Study Guide

Song of Roland

Song of Roland Summary

Charlemagne's been fighting a 7-year war in Spain, conquering everything in sight for the glory of God and his Frankish empire. The one city that remains untoppled is Saragossa, ruled by King Marsile. And Marsile wants to keep it that way.

He holds a council to decide the best way of getting rid of the Frankish menace. When his trusted knight Blancandrin suggests a ruse, Marsile is all ears. By pretending that Marsile wants to convert to Christianity and become Charlemagne's feudal vassal, the Spanish will encourage Charlemagne to pack up for France and leave him in peace.

Blancandrin travels to the Frankish camp and gives Charlemagne the deets. It sounds like a sweet deal, but even though the Saracens (those are the non-Christian Spanish, also called "pagans") have provided hostages, Charlemagne can't decide whether to take the bargain at face-value. Is Marsile speaking for realz here or just pulling his leg? Count Roland, Charlemagne's nephew and favorite knight, argues that it's a trick. His stepfather Ganelon, however, says it sounds sincere, and since he's backed up by some other influential Franks, Charlemagne decides to accept the deal. Roland nominates Ganelon to be the envoy back to Marsile, which makes him so worried and angry that he publicly threatens Roland with revenge.

On the way back to Spain, Ganelon and Blancandrin plot to kill Roland. When Ganelon finds out that Marsile is actually not interested in converting or being a vassal, he tells the King that he will definitely be owned if he tries to fight Charlemagne. Instead, he recommends that Marsile attack the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, conveniently led by Roland, and disable Charlemagne that way. Back in Charlemagne's camp, Ganelon lies about the new plan and pretends that everything is peaceful and hunky-dory.

Charlemagne ignores ominous dreams about Ganelon's possible treachery and leaves Roland to lead 20,000 Franks through the Pyrenees in the rearguard. At least he has the oliphant to blow when things get bad, right?

Ha, says Oliver, Roland's best friend who's with him in the rearguard. When he sees Marsile's enormous army marching from the south to corner them in the mountain pass of Roncevaux, he begs Roland to call for Charlemagne with the oliphant. But Roland refuses, anxious to do his duty as a faithful, fearless Christian knight. As a result, the rearguard is massacred, as is most of Marsile's army (the Franks are good fighters like that). Roland finally blows the horn to alert the rest of the Franks, but once they get there, even Roland is dead, his brains bubbling out from the exertion of tooting so loud.

Charlemagne in a sorrowful rage pursues the remnants of Marsile's army until they drown in the Ebro. Then he returns to Roncevaux to mourn the dead. Unfortunately, he can't linger long over the funerals because the pagans are coming back, bigger and badder than ever. Since Marsile has died of severed hand injuries, his overlord, the Emir Baligant, has come from Babylon with a ginormous army to revenge his fellow non-Christians against the Franks.

Charlemagne is thinking along the same lines, only he wants to avenge the deaths of Roland and his 20,000 knights. The two armies clash on a big battlefield. Although the Franks sustain losses, they also enjoy the perks of angelic help and ultimately cream the enemy. Charlemagne kills the Emir in one-on-one combat, and in victory the Franks overrun Saragossa, smashing idols and converting people.

When they return to France, Ganelon is put on trial for treason. His kinsman, Pinabel, defends him in a trial by combat with Thierry, who wants Ganelon executed. Thierry is victorious and Ganelon is torn into shreds. The poem ends just as Charlemagne is getting to bed. Good night, Moon, Good night, King. But wait—isn't that an angel sitting by your bed? Gabriel is back with news that other Christians need Charlemagne's help and pronto. Charlemagne weeps and tugs his beard but what God says goes.

  • Stanzas 1-7

    • After fighting the pagan Saracens in Spain for seven years, Charlemagne is just about ready to call it a day and head back to France for some R and R. Every city but Saragossa is now under Frankish rule, and Saragossa is on a big hill and guarded by King Marsile.
    • Charlemagne doesn't know yet that Marsile's happy days are numbered, but the poet does. O, the joys of hindsight.
    • Meanwhile Marsile gathers 20,000 men in Saragossa and asks his advisors how best to defeat the Franks if they come a-warring.
    • Blancandrin, a popular counselor, suggests a scheme. Fake friendship with the Franks, give them some cool Spanish gifts and hostages for security, and promise to convert to Christianity soon. Only then will Charlemagne stop his warfare and go back to France.
    • The downside is that the hostages will probably be killed. But Blancandrin argues that this is better than seeing Saragossa in the violent hands of the Christians.
    • Marsile approves the ruse and sends ten hand-picked men to travel to Charlemagne with an olive branch and the promise that within a month Marsile will become a Christian and Charlemagne's vassal (in other words, he'll be obligated to give political and military allegiance to Charlemagne while continuing to control Saragossa himself).
  • Stanzas 8-27

