For seven years, Charlemagne has made war in Spain against the Saracens. He has conquered the entire country, except for the stronghold of Saragossa, which is held by the pagan King Marsile. Seeing that defeat is inevitable, King Marsile, in repose in his garden, calls an assembly of 20,000 men to ask their advice. Only the lord Blancandrin speaks up, and he offers a plan of treachery. Marsile should sue for peace, offering to be Charlemagne's tribute-giving vassal and to be baptized as a Christian in Charlemagne's capital, Aix. To guarantee good behavior, they will offer their own sons as hostages. Charlemagne will leave Spain, to await Marsile in Aix. But neither the promised treasure nor Marsile will arrive. Although the French king will then kill the hostages, the military threat will be over. The Saracens unanimously approve of this plan, and Marsile sends "ten of his most treacherous men" (l. 69) to act as emissaries.
Charles, having just conquered the city of Cordoba, is resting in a garden, surrounded by some of his vassals. Marsile's emissaries, led by Blancandrin, approach bearing olive branches and a gift of ten white mules. Blancandrin gives Charles Marsile's offer. Charles considers carefully: although he does not exactly trust Marsile, he has been in Spain for seven years and is an old man. He calls his vassals to discuss the proposal. Roland, one of Charlemagne's twelve peers and the most beloved of Charlemagne's vassals, urges the king to refuse the offer. Marsile has proved treacherous in the past; he sued for peace on a previous occasion, but when Charlemagne sent two trusted emissaries Marsile had them beheaded.
Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, speaks next. He brutally criticizes Roland's advice, characterizing it as foolhardy and uncaring about the Christians who will die if the war continues. A wise duke named Naimes speaks next, in more measured tones: since Marsile is in effect already defeated, and is now begging for mercy, it would be sinful to proceed. Charles asks whom they shall send as the emissary. Duke Naimes immediately volunteers, but Charlemagne cannot spare him. He needs the trusted councilor by his side. Roland volunteers, but his friend Oliver, another one of the twelve peers, voices disapproval, because Roland is far too hotheaded for the job. Oliver volunteers. Charlemagne again vetoes these proposals, saying he cannot spare any of the twelve peers. The warrior-archbishop Turpin volunteers next, and is likewise shot down.
Roland nominates Ganelon, who is furious, and believes that Roland wants him to do. He threatens Roland, but Roland coldly dismisses the threat and says that he only sought a wise emissary. He offers to go in Ganelon's place, which makes Ganelon angrier. Ganelon accepts the task, certain that he will die. He tells Charlemagne that he hates Roland, and he also hates Oliver and the rest of the twelve peers because they love Roland. Charlemagne rebukes him, insists on him going, and invests authority in him by giving him his staff and his glove. But Ganelon drops the glove, which the rest of the Franks take as an evil premonition.
Blessed by Charlemagne, Ganelon departs with staff and letter in tow. During the journey, he talks to Blancandrin, and the two villains plot Roland's death. Ganelon and Blancandrin go before Marsile, who is seated outdoors and surrounded by opulence. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, as Ganelon tells Marsile that if he does not comply with Charles demands, he will be captured and executed. Marsile is furious, and moves to strike Ganelon, but he is restrained. Ganelon holds his ground, impressing the Saracens.
Marsile reads Charlemagne's letter aloud. Charlemagne bids him to remember Basan and Basile, the executed Frankish emissaries, and says that if he wishes to redeem his life, he should send his uncle the caliph. Marsile's son demands the right to kill Ganelon for his insolence; Ganelon brandishes his sword, ready to fight. But Marsile goes into private council in his garden, where Blancandrin tells him that Ganelon is willing to help them. They summon Ganelon into the garden, and begin to plot Roland's death.
The Song of Roland is narrated in chronological order, that is, in the same order in which the events take place. This kind of narration is not as common as one might think: in most epics, we begin in the middle of things and find out about past events as they are recounted orally or mentally by characters. The Aeneid, for example, starts with the Trojans already exiled and wandering at sea, but later on characters recount in detail the fall of Troy. In part, the approach used in the Aeneid has to do with the tremendous amount of material epic poets are working with. Virgil is dealing with a long and difficult quest for a promised land, with an incredibly rich and long backstory that includes a ten-year war; to create an effective and unified work of art, playing with the timeline is often necessary.
