abisme's case it is visual proof of his internal badness.
"Think it over, Charles,
You'd be well advised to beg my forgiveness!
You have slain my son, of that I am certain,
You very unjustly challenge my right to this country." (260.3589-92)
The Emir injects some reason into the good v. evil conflict. Instead of fighting Charlemagne because he is Christian and therefore wicked, he fights him for definite reasons—for specific things Charlemagne has done to him that he considers wrong. He accuses the Franks of being unjust rather than evil.
"I understand he is more than two hundred years old." (42.552)
You'd think that war and sorrow and the anxieties of statecraft would have wrinkled this old man, but Charlemagne is still going strong at 200 years old. Could his godliness and close contact with the angels be the reason?
"I'd rather die than be disgraced." (86.1091)
If anyone else said this, it would be an example of fun exaggeration. But Roland, armed with Durendal and thirsty for pagan blood, really means it. For him, dying for the honor of France, Christianity, and his own good name is better than being alive.
"We must die well for our King:
Help sustain Christianity! […]
I will absolve you to save your souls.
If you die, you'll be holy martyrs,
You'll have seats in highest Paradise." (89.1128-29, 1133-35)
Fighting 100,000 Saracens is nobody's cup of tea. Archbishop Turpin keeps up the Franks' spirits by reminding them that honorable death is the same thing as honorable eternity. If they die as martyrs now, they will attain the best of heaven forever while extending the sway of Christianity for earthly mortals.
Count Roland has no concern for his own safety. (104.1321)
This could be because he knows he's going to die anyway, but Roland is also on fire with his own valiant mission to fight for God and Charlemagne. Compared to these two authorities, his own mortality means nothing to him.
"Count Roland is so fierce,
He shall never be vanquished by any man alive.
Let's throw our spears at him, then let him be."
So they did this with a rain of darts and wigars,
Spears, lances, and feathered mizraks.
They pierced and punctured Roland's shield,
And shattered and broke the metal links of his hauberk,
But not a spear entered his body. (160.2152-59)
Okay, so this is why Roland likes fighting so much. We would too, if we had angel-armor. But the real message here is not that Roland is indestructible (spoiler alert: he dies); it's that he's invaluable. He is so pure and "worthy" (87.1093) that angels put off his death as long as possible, giving him supernatural fighting skillz and deflecting spears.
He is precious to both Charlemagne and God. Plus, he ultimately dies not from any battle wound but from blowing his brains out on the oliphant. He voluntarily suffers death in order to secure revenge for his men.
Roland feels that death is near,
His brain is coming out through his ears. (168.2259-60)
Ew. Despite the promise of heavenly immortality, death when it comes is pretty dang disgusting. The poet does not skimp on the gory details: the knights are sliced in half, their brains boil out, they faint off their horses.
Plus, the main characters all take a really long time to die. They're like opera singers who are stabbed or dying of tuberculosis but still have time to sing a 20-minute aria with three high Cs. Roland, for instance, feels death is near in stanza 168 but doesn't actually give it up until stanza 176. He, Oliver, and Turpin are all hyper-aware of their own deaths approaching but still possess enough strength to kill, give speeches, and attempt to break swords.
"True Father, who never lied,
Who resurrected Saint Lazarus from the dead
And saved Daniel from the lions,
Protect my soul from all perils
Due to the sins I committed during my life." (176.2384-88)
In his final prayer, Roland mentions two miracles when God triumphed over death: Lazarus, who died but came back to life, and Daniel, who should have been lion dinner but survived when angels muzzled the beasts. Roland's not asking to be saved from death or even to be revived once he's died. Instead, he's referring to the metaphorical meaning of these stories, which prefigure the miracle of Christ's death and resurrection. But Christ wasn't resurrected back into Jerusalem life; he was given eternal life in heaven. Roland is asking the same thing: immortality with God.
God sent His angel Cherubim
And Saint Michael of the Peril,
Saint Gabriel came with them.
They bear the Count's soul to Paradise. (176.2393-96)
And presto! Roland's prayer is answered in the very same stanza. While his body remains on the blood-soaked field, his soul is conducted to paradise by angel attendants
Charles reels, he nearly fell,
But God does not wish him to be killed or vanquished.