    • When the Saracens get to Charlemagne, they find him chilling in an orchard with 15,000 Franks, sitting on a gold throne and happily stroking his beard: yo, just conquered Spain, dudes!
    • Blancandrin explains the scheme and suggests that it might be time for Charlemagne to take it easy back home in Aix instead of seizing Saragossa.
    • It sounds like a sweet deal, but Charlemagne is a careful dude. How can he know this promise is for real? Blancandrin offers hostages, including his own son, and promises that on St. Michael's Day Marsile will be at Aix, ready to be baptized a Christian.
    • The next morning Charlemagne summons his Twelve Peers (Frankish nobles who serve as his right-hand military men and advisory board) to help him make a decision. He admits that he cannot know whether Marsile is speaking truthfully or not.
    • Count Roland, Charlemagne's nephew, speaks up first and condemns Marsile for past treachery, remembering that he murdered two Frankish envoys earlier in the war. The only response is total war against Saragossa.
    • But Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, has a different opinion. Why distrust Marsile, who has sent men and gifts? Besieging Saragossa will only cost Frankish lives.
    • Duke Naimes is also persuaded by Marsile's offer of Saracen hostages. If he's willing to send his own men, that must mean he's serious. He sides with Ganelon and argues that Spain is broken and begging for mercy. He even offers to go himself to Marsile, but Charlemagne wants him nearby to give more advice.
    • Roland offers to go, too, but his close friend Oliver points out that he is too hotheaded for diplomacy. Archbishop Turpin also volunteers but is turned down. Charlemagne wants a vote.
    • When Roland suggests Ganelon, everyone is on board but Ganelon himself, who splutters with anger and threatens to get even with Roland when he returns. Roland is unfazed. We don't know why Roland and Ganelon are getting on like Cinderella and her stepmother, but it seems like Ganelon is referencing some old beef between them.
    • Ganelon accepts the command but seems to be disturbed by the fate of the murdered envoys. He is publicly upset about the likelihood that the Saragossa Saracens will murder him on sight. Angry at Roland, he challenges him in front of the Peers in three separate stanzas. See "Writing Style" for more insight into this poetic technique.
    • Charlemagne hands Ganelon his glove and staff, but Ganelon in his anger and fear drops the glove. Bad move—the Franks recognize this as a terrible omen.
    • Arming himself for his mission, Ganelon asks some friends to bring messages back to his wife and son if he does not return.
  • Stanzas 28-52

    • Ganelon sets off with the Saracen messengers and strikes up some casual conversation with Blancandrin, who compliments Charlemagne but suggests that counsel for more war will only cause suffering for the Franks. Ganelon complains that Roland is the main problem. His pride will eventually be his downfall, but his current success comes from his enormous popularity with the Franks, whom he bribes with gifts.
    • Blancandrin and Ganelon get along famously and end up making a pact to kill Roland if they can.
    • Once they reach Saragossa, Ganelon tells Marsile that Charlemagne will let him control half of Spain if Marsile becomes Christian. Marsile explodes in anger and tries to kill Ganelon, but advisors restrain him.
    • Ganelon, keeping his cool in a tricky situation, repeats his terms but lies that Roland will be given the other half of Spain, and won't that be fun, co-ruling with that madman. Then he points out that if Marsile doesn't accept them, he'll find himself in a siege. And that's no fun for anyone.
    • He hands Marsile a letter from Charlemagne expressing his anger over the deaths of the two Frankish messengers, previously mentioned by Roland, and demanding that Marsile send him his uncle, the emir Baligant, in exchange.
    • In a rage, Marsile's son also threatens to attack Ganelon but the poem abruptly shifts to an orchard, where Marsile wants to confer further with Ganelon.
    • It's safe to assume that Marsile's son did not kill Ganelon because there he is, walking in the orchard with his new pal Blancandrin, plotting revenge on Roland.
    • Unexpectedly, Marsile has decided to accept Charlemagne's terms. He apologizes for his outburst and offers Ganelon some loot to show he means it.
    • They talk about how rad Charlemagne is—basically as old as a grandfather but still dominating the pagans.
    • In fact, he's so rad that the poem repeats their conversation three times, with variations, in stanzas 40, 41, and 42. All three boil down to Marsile's question: Doesn't he ever want to retire from warfare? Not while Roland is alive, Ganelon answers. He is too in love with war.
    • Now Marsile, increasingly cozy with Ganelon, poses a hypothetical: if he sent all 400,000 of his men to fight King Charles, would he have a chance at defeating them?
    • Ganelon says, "No, you would be annihilated, but consider this option: send 20,000 hostages to show you have accepted his terms, wait for him to return to France with the bulk of his army, and then destroy Roland's rearguard."
    • As it turns out, Ganelon has already come up with this plan, probably with the aid of Blan-candrin. He'll arrange to have Roland lead the rearguard with 20,000 men.
    • When they're making their way through the treacherous mountain pass at Cize (in the Pyrenees), Marsile can attack with 100,000 Saracens and obliterate them, dashing all of Charlemagne's future plans for war in Spain.
    • There's an illegible part of the manuscript in stanza 46 (indicated by the ellipses), but it's clear that Marsile and Ganelon are both pumped about this plan.
    • On a holy book Marsile swears his loyalty to the scheme.
    • High-ranking Saracens give Ganelon some serious bling: a sword and a helmet, and Marsile's queen, Bramimonde, gives him necklaces for his wife. Marsile orders the gifts for Charlemagne to be prepared and tells Ganelon he's counting on his loyalty.
  • Stanzas 53-68

    • Charlemagne is waiting for Ganelon, who assures him of Marsile's sincerity: he is going to convert to Christianity and become a Frankish vassal. To explain why he doesn't have Marsile's uncle, the emir, with him, he lies that the emir fled Spain with 400,000 men and died in a storm.
    • Charlemagne hears the news with joy and the super-excited Franks start the march back home, unaware that Marsile's army is simultaneously marching towards them. Treachery!
    • In a dream Charlemagne sees himself riding through the Cize mountain pass with a spear. Ganelon grabs it and snaps it into shards.
    • Then he dreams he's in his chapel at Aix being attacked by a bear and a leopard. Not to worry though because a hound comes leaping out of his palace and attacks both. Despite this nocturnal violence, Charlemagne does not wake up.
    • In the morning Charlemagne asks for recommendations for the position of rearguard leader. Predictably Ganelon suggests Roland. Charlemagne reacts with fury but Roland is a mensch and courteously accepts.
    • At least, that's what happens in stanza 59. In stanza 60, Roland's reaction is re-described as angry and full of contempt. Stanza 61 changes it up yet again, showing Roland graciously asking Charlemagne for the bow he's holding, but letting Ganelon have it in a sly dig by claiming that he at least won't drop it.
    • Duke Naimes notes that Roland is enraged (siding with stanza 60) but thinks he'll make a great commander.
    • A worried Charlemagne wants to give him half the Frankish army to ensure his protection, but Roland waves these away and only accepts 20,000. In the next three stanzas he names the men who will accompany him, which include all Twelve Peers.
    • The Franks march back to France and start weeping when they return to their lands and families. At first it seems like this is joyful crying, but actually everyone is pretty down about Roland's fate back in the rear, Charlemagne most of all.
    • As he rides with Duke Naimes, Charlemagne confesses that his dreams have not been cheery. He realizes now that Ganelon has doomed Roland to great danger.
  • Stanzas 68-78

