Roland—that cocky, pious, stubborn, emotional knight—is a variation on the classic tragic hero: well-born, well-loved, and headed straight for disaster.
At first it looks like popularity and social status bring him nothing but good. His high rank as Charlemagne's nephew means he can throw a lot of weight around despite being a pretty young whippersnapper compared to the other knights (Ganelon's his stepdad and Charlemagne's over 200 years old). He's the first to speak up during the council about Marsile, he's immediately appointed commander of the rearguard, and Ganelon can't shut up about how many successful campaigns he's already led.
Plus, the Franks love him so much that they're happy to do whatever he says. Charlemagne values him above any knight, Oliver counts him as his best friend, and every Frank in the rearguard volunteers out of love for him. As Ganelon complains to Blancandrin:
They love him so much they will never fail him.
He gives them so many gifts of gold and silver,
Mules and war-horses, silk cloth and battle gear.
He holds sway over the Emperor himself.
He will conquer for him all the lands from here to the Orient. (30.397-401)
In other words, Roland is popular because he's generous. He's a good noble in the feudal sense, reciprocating loyalty and military service with lavish gifts. This generosity in turn means that he's a successful commander because it's only by generating enthusiastic followers that he can conquer so many lands. Charlemagne himself is the first to admit Roland's military greatness:
"My nephew, through whom I conquered so much, is dead.
The Saxons will rebel against me,
The Hungarians, the Bulgars, and so many infidel peoples." (209.2920-22)
Without Roland to subdue it, Charlemagne's empire is as fragile as a bouquet of balloons, each one ready to pop without warning.
But there is a dark side to this fluffy-clouds-and-rainbows love fest. Despite being well-born, well-loved, and really good at war, Roland ends up dead, along with 20,000 of the best Frankish knights. How does this square with the generous, brave, fantastically successful knight? Like all tragic heroes, Roland also has a fatal flaw that leads inevitably to his downfall. But since the Song of Roland is an epic poem, not your run-of-the-mill tragic play, this fatal flaw comes with a twist.
Most of what we learn comes from Oliver and Ganelon, Roland's two biggest detractors but in different ways. Both think he has some serious personality problems. Ganelon, who hates Roland from the beginning, thinks it's arrogance. You can hear the contempt in his voice when he tells Blancandrin the story of Roland plundering in France and then cockily presenting Charlemagne with an apple:
"Here, dear lord," said Roland to his uncle.
"I present you with the crowns of all the kings." (29.387-88)
Roland, what the heck is this? A deliberate war that's destroying kingdoms and lives and costing tons of money or a game of recess make-believe?
As Ganelon points out, things other people would consider serious or tragic—like war or political power—are often just fun and games for Roland. Ganelon concludes that "his madness will surely bring him to ruin" (29.389)—the madness of arrogance, of loving war and its glory too much.
Oliver, Roland's BFF, also thinks Roland is flawed, but he thinks Roland is rash and unrea-sonable rather than arrogant. When Roland refuses to blow the oliphant out of a sense of patriotic and Christian honor, Oliver tells him he's dangerously wrong:
"I can't believe there'd be any blame in what I propose…
The armies of that foreign people are huge,
We have a mighty small company." (86.1082, 1086-87)
It's insane to worry more about abstractions like France and Christian duty than the 20,000 men who are about to be up against a hundred thousand pagans. Once the massacre proves Oliver right, he speaks even more sharply to Roland, reproaching him for bringing this on his knights:
"Reasonableness is to be preferred to recklessness.
Frenchmen have died because of your senselessness." (131.1725-26)
In most classic tragedies, the hero realizes his mistakes before he dies. Hamlet, for instance, sees the stage filled with dead bodies and thinks, "Oh right, maybe getting revenge this way was not my hottest idea." The Song of Roland comes to a similar moment when Roland recognizes Ganelon's treachery and then, a little later, the enormous scale of Frankish destruction:
"Land of France, you are a very sweet realm,
Today made desolate by such a cruel disaster!
French knights, I see you dying for my sake:
I cannot protect or save you…
I shall die of sorrow if nothing else kills me." (140.1861-64, 1867)
Clearly, he is sad that so many French knights are dying, that France will be devastated, that he is helpless to save them. But is he also admitting that this was all his fault? Is he sorry for what is happening or sorry for his decision that made it happen? The poet leaves it unclear. Despite Oliver's and Ganelon's opinions, the question remains: is Roland flawed? Or is he merely too pure and faithful to believe God would let anything bad happen to the Franks?
Before you can understand why Roland refuses to believe Ganelon's treachery or blow the oliphant, you have to understand howhe thinks. Luckily, Roland is a simple guy. Above everything else, including reason, friendship, and protecting his men, he values two things: (1) living an honorable life that reflects well on his family, his character, and his homeland; and (2) serving Christianity.
His devotion to duty and God is absolute and unwavering. Outnumbered five to one? No biggie—God will protect us. Call for help just in case? No way—that would dishonor France. When he puts his foot down on the oliphant business, he is relying on his perfect faith in God to give him and his men the fighting strength they need.
And in the end, the poem seems to celebrate Roland's way of thinking. Ganelon's opinion is neutered because of his own treachery and slyness. Who would believe that snake? Even Oliver's version is distorted by his own smugness. Despite them both, Roland is somehow unstoppably glamorous: full of passion, great speeches, touching naiveté.
Could it be true that relying entirely on God is the way to do it? Yes, Roland and his 20,000 die, but they also take down Marsile's vastly bigger army and eventually lead to the total wipeout of the Emir, through Charlemagne's revenge. In fact the whole last half of the poem can be read as an extended comeback to "wise" Oliver: faithfulness is to be preferred to reasonableness, pal.