Saint Gabriel returned to his side,
And he asked him: "Great King, what are you doing?" (261.3609-11)
It makes you feel sorry for the Emir. Not only does God halt Baligant's sword from cleaving Charlemagne's brain; he also sends Gabriel to give a pep-talk. Like Roland, Charlemagne is too dear to God to die. But since he is more likely to give in to pain and sorrow than the ever-fierce Roland, Charlemagne requires a little more angelic cheerleading.
Ganelon replies: "You will not go in my place!
You're not my vassal and I'm not your lord.
Charles orders me to render him a service,
So I'll go to Saragossa, to Marsile." (21.296-99)
Ganelon refuses Roland's cheeky offer to replace him by declaring that they have no feudal obligations. Sure, they're related, but that carries a whole different set of baggage. What Ganelon is claiming is that they're not obligated to serve each other. Ganelon is, on the other hand, feudally tied to Charlemagne, so when he tells him to vamoose, Ganelon has no option.
His nephew came to him wearing his byrnie,
For he had been plundering near Carcasoine.
He held a red apple in his hand:
"Here, dear lord," said Roland to his uncle.
"I present you with the crowns of all the kings." (29.384-88)
In Ganelon's opinion, Roland's plundering of unsubdued parts of France ("Carcasoine" is an archaic spelling of "Carcassonne") goes beyond duty into arrogance. And when you picture a young, gleeful Roland holding up an apple and pretending it's a crown, you kinda have to agree. There's something about Roland's joy, not to mention his success,in warfare that rubs Ganelon the wrong way.
"We must stand here for our king:
One must suffer hardships for one's lord
And endure great heat and great cold.
One must also lose hide and hair." (79.1009-12)
Before Oliver even mentions the oliphant, Roland welcomes the oncoming battle with Marsile's army as a way for his men to perform their duty to Charlemagne. It's not enough to fight well—this is a case of no pain, no gain. The more you're willing to suffer for your king, the better you are as a knight.
"Now let each see to it that he employ great blows,
So that bad songs not be sung about us!" (79.1013-14)
No one wants to be the inspiration for "Baby." Roland is more worried about inciting bad songs than inciting a really bad war. His duty to his own reputation—and the way he'll go down to posterity, jongleur-style—means that he can do only the best and bravest things. And since he made it into this celebrated work of epic French poetry, we have to say: it worked, bro.
"I would be behaving like a fool!
I would lose my good name in fair France." (83.1053-54)
One of Roland's main arguments against calling for help is that it would dishonor his name: "Oh that Roland? The one who ran home to Daddy Charlemagne instead of standing his ground like a real man?" He has a duty to himself to fight with courage.
"May it not please the Lord God
That my kinsmen incur reproaches on my account,
Or that fair France should ever fall into disgrace!" (84.1062-64)
But Roland's not just worried about his own honor. He's also in a patriotic stew about the honor of France and his family. Now the stakes of the battle are even bigger. If they refuse to fight, they are desecrating their duty to France itself.
"We have a mighty small company"
Roland replies: "My determination is greater because of it." (86.1087-88)
It's unclear what "mighty" means here. Does it mean "very," as in, "we have a very small army," or does it actually mean "powerful," as in, "our army is small but ferocious"? Roland takes it the first way, but that doesn't discourage him. On the contrary, his commitment to honor becomes even stronger as the odds of success dwindle. As he puts it himself, "One must suffer hardships for one's lord." (79.1010)
Roland is worthy and Oliver is wise:
Both have amazing courage. (87.1093-94)
For Roland, being worthy means knowing when to do your duty. For Oliver, being wise means the opposite: knowing when to not do your duty, for example, when an enormous army is going to obliterate you.
Roland replies: "Don't say such an outrageous thing!
Damn the heart that turns coward in the breast!
We shall make a stand in this place.
The first blow and the first cut will be ours." (87.1106-09)
Roland's been miffed at Oliver since he mentioned the oliphant, but here he finally erupts into full-on scold mode. He doesn't exactly say Oliver is a coward, but he implies that anyone who wants to flee the battlefield or call for help is not a true knight. He suggests that it's "outrageous"—not just a bad idea, but appallingly and absurdly bad.