    • Meanwhile, back at the Saracen ranch, Marsile is gathering his army to mount the offensive on Roland's rearguard.
    • His nephew declares that he will be the one to skewer Roland on the end of his spear. Marsile grants him this wish by giving him his glove, and his nephew asks for twelve men to match the Franks' Twelve Peers.
    • Stanzas 70 through 78 describe the twelve Saracens who sign up: each one is named, described, and given a short speech to articulate their hatred of Christians and detailed desires to kill Roland and humble Charlemagne into the ground.
  • Stanzas 79-92

    • The clamor of 100,000 mounted Saracens on the march soon reaches Roland's rearguard. Roland welcomes the opportunity to serve God by killing so many wicked pagans.
    • Oliver climbs a hill to scope out the situation. When he sees how many Saracens are coming their way, he immediately recognizes Ganelon's treachery against both Charlemagne and Roland. He warns the Franks that there will be a fight (and how), and asks Roland to blow his ivory horn, the oliphant, loud enough to reach Charlemagne and warn him of their danger.
    • Roland does not appreciate this advice and says he will be dishonored if he doesn't stand his ground and lop off some pagan heads. It is his duty to France and to God.
    • Oliver begs Roland to reconsider across several stanzas, arguing that Roland is blinded by his pride, that too many Franks will be sacrificed, and that no one would consider it a dishonor to ask for aid against such an enormous enemy.
    • But Roland is stubborn. He refuses to be a coward.
    • Archbishop Turpin rallies to Roland's side and preaches a mini-sermon to the Franks. Since he knows a complete Frankish massacre is likely, he absolves them of sin and promises that if they die as martyrs they can look forward to the best heaven has to offer.
    • Sin-free and ready to fight some holy war, the Franks arm themselves for the coming pagans. Roland agrees with Oliver that Ganelon betrayed them into this mess but is determined to solve everything with his sword and faith. He keys up the troops by saying the pagans are the ones who are going to be owned.
    • Oliver is a little more rational about the risks. Annoyed, he reminds Roland once more that since he did not send an SOS with the oliphant, it won't be Charlemagne's fault if they all die. The best they can do is fight fiercely to the end.
    • The Franks, yelling their battle-cry "Montjoie!," prepare to destroy the Saracens.
  • Stanzas 93-111

    • Stanzas 93-102 detail the major Frank-on-Saracen fighting, beginning with the wicked Aelroth, Marsile's nephew. He rides in front of the Saracens and gleefully shouts that today France will be trounced. Roland is incensed and strikes him dead. Whenever a new Saracen gallops up, shouting rude things about Roland or Charlemagne, a brave Frank skewers him with a spear and shouts back that Franks rule.
    • The pagan Margariz takes a swipe at Oliver, but God deflects his spear, so Oliver is unwounded.
    • Meanwhile Roland is kicking some major butt with his sword Durendal, cleaving pagans in half, severing horse spines, you know the drill.
    • Oliver struggles to fight with a splintered spear until Roland reminds him to draw his sword. The Archbishop also gets some good kills in.
    • In stanzas 109 and 110 the action swings between Roland's men fighting in the mountain pass and Charlemagne and the rest of the Franks, worrying and weeping in France. At the end of 109 we get a fast-forward to Ganelon's future punishment: his trial and his hanging.
    • Thousands of pagans are killed through Frankish bravery, but the odds are stacked against Roland's men. The poet warns that they will never see their relatives again.
    • Back in France earthquakes and storms reflect the violence of Roland's fight. The sky blackens in the middle of the day, and the Franks wonder if the end of the world has come.
  • Stanzas 112-32

    • Unfortunately, this is just the beginning for Roland's rearguard. Marsile now rides up with twenty more regiments of fearsome Saracens, deafening the field with 7,000 bugles. Roland again recalls Ganelon's treachery and vows with Oliver that they will wield their swords against the pagan hordes so bad songs won't be sung of them.
    • The other Franks are losing heart, probably because the fields are crawling with Saracens. Archbishop Turpin revives their spirits by promising them glory in paradise. What's more, if they cower now, who will write rousing songs about their exploits?
    • In stanzas 114 through 119 we get three similar scenarios: a Saracen kills a French knight; the Franks are saddened; another French knight, in righteous rage, kills the Saracen.
    • The pagan Grandoine breaks this pattern by mowing down five Franks at once, filling the other Franks with dread. Luckily Roland is nearby to split his entire body in two.
    • The Franks gain on the Saracens, spilling their blood on to the grass, until finally they break ranks and start running back to Spain.
    • But Marsile observes the carnage and starts to fight back harder with his fresh army. It's a little unclear what his army has been doing for the previous stanzas—just hanging out?—but they get things going now with a bad dude named Abisme.
    • But even his awesome shield, studded with precious stones, is no match for the fierce Archbishop, who spears him dead.
    • Roland admires his moves to Oliver, who reminds him to get on with the battling. Although during the next four assaults they kill at least 4,000 Saracens, in the fifth they are overwhelmed. Only 60 French knights remain.
    • Roland grieves over all his dead men and tells Oliver he has finally decided to blow his horn. Oh how the tables have turned.
    • Now it is Oliver who argues that summoning help would be dishonorable. He can't resist an I-told-you-so: if Roland had taken his advice before, none of these men would be dead. The slaughter is Roland's fault. In fact, Oliver is so angry that he says if ever they return alive to France, he is breaking Roland's engagement with his sister.
    • Roland wonders innocently why Oliver is so mad, giving him the opportunity to say exactly why. Roland acted without sense. If he hadn't been too stubborn to blow the horn, Charlemagne would have come with reinforcements to save them all. Now he and Oliver will die and France will never again be glorious.
    • Archbishop Turpin rides by to break up their argument. He agrees that the oliphant should be blown now. It won't save anyone but it will bring Charlemagne hurtling back for some bloody revenge and allow the dead rearguard Franks to be buried in holy ground.
  • Stanzas 133-76

