Study Guide

Song of Roland Themes

  • Betrayal

    Ganelon's betrayal of Roland is the driving force behind the whole tragedy from the moment Ganelon first starts thinking of getting even with Roland after being named envoy to Ganelon's trial and bloody execution.

    Although everyone in the Song of Roland seems out to get revenge, Ganelon is the only one who is a true traitor: by deceiving Charlemagne and arranging the massacre of the rearguard, he betrays his king, his family, and his religion.

    Questions About Betrayal

    • Does Ganelon always tell lies? Does he ever tell the truth or say what he genuinely thinks? How can you tell?
    • What are the motivations behind Blancandrin's deception versus Ganelon's deception? Is one more defensible than the other?
    • Did Ganelon just want to destroy Roland or were his plans bigger? What if Charlemagne had been in the rearguard? Would he have sent Marsile's army to destroy him too?
    • If Ganelon publicly swore revenge on Roland, why was Roland so convinced that his stepfather wasn't to blame?

    Chew on This

    Blancandrin and Ganelon are both deceivers, but their different motivations make Blancandrin a cunning patriot and Ganelon a despicable traitor.

    Despite abundant evidence, Roland refuses to accept Ganelon's treachery because he is single-mindedly focused on maximizing his own honor and his duty to Charlemagne and to God.

  • Friendship

    Roland and Oliver are the main BFFs here. Their friendship is deep, based on mutual respect but complicated by the authority Roland holds over Oliver by virtue of his superior social and military position. For Oliver friendship means speaking his mind and arguing for his own opinions, even when Roland disagrees. But he also knows when to stop pushing. For him friendship also has to mean knowing when to fall into line, while still disagreeing. Roland doesn't seem as concerned with friendship as he is with duty to God and country, but when he sees Oliver dying and the rest of his slain men, he's suddenly filled with sorrow for these wonderful friends he's now lost.

    Most relationships in the Song of Roland are based on more formal, unequal ties like feudal service. But there areother examples of friendship blossoming in unlikely places: between Ganelon and Blancandrin, and between Charlemagne and Roland.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Charlemagne calls Roland his friend once he's dead, but did the live Roland consider Charlemagne a friend?
    2. Why does Oliver give in to Roland over the oliphant?
    3. Who is sadder: Roland over Oliver's death or Charlemagne over Roland's death? Why?

    Chew on This

    In the Song of Roland true friendship can only exist where there is no authority.

    Oliver betrays his friendship with Roland when he gives in on the oliphant.

  • Revenge

    Wait, did we wander into Hamlet? No one's dad died (and that's an angel not a ghost) but yeah, in the Song of Roland pretty much everyone is out for revenge. Marsile wants revenge for the seven years of warfare he's endured in Spain. Ganelon wants revenge on Roland for making him negotiate with Marsile and being a bad stepson. Charlemagne wants revenge for Roland's death. The Emir wants revenge for Marsile's defeat. Do we need a little love here or what?

    Even though everyone's out to get it, Ganelon's revenge is the most talked about. Notice that Ganelon publicly swears revenge against Roland three times. You might have thought this was a problem in the manuscript, kind of like a broken record, but it actually has a narrative point. According to medieval law, to swear three times publicly was to legally declare a personal feud.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. What is the difference between treason and revenge? Are they ever the same?
    2. Did Ganelon arrange the rearguard attack as private revenge on Roland? Or did it end up being treason against Charlemagne and France?
    3. Are the Saracens justified in taking revenge on Charlemagne?
    4. What is the relationship between taking revenge on the Saracens and converting them?

    Chew on This

    Marsile's desire to take revenge on Charlemagne is justified until Ganelon convinces him to make Roland's death part of the plan.

    In the Song of Roland revenge is always justified.

  • Warfare

    Where to begin? Just think how much of this poem is some description of war. Some scholars have suggested that the medieval fascination with warfare is similar to the modern fascination with romance novels: the same moves are described over and over with slight variation in the details, like the position of the helmets and shields and the exact angle at which the sword slices into someone's brain.

    This poem is a celebration of warfare, (1) in the poetic description of the moves and who killed whom; (2) in its justification as a mode of empire expansion; (3) and in its companion role with religion in spreading God's word to pagan lands.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. If Roland hadn't died, would Charlemagne want to fight the pagans mentioned by Gabriel at the end of the poem?
    2. Does Roland love war too much?
    3. Do the repeated descriptions of combat advance or hinder the poem's narrative?
    4. Why does Roland talk to his sword?

    Chew on This

    Roland's maniacal love of war is responsible for the destruction of his rearguard.

    When Roland speaks to and honors his sword, he is humanizing war.

  • Good v. Evil

    The Franks are good because they are Christian and the Saracens are bad because they're not. It's almost that simple. There is some nuance because the Saracens can be admired despite their wicked ways, for courage and knightliness and good looks and religious learning. It's as if they're just labeled wrong, and in a different world or a different story they would be fighting on the same side or  sharing an extra large order of cheesy fries.