There is no such play in The Song of Roland. Although we are told that it is the seventh year of Charlemagne's war in Spain, the poet fills in all necessary background immediately at the beginning of the poem. Throughout the poem, there are no flashbacks, no deviation from the story of Roland's battle and the revenge exacted by his lord Charlemagne. This approach creates its own problems.
Homer and Virgil are master storytellers: through playing with the timeline, they create incredibly unified stories from vast and rich material. The pacing is often breathtaking.
By choosing to narrate the story in the straightforward fashion, the anonymous composer of The Song of Roland does not need to worry about where and when to fill in backstory. But this approach is also less exciting, and the poet risks writing an epic that plods, dutifully but passionlessly, from start to finish. The scope of events is grand, and the poem covers a long stretch of time.
What protects The Song of Roland from this kind of uninspired pace is the rhythm the poet settles upon: he alternates short, summary-style segments, without dialogue and condensing longer periods of time, with much more detailed segments that read almost like drama. So in this opening, we have all of the backstory we need, summary style, in the first laisse. Immediately following is Marsile's desperate council in Saragossa, which opens with rich description of the setting, and then moves into passages full of dialogue as the king and his councilors hatch their plan to rid themselves of Charlemagne. Laisse 7 is another summary piece, short and sweet, that condenses Blancandrin's voyage to King Charles. What follows is Blancandrin's offer to King Charles and the dramatic argument that ensues amongst Charlemagne and his vassals. Dialogue dominates, and we are made to see the event as it unfolds. Laisse 31 condenses the time of Ganelon's journey to Saragossa, during which he agrees with Blancandrin to try to bring about the death of Roland. The narrator reveals this development to us, but we do not hear the dialogue when they actually make their agreement. And then, all of a sudden, we are at the court of Saragossa, where another series of dialogue-heavy laisses ensues. This kind of rhythm is used throughout much of the poem.
One of the striking features of the poem is its symmetry, both in structure and in its characters. The poem's two halves are dominated by two battles, the first won by evil, the second one by good. The epic starts in council as both sides decide what they will do; it ends in council as Charles tries to decide what should be done in the aftermath of his victory.
The same symmetry applies to characters. Our first encounters with Charlemagne and Marsile set up the parallels between the two men. Both are in repose in their gardens, surrounded by their vassals. These parallels will be developed later. The composer of the poem chooses to make the Saracens a mirror image of the Christians, socially and religiously, and accuracy be damned. In the poem, the Saracen answer to the Christian trinity is a villainous trinity of Mohammed, Apollo, and Termagant (ignoring the fact that Moslems could arguably be seen as more monotheistic than the trinity-worshipping Christians). The Moslems become the evil mirror image of the Christians, in every aspect of their beliefs and their social organization.
The poet transposes medieval European feudalism on the Saracens' social structure. In part, it is because the poet probably could not imagine another social structure; inaccuracies of this kind were not unique to depictions of exotic enemies, nor were they unique to the poet who composed The Song of Roland. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for example, stories set in ancient Greece have knights and feudal kings, and Shakespeare usually remolded his more exotic settings into something more or less resembling Elizabethan England.
In the case of The Song of Roland, imposing medieval European social organization on the Moslems makes them more accessible, or even sympathetic, as enemies. Feudalism carries with it a system of beliefs and values that would have been immediately recognizable to Europeans. Part of the composer's challenge is to create a struggle between good and evil, with the Saracens unambiguously evil, while maintaining the Saracen's status as a formidable and respectable enemy. Feudal Saracens provides the answer: they may be evil, Apollo-worshipping, dark-skinned devils, but they have a concept of loyalty, tied to the bonds between lords and vassals, that is not so different from values admired by the poem's Christian audience.
And the poet sets up strong parallels between Charlemagne and Marsile, and the way in which they rule. Both rely on their vassals for council and support, although the final decision rests with the monarch. Both have one particularly trusted advisor, Naimes for Charlemagne and Blancandrin for Marsile. And both groups of men take their identity and their honor from the land. Although the Sarcen willingness to sacrifice their own sons to keep Spain reveals their ruthlessness, it also shows an unsurprising devotion to land as the foundation for manhood, honor, and nobility. Roland, remember, displays a similar unwillingness to give up Spain. He is willing to continue the war, even if it means losing more Christian lives, because he has no trust for the Moslems and Spain is worth the fight.