    • Roland blows the oliphant. The sound carries thirty leagues, all the way to Charlemagne, who immediately knows that means Roland's men are in trouble. Ganelon tries to contradict him.
    • Roland sounds the horn again, so hard this time that his brain bursts—but not enough that he actually dies. Charlemagne hears this too and again announces that Roland's men are in a battle.
    • Ganelon jumps in to save his scheme. After denying the battle outright, he suggests that Roland is only blowing the horn out of arrogance, to impress the other Franks. He illustrates this argument with a story about Roland taking Naples without Charlemagne's orders and then cleaning the battlefield blood with water so no one would know.
    • Roland blows a third time and now Duke Naimes agrees with Charlemagne that Roland must be in a tough spot. The Franks arm themselves and ride out to save Roland if possible.
    • Charlemagne seizes Ganelon and gives him to his kitchen servants to guard. They tear out his beard and beat him up before chaining him to a pillar.
    • Back in the mountain pass, Roland meditates on his dead comrades and the great things they did for France. He is sad that he can't save them even though they died for his sake. The one thing he can do, however, is fight some more bad guys with Oliver.
    • Roland kills twenty-five Saracens. The archbishop notes that he is an example of a truly good knight. If a man can't fight this well, he should be in a monastery.
    • The desperation of the Franks makes them fight to the death. Marsile kills a bunch of the remaining sixty knights, only stopping when Roland rides by enraged and chops off his hand and then kills his son for good measure. The pagans can't believe such outnumbered people keep fighting instead of fleeing. Instead, 100,000 of them decide to leave, including Marsile.
    • But there are still 50,000 Ethiopians left and Roland is definitely not done. He calls to the remaining Franks to kill at least fifteen Saracens for every Frank that dies. The sight of their black skin makes him particularly furious—racist.
    • The pagan Marganice spears Oliver through the chest and exults that because Oliver is such an awesome knight this one death avenges all the dead Saracens. Although Oliver knows his wound is fatal, he uses his remaining minutes to wreak as much havoc as possible, beginning with Marganice. After slicing his head down to the teeth, he dismembers as many other Saracens as he can reach.
    • Roland spares a moment in the fighting to greet Oliver in sadness. France will never be the same without him, he says, and then faints.
    • But Oliver has so much blood in his eyes that he doesn't recognize his friend, and as he nears him, he whacks him on the head. Luckily his sword doesn't connect with Roland's head. It certainly brings Roland back to consciousness though. "Don't you know who I am?" he asks. And once Oliver hears his voice, he recognizes his mistake and apologizes.
    • Oliver dismounts, prays to God, and dies. Roland cries about this and faints again.
    • He is roused to more action when Gautier de l'Hum, an old but valiant knight, calls to him in in his death throes. He, Gautier, and the archbishop launch another attack.
    • Wounded, Archbishop Turpin still manages to knock off another 400 Saracens, no biggie.
    • Roland, already battling a burst brain, blows the oliphant again but so feebly that Charlemagne hearing it knows he is near death.
    • He orders his men to blow their bugles in return. The pagans hear this answering blast and know that fresh men are on the way. Four hundred of them mount a last savage attack on the surviving rearguard. Knowing that Spain and the larger war is lost, they toss their spears at Roland. But it's hard to mess with that guy. God makes sure that the spears pierce his shield and armor but not a point enters his body.
    • While the Saracen army runs back to Spain, Roland tends to the archbishop and then wanders the field, collecting his closest knights, including Oliver, and laying them out beside Turpin.
    • He is so paralyzed with grief that the dying archbishop drags himself to his feet, tries to take the oliphant to a nearby stream for water, but dies mid-crawl.
    • Roland laments Turpin's death but feels his own approaching. He climbs a nearby hill and faints near the four marble statues there.
    • A Saracen hidden in the grass seizes his chance. He grabs Roland's sword to kill him once and for all. But Roland awakes just in time. With the oliphant he breaks the Saracen's head open.
    • Now he wants to break his sword before he dies so no unworthy pagans get to use it.
    • The problem is, his sword is so rad that it won't break. It has conquered so many lands and done so much good for the Christian faith. Roland knocks it over and over against a stone but finally realizes that it's too holy to be destroyed.
    • He lies down on the grass to die, with his sword and oliphant underneath him and his face turned to Spain to indicate that he died honorably. Once he says his confession and offers his right glove to God, angels carry his soul to heaven.
  • Stanzas 177-86