"I don't feel like talking.
You did not deign to sound your oliphant
So you see no sign of Charles.
He knows nothing about it, the worthy man is not at fault,
Those who are with him over there are not to be blamed.
Now ride with all your might!" (92.1170-75)
Oliver is annoyed and knows that Roland has brought them all to ruin through his stubbornness. But he also knows his duty to Roland, the commander of the rearguard and his dearest friend. Even though he disagrees profoundly, he decides to bury his own doubts in service to Roland.
"That would be dishonorable
And a reproach to all your relatives,
The shame of it would last the rest of their lives!
When I told you to, you did nothing at all,
Don't expect my consent to do it now.
If you sound the horn, it will not be a brave act." (129.1705-11)
Who's talking honor now, eh? Always pragmatic, Oliver takes a firm stand against the oliphant once he knows the battle is lost. Roland's definition of dishonor is refusing to do your duty, no matter the circumstances. From this quote we could say that Oliver's definition of dishonor is asking for help when nothing can be helped.
"I have never seen worthier knights than you,
You have served me constantly and for so long!
You have conquered such great nations for Charles! […]
French knights, I see you dying for my sake:
I cannot protect or save you." (140.1857-59, 1863-64)
This speech sounds suspiciously like an apology. Could Roland be admitting he was wrong? He is certainly deeply moved by his knights giving their all in his service. But what pains him most is knowing that he cannot return their service. They have performed their feudal duty to him (i.e., they have fought for him), but he cannot protect them in return. Is Roland merely mourning the circumstances or has he finally realized that his own bad decision determined those circumstances?
King Marsile, who does not love God, defends it,
He serves Mohammed and prays to Apollo. (1.7-8)
In the very first stanza, the poet bungles his theology. He gets Mohammed right since the Saracens are all meant to be Muslim. But why is Apollo, the ancient Greek sun god, in the same category? 12th-century Christian Europe had a very foggy understanding of Islam, lumping what they knew of Mohammed and the Koran with everything else that was non-Christian.
Marsile has a book brought forward,
It contained the scriptures of Mohammed and Tervagant. (47.610-11)
The Saracens are just as religious as the Franks but have the misfortune of belonging to the wrong and evil religion instead of the true and good one. Marsile lets his religion guide him and clearly thinks that swearing on his holy scriptures will make his oath stronger. The poet doesn't criticize the Spanish for being irreligious but for being wrongly religious. (By the way, no one knows the origin of Tervagant).
"Mohammed is superior to Saint Peter of Rome,
If you serve him, we shall be left in possession of the field." (74.921-23)
It's no surprise that the pagans think their god is superior to the Christian one (although they're soon whistling a different tune). What is interesting here is how this statement is basically a mirror image of the Frankish philosophy that Saint Peter is better. You could switch "Mohammed" and "Saint Peter of Rome" and have a perfectly accurate sentence for a Frankish knight to say.
The pagan falls down in a heap,
Satan carries away his soul. (96.1267-68)
Remember how the Saracens believe in both Mohammed and Apollo? Here they're also linked with the Christian devil. It's as if this poet knows they're wicked but can't figure out precisely how.
"They will raise us in coffins on sumpters,
They will shed tears of sorrow and pity for us.
They will bury us in hallowed ground within church walls." (132.1748-50)
Archbishop comforts Oliver and Roland by promising them that their dead bodies won't rot on the field, unmourned. Interestingly, it's not enough to just die a martyr; you must also be buried in holy ground that's been blessed by a priest. As far as salvation is concerned, how you're buried is as important as how you die.
"That's the sort of valor any knight must have
Who bears arms and sits astride a good horse!
He must be strong and fierce in battle,
Otherwise he is not worth four pennies,
Instead he should be in one of those monasteries
Praying all the time for our sins." (141.1877-62)
Turpin tries to draw a division between religious and knightly service but it's unclear here what his tone is. Does "one of those monasteries" imply a touch of contempt for all the religious people who don't fight for God with swords? Or does he think that both callings are different but equally worthy.
Charles's warrior Turpin is dead.