Note that suspense is not part of the pleasure of the poem. We know Marsile will lose from the first laisse, and why: "He serves Muhammed and calls upon Apollo. / He cannot prevent disaster from overtaking him" (ll. 8-9). Likewise, we know from early on that Ganelon is treacherous.
Readers looking for the rich character development found in epics like the Mahabharata or the Iliad are likely to be disappointed by The Song of Roland. Characters are sketched for us with minimal strokes, and the richness of characterization found in Homer or Virgil simply does not exist here. For this reason, first meetings with the characters are important, as the poet tries to establish character right away. Charles is the perfect Christian feudal king, a warrior who is old but hale, generous with his vassals and wise enough to seek their advice. Oliver, Roland's companion and one of the twelve peers, is wise and prudent: he councils against sending Roland as emissary, because of Roland's fiery temper (ll. 255-7).
Roland is the poem's hero and most glamorous warrior. He is lacking in some of the majesty of Charlemagne and lacks the wisdom and intelligence of Oliver, but the poem, nonetheless, is about him. He is hot-tempered, and known for it among Charlemagne's vassals. "Your temperment is most hostile and fierce," says Oliver (l. 256), and this coming from Roland's best friend. Roland is unwilling to back away from a fight, even if it means the loss of lives, and this fact exposes him to Ganelon's criticism: "He who advises that we should reject this pact / Does not care, lord, whether we live or die" (ll. 226-7). Roland's own advice to the king firmly rejects any consideration of peace. "Wage war, as you set out to do," Roland advises Charlemagne (l. 210), and we can be sure that this instance represents the council he has given Charlemagne throughout the years. But Roland's courage and fiery temper also make him invaluable to the king. He has conquered countless lands in Charlemagne's name, and his enemies fear him.
Remember that The Song of Roland was written at the dawn of the Crusades. The poem is designed to get Christians riled: the intent is not to praise men like Oliver, but to glorify men like Roland. Roland, because of all of his virtues and faults, is exactly the kind of man needed for the Crusades: a man willing to die, and sacrifice the lives of others as well, for land and glory. A man who rejects any chance of peace. A man without moderation or mercy, but fearless and completely loyal to his king and Church.
Ganelon's motives for wanting to betray Roland are never stated explicitly, but because this first scene in Charlemagne's court reads almost like drama, no explicit explanation is needed. We can only assume, from his quickness to take offense and his damning criticism of Roland, that Ganelon has had longstanding jealousy and hatred for Roland. Almost nothing about their past together is discussed: we know only that Ganelon is his stepfather, but when and how their enmity started remains unexplained.
However, looking at the scene where the Franks choose Ganelon as emissary, the reader can easily see how jealousy of Roland could harden into hatred. Charlemagne strictly forbids many of his volunteers from going as emissary. Speaking to Roland and Oliver, he refuses to even consider risking the lives of these dear friends: "Be silent, both of you; / Neither you nor he will set foot there. By this white beard of mine which you see, / The twelve peers are not to be nominated" (ll. 259-62). Charles is bearing in mind the last time he sent emissaries to Marsile. The Saracen king had Charles' ambassadors beheaded.
And yet, a moment later, Charlemagne shows that he has no problem sending Ganelon. Ganelon, in a moment of self-dramatization, reveals that he does not believe he will return alive. The king does not even seem to take him seriously, and almost seems to be mocking him: "You are very soft-hearted / You must go, since it is my command" (ll. 317-8). He refuses to take Ganelon's fear of death seriously, and yet a moment earlier he refused to let the twelve peers risk such a dangerous mission. The implication is clear to Ganelon: he is expendable in a way that the twelve peers aren't. The peers have the king's respect and love. When Ganelon lashes out against Roland, claiming that Roland has nominated him for the mission in hopes of being rid of him, Charlemagne only replies that Ganelon is being disagreeable. The frustration Ganelon must feel is easy to imagine: no matter what he does, no matter how he rages, the king cannot be bothered to worry about his anger. Charlemagne loves the twelve peers, while Ganelon is expendable. Although the poet does not delve into rich psychological characterization, Ganelon's nomination gives us a succinct portrait of rage and jealousy. His betrayal or Roland, despite the lack of information on the two characters' history together, is believable.