    • Charlemagne arrives on the scene after Roland's death and surveys the field so littered with dead Franks that no grass shows. He calls aloud for Roland and the rest of the peers who fought with him, using a stylized "where is [insert name]" technique called an ubi sunt motif (Latin for "where are they?")
    • He is angry he wasn't there for the fighting and his 20,000 knights, agreeing, swoon in sorrow for their lost friends and family.
    • Dukes Naimes sees puffs of dust kicked up by the Marsile's retreating army and urges Charlemagne to follow and get revenge.
    • 1,000 knights stay behind to guard the Frankish dead and make sure they're not disturbed until Charlemagne returns triumphant.
    • Even though the Saracens have a head start, Charlemagne and his army sound the bugles and chase after. It helps that when the light fades Charlemagne prays that the sun will stop and an angel okays it. If he rides hard, God will help him destroy the pagans.
    • As the sun stands still, the Frankish army corners the Saracens in the Val Tenebros (or Valley of Darkness), cutting off escape routes and driving them into the Ebro River.
    • Crying to their god Tervagant, the Saracens drown in the water. The Franks get booty, the sun finally sets, and Charlemagne, after thanking God, declares that there's no time to ride back to Roncevaux and they'll spend the night where they are.
    • The Franks make camp and sleep with no guards. Oh right, the enemy is drowned.
    • Charlemagne lies down in his armor, still armed with his sword Joyeuse (French for "joyful"), a magnificent weapon that changes color thirty times a day and has embedded in its hilt the tip of the lance used to wound Christ on the cross.
    • Its name is the origin of the Frankish battle cry "Montpelier!"
    • As the moon shines, Charlemagne grieves for Roland and all the Frankish deaths. He asks God to save their souls and then falls asleep, tired out from hard riding and enormous sorrow. Even the horses are so exhausted they lie down.
    • Charles, watched over by the angel Gabriel, is shown ominous but unclear dreams. First he sees a terrible storm, including a ball of fire that falls from the sky and burns his men in agony down to the ground. Then venomous beasts try to devour them. They cry for his help, but he is detained by a savage lion who wrestles him so fiercely he can't tell who is winning and who is losing.
    • In his second dream he is back in France with a bear chained to a pillar. Thirty other bears plead for the chained bear to be given back to them because they are his kinsmen. But a hound from the palace attacks the cohort of bears. He wakes up before he can see who wins.
    • Marsile, meanwhile, has made it to Saragossa where he collapses under an olive tree, writhing in pain and blood. His wife Bramimonde and 20,000 Saracens wail against Charlemagne and against their gods, who failed them in this battle. They destroy a number of idols and let pigs trample them.
    • Marsile is moved into his nicely decorated room, where Bramimonde continues to weep. She moans over the fate of Saragossa and declares the emir a coward if he doesn't avenge Marsile. Charlemagne is strong and fearsome and it will be terrible for everyone if he's not killed.
  • Stanzas 189-202

    • Stanza 189 starts out with a flashback six years ago, to the first year of Charlemagne's campaign in Spain, when a worried Marsile wrote a letter to the Emir Baligant in Babylon and asked him to help. If Baligant had refused, Marsile was going to smash his (Marsile's) idols and become a Christian to serve Charlemagne.
    • Baligant, who is old like Charlemagne, didn't respond for six years, but for unknown reasons he's now traveling to Saragossa with a huge army gathered from forty kingdoms.
    • His army, traveling by ship, is so enormous that their lighted ships illuminate the countryside they pass through. They sail up the Ebro and arrive in Saragossa the very day after Marsile's crushing defeat.
    • Baligant gets out of the ship with seventeen other kings and a ton of important people, sets up an ivory throne beneath a Saragossa laurel tree, and declares war on Charlemagne. Since he has conducted wars in Spain, now the emir will pursue him into France and won't stop until he's dead or surrendered.
    • He sends two knights, Clarifan and Clarien, to inform Marsile that the emir has come to join forces with him against Charlemagne. They bring the emir's glove as a sign.
    • After passing through ten gates and over four bridges, Clarifan and Clarien near the palace and hear the noise of townspeople wailing for the loss of their gods and the knights of Spain.
    • Holding each other by their cloaks, the messengers enter Marsile's chamber and greet Bramimonde with fake-nice words about the greatness of Mohammed. Bramimonde calls it rubbish. These gods have allowed the Spanish to be defeated at Roncevaux and Marsile's hand to be severed. She asks, "What will become of me when Charlemagne takes over Spain?"
    • Clarien cuts her off brusquely and says they are messengers from Baligant, who is on the Ebro with 4,000 ships ready to follow Charlemagne into France. Bramimonde is not optimistic though. She tells them the Franks are already in Spain and that Charlemagne is so war-like he fears no man alive.
    • From his bed Marsile tells her to shut up and then complains to the messengers that his son and only heir was killed yesterday.
    • He will give all his lands to the emir if he will defend them against the Franks. He predicts that the emir will conquer Charlemagne within a month. In return for Baligant's glove, he sends with the messengers the keys to the Saragossa city gates.
    • He laments out loud that Charles has ravaged his land and entered his citadels. Because they slept last night by the Ebro, Marsile predicts that the Franks are about seven leagues from the city. That is where Baligant should find and kill them.
    • Clarifan and Clarien return to Baligant in a panic with news of Marsile's mortal wound, the disastrous battle of Roncevaux, Charlemagne's pursuit to Saragossa, and Marsile's decision to give Baligant his kingdom. Baligant is furious.
    • Clarien gives more detail about Roncevaux and how the fleeing Saracens drowned in the Ebro but finds a bit of hope in Charlemagne's current position. 20,000 Frenchmen died too and he's so deep in Spanish territory now that the emir could attack successfully.
    • Baligant immediately cheers up. He shouts to his men to leave the ships, mount their horses, and ride towards the Franks. He wants to avenge Marsile's hand with Charlemagne's head.
    • Baligant puts his friend Gemalfin in charge of the armies and then rides ahead with four dukes to Saragossa. Bramimonde meets him at the palace door and faints in grief because Marsile is almost dead.
    • In his room, Marsile sits up with the aid of two Saracens, and gives to Baligant his glove to symbolize Saragossa and all the lands associated with his fief. He and his people are ruined, but they're putting their final hopes in Baligant's success.
    • Weeping, Baligant takes the glove and says unfortunately he can't wait because he needs to surprise Charlemagne with this fight. He gallops to his men and leads the army towards the Franks.
  • Stanzas 203-26