    As it is, the assigning of good and evil is so black and white that the Franks and the Saracens can only exist in the same world if one has conquered the other.

    Questions About Good v. Evil

    1. Is there a pattern to which Saracens are all-bad and which have some good qualities?
    2. What are the Emir's reasons for fighting Charlemagne?
    3. Why is the poet so anxious to label things good or evil?
    4. According to the poem, who is more evil: Marsile or Ganelon?

    Chew on This

    The fact that some Saracens are given admirable, knightly qualities demonstrates that the poet's labeling of good v. evil is completely arbitrary.

    Because Ganelon is a Christian, his betrayal is more wicked than any Saracen's.

  • Death

    So, mortality v. immortality: they're different. One means you're dead and the other means you're alive forever. But for the guys in the Song of Roland, they're not as far apart as you might think.

    First, it's possible to live a loooong time in this poem. Just look at Charlemagne, who blew out 200 candles on his last birthday cake. Second, no one is overly worried about dying because everyone loves warfare so much. And finally, death's a lot less scary because good mortality is linked with good immortality. In other words, if you live life like a good Christian and die an honorable death, you earn eternal life in heaven.

    Questions About Death

    1. If dying is portrayed so graphically, why is everyone so eager to risk it in constant warfare?
    2. Is Charlemagne at 200 an old man or a man in his prime?
    3. Why don't the angels save Roland from dying?
    4. Why doesn't Charlemagne die in glory like Roland?

    Chew on This

    Because heavenly immortality is earned by honorable mortality, warfare is less about death than glory.

    The graphic physicality of war death is used to strengthen by contrast the joy of serving God and king.

  • Duty

    Duty defines the relationships in the Song of Roland: feudal duty as knights to Charlemagne (through obedience, reverence, and military service); patriotic duty to France (preserving her "fair" name, increasing her wealth and prestige); duty to families and to family names (so reputations aren't tarnished); duty to God and the Christian religion to spread it as widely as possible, wreak as much damage on the pagans, and reclaim as much land for Christianity as possible.

    For Roland this means doing God's will in all things, even if that means becoming a martyr. And finally there is the duty to yourself: all dead knights will receive poetic justice, and the fear of having bad songs sung about them inspires Roland and Oliver to supreme acts of bravery.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Does Roland love fighting too much?
    2. Why would Roland consider asking for help dishonorable?
    3. What does it mean that "fair France" would "fall into disgrace" (84.1064)?
    4. How is religious duty different than feudal duty?

    Chew on This

    Roland's fatal flaw, in the tradition of classical tragedy, is his fanatically rigid devotion to duty.

    Ganelon and Roland both bring about their own downfall by not doing their true duty.

  • Religion

    The Oxford Manuscript was produced at a time of intense religious xenophobia, when clergymen were actively agitating for war against Muslims and Jews. It dates from 1140-1170, right around the time of the first Crusades, inaugurated by Pope Urban II's speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095.

    This first effort only lasted until 1099, but the second crusade was drummed up in 1145-49, and it's possible that this version of the Song of Roland was intended as propaganda in its zealous defense of the Christian cause and the church militant. For more on this, see "Archbishop Turpin" in "Characters."

    The Franks fight with the belief that Christianity wins over people by the sword, and both sides are convinced that their Gods are right and give them with power and victory. When the Saracens lose in battle, it's also the same thing as losing in religion. Their gods have abandoned them to Charlemagne and his Christianity.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is Archbishop Turpin badmouthing monks in stanza 141?
    2. Why does it matter that Queen Bramimonde converts out of "conviction"?
    3. Do the Franks admire the Saracens for being religious?
    4. What is the relationship between conquering and converting?

    Chew on This

    Christianity in the Song of Roland is inseparable from warfare.

    Given its 12th-century origin and its obsession with good and evil, Christians and infidels, the Oxford manuscript of the Song of Roland may have been read as propaganda for the Crusades.

  • Power

    The Song of Roland opens a window on to how ideal feudal power worked in the Middle Ages—or at least how 12th-century nationalist poets wanted it to work.

    Charlemagne's government is carefully described as one of limited power, based on mutual respect and consultation. His government is so limited in fact that it often seems that Charlemagne's the one in their control. Why else would Charlemagne bite his beard in frustration that everyone keeps nominating the wrong person for the Marsile envoy or giving the wrong verdict in Ganelon's trial? If he's the emperor of freaking Europe, can't he just nominate someone himself or declare his own justice? Apparently not. There are important checks on his power that seem to operate through custom and conventional ideas of honor and respect rather than through any codified law.

    Questions About Power

    1. Who has more power, Charlemagne or his Twelve Peers?
    2. Which council seems more democratic, Marsile's council or Charlemagne's council?
    3. Why does Charlemagne get so upset about Naimes being nominated?
    4. How is Charlemagne's government a feudal system?

    Chew on This

    Although Charlemagne wields a whole lotta power, his actions and decisions are limited by the complexities of his feudal relationships.

    The Song of Roland celebrates Charlemagne's glories in Christian warfare as well as his more frustrating achievements in building the French state.