By fighting great battles and preaching many fine sermons,
He was always a relentless fighter against pagans. (166.2242-44)
And yet here religious and knightly service are combined, so it is possible to serve God with your sword. That is the Frankish motto: spread Christianity by force and conquering.
"There are many relics in the golden hilt:
Saint Peter's tooth, some of Saint Basil's blood,
Some of my lord Saint Denis's hair,
Some of Saint Mary's clothing.
It is not right for the pagans to own you,
You must be served by Christians.
May no coward every possess you!" (173.2345-51)
The radness of Roland's sword derives in part from the holy things it carries in the hilt: saints' relics. This also means that it would be a calamity if any non-Christian tried to wield it, but it's unclear how. Would the sword cease to be powerful? Or would Roland just be really sad about someone wicked owning his favorite toy?
They run to an idol of Apollo in a crypt,
They rail at it, they abuse it in vile fashion:
"Oh, evil god, why do you cover us with such shame?
Why have you allowed this King of ours to be brought to ruin? […]
[They] throw the idol of Mohammed into a ditch,
And pigs and dogs bite and trample it. (187.2580-83, 2590-91)
Once Marsile's army is destroyed by the Franks, they realize that their gods are useless. This plays right into the hands of the victorious Franks, who make forced conversions part of their conquering program. Of course, we're getting this story from a very Christian poet, so it's no surprise that this conclusion, O, the Frankish armies are better than our armies = this conclusion, the Frankish gods are better than our gods. Charlemagne and God both kick butt.
The Emir looks a good deal like a true knight:
He has a beard that is white as a flower,
He is very knowledgeable about his religion. (229.3172-74)
Part of being a true knight is being knowledgeable about religion, for the pagans as well as the Christians. Do we sense some admiration in our poet's tone?
"I must bestow neither peace nor friendship on any pagan.
Accept the religion that God reveals to us,
Namely Christianity, then I shall care for you forthwith." (260.3596-98)
There is no room for friendship or kindness or love or even peace between Christians and non-Christians. A Christian's duty is to hate pagans and, if you're a knight, to conquer and convert them. Charlemagne's declaration here sheds light on just how treacherous Ganelon's friendship with Blancandrin is.
Orders are given for a thousand Frenchmen to search the city,
The synagogues, and the mosques.
Holding iron hammers and axes,
They smash the statues and all the idols,
No sorcery or false cult will remain there.
The King believes in God, he wishes to serve Him,
His bishops bless the waters,
They lead the pagans to the baptisteries […]
Well over a hundred thousand are baptized
True Christians (266.3661-68, 3671-72)
Religiously motivated destruction and pillage is followed by forced conversion. This is how Christianity conquers the world. Primer for the Crusades?
"There is a noble prisoner in my house.
She has heard so many sermons and exempla
That she wishes to believe in God, she asked to become a convert to Christianity.
Baptize her so that God may have her soul" […]
They found for her the name of Juliana.
She is a Christian out of sheer conviction. (290.3978-82, 3986-87)
The poet describes Bramimonde's conversion as being willing and out of conviction, in contrast to the forced conversions of the other Saracens. Is this an attempt to make the process of conversion more palatable? Also, notice that baptism isn't enough to erase her past life; she also has to receive a whole new name, symbolizing her birth into a new identity.
"If he wants hostages, send him some,
Ten or twenty, to gain his confidence." (3.40-41)
This is the way enemy kings deal with each other. Obviously, you don't want to take your enemy's word for anything, so the only way to convince him of your sincerity is to demonstrate some weakness. By sending hostages, Marsile gives Charlemagne the upper hand, allowing him to torture, maim, or kill them in exchange for the bargain. There's a similar exchange during Ganelon's trial, when Pinabel gives Charlemagne hostages in exchange for getting Ganelon temporarily out of prison—medieval bail.
Beneath a pine tree, next to an eglantine,
A throne of pure gold has been placed:
There sits the King, who rules fair France. (8.114-16)
Does anyone else think it's weird that the Franks carry a pure-gold throne with them on campaigns? It must be a super-important symbol of kingship to lug it that far. The other thing to note here is that Charlemagne is described as the "King" rather than the emperor, focusing his empire down to "fair France," when it actually included Germany, Italy, and much of central Europe. But what else would you expect from a French poet, hmmm?