    • The same morning that Baligant met with Marsile, Charlemagne wakes up and rides with his knights back to Roncevaux. Gabriel makes the sign of the cross over him for some extra protection.
    • At Roncevaux Charlemagne weeps to see all his dead knights. He tells his companions to slow down so he can ride ahead and find Roland by myself. He remembers that Roland once said at a feast in Aix that if he were to die in a foreign land, he would die as a conqueror: he would travel away from his men and lie down with his head turned towards the enemy country.
    • Charlemagne therefore decides to climb a hill to find his body. As he hikes he weeps to see all the flowers stained red with blood. By the two trees he sees the stone where Roland tried to break his sword and then sees Roland himself on the grass. Overcome with grief he faints.
    • When he comes to, Duke Naimes and some other knights lift him to his feet beneath the pine tree. He manages to say that he's never seen a better knight and with Roland's death his honor has declined before he faints again.
    • When he regains consciousness a second time, he is pale and his eyes are full of shadows. He prays that Roland's soul will be placed among the saints in Paradise and promises that he will grieve each day that he ever came to Spain.
    • Yes, he has other knights and other kinsmen, but none are as worthy as Roland. As he tears out his hair in grief, 100,000 watching Franks weep with him.
    • Charlemagne continues his monologue of mourning: when he is back in France, foreigners from other kingdoms will ask where Roland is and he'll have to say he died in Spain. Or in his chapel at Aix, when people ask for news, he'll have to tell them the gruesome facts.
    • Plus, Roland's death is dangerous to the whole empire. With Roland gone, who will stop the Hungarians and Saxons and other infidel peoples from rebelling against the ruling Franks? Roland, the best commander of all, is dead. Charlemagne tears his beard, crying that he would rather be dead than live with such sorrow. The rest of the Franks swoon in sympathy.
    • Charlemagne prays that God will have mercy on Roland but not on him. He wants to die before he reaches the Pass of Cize (near Roncevaux in the Pyrenees) and be buried with these faithful knights.
    • Geoffrey of Anjou begs Charlemagne not to be so down. He urges him to organize a search for the Franks, so they can be gathered in a common grave.
    • The clergy and monks traveling with Charlemagne bury the dead with full honors, including burning incense.
    • Charlemagne gives a special burial preparation to the bodies of Roland, Oliver, and Turpin. They are cut open and their hearts are wrapped in silk cloth and put in a white marble caskets. Then the bodies are washed with wine and perfumed with herbs, wrapped in stag skins, covered in silk cloth, and loaded on to three carts.
    • Just as the Franks are about to leave, the first wave of Baligant's army arrives. Two messengers announce the battle. They shout to Charlemagne that he can't go now because the Emir's armies are huge. Charlemagne grasps his beard, remembering the deaths of his rearguard, and yells to his men to get ready for some killin'.
    • Charlemagne arms himself first, with his sword Joyeuse and his spear. He mounts his horse Tencendor, which he won when he killed its rider, a dude named Malpalin of Narbonne, in a former war. Calling on God and St. Peter, he canters towards the Emir.
    • The Franks scramble for their arms and horses but put on such a good show that Charlemagne can't help but admire their bravery. He commands his barons to not show any worry. Today they are going to make the pagans pay for Roland's death.
    • He tells Rabel and Guinemant to fill Roland and Oliver's old positions, one carrying the sword and the other the oliphant (apparently, Roland did not break it). They are to ride in the front ranks with 15,000 of the best young fighters. Following will be an equal number led by Geboin and Lorant.
    • In the third division are 20,000 Bavarians (not technically French but ruled by Charlemagne), men that he honors more than any, after the French.
    • The fourth division is of 20,000 Germans, as valiant as the Bavarians. The fifth division contains 20,000 Normans, the sixth 30,000 Bretons, the seventh 40,000 Poitevins and men from Auvergne, the eighth 40,000 Flemings and Frisians, the ninth 50,000 men from Lorraine and Burgundy led by Thierry, and the tenth 100,000 of the bravest knights from France.
    • They are fierce and strong with white beards, well-armored. Everyone cries "Montjoie!"
    • Geoffrey of Anjou carries the oriflamme, or French battle standard, which sort of explains the origin of the cry "Montjoie!" When it belonged to Saint Peter, the battle standard was called "Romaine"; now that the French own it, it's called Montjoie.
    • But before Charlemagne attacks, he leaps from his horse and stretches out in the grass, his face towards the sun. He prays to God with all his fervor that he will be saved today, like Jonah and Daniel.
    • Through God's mercy, he wants to avenge Roland's death. Then he makes the sign of the cross and re-mounts. With his strong body and handsome open face, he is the image of awesome. The Franks sound their trumpets, the oliphant louder than the rest. It's on.
  • Stanzas 227-57

    • Charlemagne takes it to the field with his beard on display; out of respect, the other Franks bear their beards as well, so it's a sea of Frankish facial hair.
    • They march until they reach Spain.
    • Baligant's men return to him and report that they've seen Charles and his fierce men. Baligant orders the trumpets to be blown to warn his army of the great Frankish courage they're facing.
    • Now the pagans dismount and arm themselves. Baligant buckles on his sword which he named after Charlemagne's Joyeuse.
    • He straps on his heavy ornamented shield, gathers his spear named Maltet, and mounts his war-horse. In addition to his "very large crotch," he is broad and well-made, with curly white hair. The poet notes that he, like many other pagans, would be a good knight if only he were Christian. When he spurs his horse, it leaps over a fifty-foot ditch, filling the pagans with admiration and hope. Charles can't possibly prevail against this stud.
    • Like Baligant, who is handsome and knowledgeable about his religion, his son Malprimes is also intimidating in combat. But he is a little anxious that they'll never get to meet Charlemagne in battle.
    • Nonsense, says his daddy, he may get good press in the chronicles, but now that his nephew Roland, the finest knight of France is dead, he won't be able to withstand a renewed attack. Yeah, the messengers mentioned Charlemagne's ten divisions stuffed with fighting men, but 20,000 of the best were struck down at Roncevaux. The rest aren't worth anything.
    • With this encouragement, Malprimes asks for the honor of striking the first blow. Baligant says sure, grants him various kings to fight with him, and promises him a large portion of his land if he is successful. This land previously belonged to someone named King Flori, but he never actually took possession of it.
    • The Emir marshals his thirty divisions, each composed of men from a certain region. Many are briefly described. The men from Misnes are bristled like pigs while the men from Occian le Desert have iron-hard skin and don't need armor.
    • Despite these frightening features, all thirty divisions ride towards Charlemagne looking like good and warlike knights.
    • Carried in front are standards featuring a dragon, Tervagant, and Mohammed, along with a statue of Apollo. Ten Canaans whip up religious fervor by commanding that anyone who wants protection in the battle must pray humbly to their gods. The French, who may or may not be able to hear them, retort back that this battle is in their God's name.
    • Baligant directs his son and two kings to the front ranks but keeps the Turks, the men from Ormaleus, the giants from Malprose, and the men of Occiant back with him. He promises to decapitate Charlemagne if he ever meets him in hand-to-hand combat.
    • The two vast armies meet in an open field. The pagans shout "Precieuse!" and the Franks come right back with "Montjoie!" The sound of the oliphant rouses the Franks into a glorious fury.
    • The sun glints brilliantly off the jeweled helmets and spears. To his brother Canabeus, King of Floredee, Baligant points out the evil and terror of Charlemagne's ten divisions, with their white beards flashing in the sun.
    • As he calls to his men to follow, Baligant rushes forward, shaking his spear at Charlemagne.
    • At this sight Charlemagne inspires his knights with a fiery speech: the religion of the pagans is worthless. They may have an army but so what? God isn't on their enemy's side. Spurring his horse, he rushes to battle with the Franks behind him.
    • Rabel and Guinemant, filling in for Roland and Oliver, lead their men. Rabel kills Torleu, a Persian king and Guinemant does equally well with Lycian.
    • Malprimes, on the other hand, is making hay among the Franks. He fights so hard that Baligant notices and tells his knights to follow his son's example. Never was there a more violent battle.
    • Spear shafts snap and shields smash under the heavy blows.
    • Baligant cries out to his men that if they fight well he'll find them beautiful wives and reward them with feudal lands. The pagans, now mostly dismounted, draw their swords and fight as well as they can.
    • Charlemagne also encourages his men by recalling how well they've fought in the past, how many lands they've conquered and how many kings they've deposed. For all this they will be rewarded with lands and wealth.
    • Additionally, they should fight to avenge their friends and relatives who died at Roncevaux. 20,000 Franks hear these stirring words and hurl their lances at the enemy.
    • Duke Naimes kills Malprimes only to take an equally violent blow from Baligant's brother, Canabeus. Naimes would have died if God hadn't sent Charlemagne to kill Canabeus in the nick of time. The sight of Naimes's free-flowing blood fills him with grief, but Naimes rallies and promises to keep fighting as long as he's still living.
    • The emir kills Guinemant and three other valuable Franks. Despite these casualties the Franks fight on and the battle rages until nightfall.
    • Emir calls on his gods to preserve him in the terrible howling and crashing of the war. He promises to make their images pure gold if only they grant him victory.
    • But in the middle of his prayers, his friend Gemalfin appears with the bad news that Malprimes and Canabeus are both dead. Charlemagne, however, is alive and kicking, beard as white as ever.
    • The emir almost dies of his fury. He calls Jangleu of Outremer for advice: will the Franks or the pagans be victorious? Jangleu also has bad news.
    • He tells Baligant that Charles and his men are too fierce and too worthy to be defeated. But even though their gods will never save them, he urges Baligant to call for more divisions anyway.
    • Taking a style cue from Charlemagne, the Emir pulls out his beard. No matter what happens, he doesn't want to hide. He blows a bugle to gather his forces and mounts the wildest attack yet on the Franks, breaking Charlemagne's ranks and killing 7,000 of his knights at once.
    • Count Ogier the Dane, a leader of the Frankish army, gathers other knights to him and speaks bluntly to Charles: he won't be worthy to wear a crown unless he turns the heat up on these wicked pagans.
    • All of them fight valiantly. Ogier kills the man holding the dragon ensign, and when Baligant sees his standard fall, he begins to realize that Charlemagne might be in the right.
    • It's unclear whether he thinks Charlemagne's cause is right or whether he just realizes that his fighting is right (in other words, that the Franks will win). Many of the pagans skedaddle.
  • Stanzas 258-67