The King went beneath a pine tree
And summoned his barons to conclude his council:
He wishes to be guided by the men of France in this entire matter. (11.165-67)
Charlemagne doesn't make decisions without the input of advisors, a council of his top barons that thinks out loud about a problem. These guys are all in feudal relationships with Charlemagne, meaning that in exchange for land or other goods they are obligated to serve in Charlemagne's army. But in the Song of Roland this relationship is a little more complicated. Charlemagne doesn't just want their military allegiance: he wants their advice too.
"He will become a Christian and hold his marches as fiefs from me." (13.190).
Here is Charlemagne summarizing Marsile's offer to him and giving us a snapshot of what a 12th-century vassal looked like. Marsile would be an exceptionally wealthy and powerful vassal, in charge of his own city, but he would still hold this city as a "fief" from Charlemagne. So what the heck is a "fief"? In a feudal system, "fief" refers to heritable property granted to someone in return for specific services and allegiance.
In this case, Charlemagne is the feudal lord (the one who grants) and Marsile is the feudal vassal (the one who receives). The type of property being granted could vary widely, but for the feudal relationship between Marsile and Charlemagne, Saragossa would become "marches." For more on how marches are not the months that come after April, see "Setting."
The King replies: "You're a valuable man;
By this beard and by this moustache of mine,
You'll never go so far from me.
Go sit down, no one has called upon you." (17.248-51)
This weird moment points up Charlemagne's unclear motivations. If Duke Naimes is a valuable man, why wouldn't he make a good envoy? Is Charlemagne positive that the envoy will be killed? It also demonstrates how the council provides an important check on Charlemagne's power. Yeah, he can refuse the council's nominations, but he can't speak up for his own idea.
"Ganelon, come forward
And receive the staff and the gauntlet.
You have heard it, the Franks have nominated you." (24.319-21)
Although he angrily refused Naimes's, Turpin's, and Roland's offers to be the envoy, Charlemagne immediately accepts Ganelon. Does Charlemagne secretly hate Ganelon? Why is he not "valuable" the way Roland, Oliver, Turpin, and Naimes are?
"Here is what noble Charlemagne wishes you to know:
become a convert to holy Christianity,
and he will consent to give you half of Spain as a fief.
If you do not submit to this pact,
You will be seized and bound by force;
You will be brought to the judgment seat at Aix,
There you will be tried and executed." (33.430-36)
This is definitely a lose-lose situation. But did it have to be like this? The poet notes that Ganelon is speaking with "great guile" (33.426). Would Charlemagne have done all of this to Marsile if he refused the bargain, given that he is exhausted from his seven-year war and on the point of going home anyway? Or was Charlemagne anxious to blast Saragossa all along?
It is written in the venerable chronicle
That Charles summons vassals from many lands.
They have assembled at Aix, in the chapel […]
Now begin the allegations and the countercharges
Concerning Ganelon, who committed the act of treason. (271.3742-48)
Charlemagne gathers another council to determine Ganelon's fate in an early form of trial by jury—at least until it devolves into a trial by combat. Note that even though Franks have been the only Christian people mentioned so far, Charlemagne gathers vassals "from many lands," including "Bavarians and Saxons," "Germans and Teutons" (275.3793, 95). This jury is diverse.
When Charles sees that all have failed him,
His head and his face sink down,
Because of the vexation he feels, he bewails his miserable lot. (277.3815-17)
Charlemagne clearly hates the verdict but can't just toss it out.
He orders four benches brought to the place,
Those who are to fight the duel go sit there.
Formal challenges are exchanged to the judges' satisfaction,
Ogier of Denmark acted as a go-between. (279.3853-55)
Now it turns into trial by combat. Just when you thought everything was all rosy and proto-democracy, we get this old-fashioned horror show. But since this is an empire built on faith and swords, and in particular, the belief that God will help your swords kill bad people, it kind of makes sense that Charlemagne would rely on what swords have to tell him. If Thierry's verdict is indeed the best, then God will make him win.