    • As night comes on, Charlemagne and Baligant recognize each other by their loud cries of "Montjoie!" and "Precieuse!" They meet in epic battle in the middle of the field, ripping their armor and falling off their horses in the violence of their whacking.
    • Then they start in with swords.
    • Charles is full of courage but the emir is neither afraid nor in awe of him. They hack and make sparks but neither will admit defeat or that he is wrong.
    • The Emir tells Charlemagne to ask his forgiveness for killing his son and unjustly invading his land. Be my vassal, he offers, and I will let you own it as a fief.
    • But Charles will never accept such terms. His Christian duty doesn't allow him to find peace or friendship with any pagan. He has a different offer. If Baligant accepts Christianity, Charlemagne will make him his vassal. Then they go back to sword-bashing.
    • The emir gets a lucky blow when he splits Charlemagne's helmet and slices off a handful of skull skin to the bone. Charlemagne reels but God is on his side. Gabriel appears and demands to know what he is doing.
    • At the sound of this angelic pep talk, Charlemagne's strength returns. He cleaves Baligant's head down to his beard. Duke Naimes hears Charlemagne's celebratory "Montjoie!" and holds his horse, Tencendor, while Charlemagne mounts.
    • The pagans flee in terror and the Franks pursue them all the way to Saragossa, while Charlemagne urges them to avenge their sorrow.
    • When Bramimonde sees her people fleeing before the galloping Franks from the top of her tower, she cries that the emir has been destroyed. Marsile, still nursing his chopped-off hand, hears and dies from despair. Devils take away his soul.
    • Charles breaks down Saragossa's gate and takes over the city, even Bramimonde's sixty towers. That night 1,000 Franks roam the streets smashing idols so that Christianity can enter the city. Bishops bless the baptisteries and force-convert more than 100,000 Saracens.
    • Anyone who opposes them is either imprisoned or killed. Bramimonde is to be taken back to France and converted there, once she has a chance to learn the truth of the Christian faith.
    • The next morning they ride back to France, conquering Nerbonne (modern-day Narbonne) on the way.
    • At a church in Bordeaux, Charlemagne makes an offering of the oliphant so pilgrims will see it and honor Roland's memory.
    • They cross the Gironde River and leave the bodies of the dead knights in the church of Saint-Romain. Then they ride on uninterrupted to Aix.
  • Stanzas 268-91

    • When Charlemagne returns to Aix, France, Alda asks where her fiancé Roland is. Charlemagne gives her the bad news but offers his son, Louis, as a replacement.
    • Alda rejects the offer as strange and immediately dies, not wanting to remain alive without Roland. Awww?
    • Charlemagne realizes she is actually dead, not in a faint, and calls for four countesses to take her body to a convent.
    • Meanwhile, Ganelon, lashed to a stake and beaten, awaits his trial as Charles summons vassals from all over his empire to be on the jury.
    • Charlemagne opens the trial with a biased summary of what Ganelon is accused of: arranging the massacre of 20,000 Frankish knights including Roland and Oliver, and betraying the Twelve Peers for his own gain.
    • Ganelon answers by claiming that his motive was private revenge against Roland, who had previously wronged him in some money matter, and not high treason.
    • Standing tall and handsome before the jurors, Ganelon argues that Roland hated him and nominated him to visit Marsile so he would be killed. The only reason he came back alive was through his own cleverness. He issued a formal challenge to Roland and cannot be accused of treason.
    • Privately conferring with thirty of his relatives, Ganelon begs Pinabel to use his public speaking skills to argue for his defense. Pinabel promises that he will deliver, even if he has to fight to prove his innocence.
    • Vassals from every part of the empire discuss the trial but carefully because they fear Pinabel. Some suggest they put in an innocent verdict—after all, Roland's dead, isn't he? There's no fixing that. Everyone agrees but a man named Thierry.
    • But when the knights tell Charlemagne to let Ganelon live and continue to serve him, he is not pleased. He lightens up though when Thierry speaks in favor of executing Ganelon.
    • Even if Roland is to blame, he argues, he should have been protected from any private revenge by his service to Charlemagne. Anyone who doubts that Ganelon has committed a felony is challenged to a duel with Thierry.
    • Pinabel protests Thierry's judgment and agrees to fight with him to determine the verdict. After giving Charlemagne three hostages, he is allowed to keep Ganelon until his fate is decided.
    • Thierry and Pinabel make formal challenges and benches are set up to observe the fight. After confessing, hearing mass, making church offerings, and being absolved of their sins, they arm themselves for battle. At the prospect, the weepy Franks go off again, moved at Thierry's conviction and Roland's death.
    • Thierry and Pinabel duel in a meadow, both fighting hard and courageously with 100,000 spectators. Unseated from their horses, they stay at it on foot.
    • Pinabel shouts that if Thierry surrenders and lets Ganelon off, he (Pinabel) will become his vassal. Thierry shrugs off this bargain and wants God to prove through their fight who is right. You're strong and scary, he says, and you won't be dishonored if you stop now and agree to execute Ganelon.
    • But family loyalty is more important to Pinabel than his life. He will either save Ganelon or die.
    • Pinabel whacks Thierry's helmet so hard it sparks and lights the grass on fire. His sword slices Thierry's face, but God saves him at the last minute, the lucky rascal. Enraged at seeing his own blood, Thierry smashes his sword through Pinabel's brain, winning the battle.
    • The observing Franks declare it a miracle. They want to hang Ganelon as well as the relatives who argued his case.
    • Charlemagne and forty knights embrace Thierry, clean him up, and bring him back in triumph to Aix. When he asks what he should do with Ganelon's family, his advisors demand that they be executed. Charlemagne tells his provost marshal to hang all thirty of them.
    • Of all the jurors, the Franks (that is the Frenchmen, as opposed to the Saxons, etc.) are most insistent that Ganelon die as painfully as possible. Each of his limbs is tied to a horse and as they ride in opposite directions, his body is stretched until it explodes—a death worthy of such a wicked traitor.
    • Once Ganelon is gone, Charlemagne calls for his bishops to deal with Queen Bramimonde, who has heard enough sermons as a prisoner in France that she now sincerely wants to convert. She is baptized in the Aix baths and re-named Juliana.
    • When night falls, Charlemagne goes to bed, but his sleep is interrupted by Gabriel who tells him that the Christians in the city of Imphe, under King Vivien, are under pagan siege. They need the Frankish army immediately. Charlemagne hears this command with great sadness. He cries out to God that his life is full of suffering.