Roland, ready for battle, encourages his men to fight bravely. He readies his sword, Durendal. Archbishop Turin tells the men to ask forgiveness for their sins, for which he will absolve them, and promises that all who die will be rewarded with martyrdom and a place in heaven. Roland reminds them of the spoils they will win. Oliver, protesting one last time, tells the men to fight bravely. The two armies clash.
Marsile's nephew, Aelroth, insults the Franks, and an angry Roland immediately dispatches him for it. Falsaron, Marsile's brother, is killed by Oliver. Archbishop Turin kills King Corsablix. Gerin dispatches Malprimis of Brigal. Gerer kills the emir. Duke Samson defeats the almacor. Anseis kills Turgis of Turteluse. Engeler kills Escremiz. Oton slays Estorgans. Berenger strikes down Estramariz. Ten of the twelve Saracen peers are dead: only Chernubles and Count Margariz remain.
Margariz makes for Oliver. He smashes through Oliver's shield, penetrates his armor, and destroys his lance. Only God's intervention protects Oliver from being seriously wounded. Meanwhile, Roland is fighting so fiercely that he wears his own lance to splinters. He fights with his sword, Durendal, and kills Chernubles. The twelve peers fight bravely. Oliver, too, wears his lance down to a stub, and then at Roland's suggestion unsheathes his sword, Halteclere.
The battle goes on, with the Franks slaughtering the pagans even though the Christian force is vastly outnumbered. But the Franks, too, suffer heavy casualties: "How many lives of fine young Franks are lost!" (l. 1401). Midbattle, the poet breaks to remind us that all of this carnage was caused by Ganelon's treachery, but assures us that Ganelon will get his in the end: "In the trial at Aix he was condemned to hang / And thirty of his relatives with him" (ll. 1409-10). In France, as the battle in Spain continues, storms and earthquakes ravage the land. The disasters are signs of God's sadness for Roland.
An even larger pagan force, led by Marsile, appears on the horizon. The battle now begins to turn against the Christians. The archbishop is the first to dive into battle against the new force, and he kills the mighty pagan Abisme. The courage of the Franks begins to falter, and Turpin tries to encourage them. He tells them that death is certain for all of the Christians on the field, but paradise awaits them. They must fight bravely.
The pagan Climborin kills Engeler, one of the twelve peers. Oliver avenges him. The pagan Valdebrun kills Samson, another one of the twelve peers. Roland avenges him. Malquiant, an African, slays Anseis. Anseis is avenged by Archbishop Turpin. A mighty pagan named Grandonie kills a number of Franks, including three of the twelve peers: Gerin, Gerer, and Berenger. The Franks are falling fast. Roland charges after Grandonie and defeats him. He and Oliver work themselves into such a great frenzy that the Moslem forces begin to retreat. With the Archbishop, Roland and Oliver head up a strong offensive: "Those whom they kill cannot easily be counted. / It is written in the charters and records, / That, as the annals state, there were four thousand" (ll. 1683-5). But the Franks suffer heavy losses, until only a handful are left, and Roland tells Oliver that he wants to blow the oliphant to call for Charlemagne's help. Oliver condemns the action as coming too late to do any good. The two friends argue, but the Archbishop begs them to set aside their anger. Although blowing the horn will not save the rearguard, the Archbishop says, at least Charlemagne will hear the horn and come to avenge their deaths. The Franks can also come back and bury their dead.
Roland blows the horn. The effort is so intense his temples burst: three times, Charlemagne hears the horn. Each time, Ganelon denies that the sound indicates a battle. Finally, Duke Naimes says that Roland, to continue blowing so long, would need to be in great danger. Duke Naimes also says that Ganelon's advice reveals that he has betrayed Roland. Charlemagne and the Franks prepare for battle. Charlemagne has Ganelon chained and put in the custody of the cooks. The main Frankish force sets off, but they are too late.
Religion and faith animate every aspect of The Song of Roland. Remember the poem's place as a piece of propaganda for the Crusades: significantly, the battle opens with Archbishop Turin promising salvation to the Franks. He absolves them, en masse, of their sins, and then promises that any who die will be given the glorious rewards due to martyrs. His promise is not only for the Franks, but for the poem's audience. All who listen are meant to be stirred to set off to fight for their Church. Roland adds to this reward, promising that victory will mean glorious spoils. Oliver speaks, reminding them of the value of duty and courage. All of this encouragement has two audiences: the Franks in the poem, and the French nobles listening to the poem. The poem is explicitly a piece of propaganda.
The battle scenes are described with striking detail. Although the poet does not make use of metaphor or simile, and very rarely gives us psychology, he does give us a fair amount of rich visual detail. Armor is described to its fine points; he also dwells on the noble faces and physical presence of the knights on both sides. We hear vivid descriptions of knights raising flags, giving their battle cries ("Monjoie!" for the Franks) and insulting each other before battle. War becomes pageantry.
The descriptions of the battles follow a pattern. The battle is described not in terms of troop movements or grand strategy; for all of its vividness, the battle is impossible to recreate on a map. Instead, the poet describes the battle in terms of separate combats, knight-to-knight, with each combat lasting exactly one laisse. In the beginning of the battle, the Franks fare well. The twelve peers of Charlemagne crush the twelve Saracent peers. In a series of single combats, ten of the twelve Saracen peers are swiftly killed by their Frankish counterparts. This method of description turns the battle into more of a tournament than a war. Rather than the brutal chaos of war, the poet gives us a kind of combat where chivalry matters. Fights are one-on-one, man-to-man. There is time for Saracens to insult Frankish honor, and time for the Franks to answer the insults by killing the Saracens.
This fairly ritualized account of battle is juxtaposed to a very gory descriptive style. Some of the killing blows are violent to fantastic extremes. Roland, after hearing Aelroth's insults to Franksih honor, delivers a deathblow that is almost comically brutal: "He breaks his shield and hauberk open; / He splits his breast and shatters all his bones, / Severing from his back his entire spine" (ll. 1199-1201). The ritualized account of battle comes alongside the incredibly gory descriptions of death. But the gore becomes part of the ceremonial character of the poem: one could hardly call this descriptive style "realistic." It is first and foremost vivid, and helps to liven up the battle scene, which otherwise would be monotonous.
The poet takes pains to show the superiority of the Frankish knights. We go down the list of battles between the twelve peers on both sides, and the Frankish twelve peers smash through the Saracens quickly. The poet is so busy showing the superiority of the Franks that we're someone shocked to learn that only sixty Franks are left by laisse 127. The reversal seems to happen while we are not watching. Marsile arrives with a greater force in laisse 111, but even so it takes time for the Franks to begin to lose the battle. Starting in laisse 117, we witness the deaths of three of the twelve peers. Their deaths are avenged by Roland, Oliver, and the Archbishop.
But the poet makes sure to remind us repeatedly that Roland and his companions will lose. In laisse 110, he breaks from the action to tell us that no help will come for Roland and the others, and also to assure us that Ganelon will be punished for his treachery. He also breaks to speak of the tremors and storms in France, which show "great sorrow for the death of Roland" (l. 1437).
The Archbishop is one of the poem's more vivid characters. He is a member of the clergy, but he is also a warrior, absolving the troops of all of their sins one moment and then rushing into the thick of battle in the next. At key points, he revives the spirits of the troops. He defeats the fearsome pagan Abisme, inspiring the troops (laisses 114-5). He reminds the troops after this duel that they will die, but will wake in Paradise (ll. 1520-3). He is made to look like the perfect embodiment of a holy man in the age of the crusades: he is a metaphor the new, warlike church that will lead the battle against Islam. His militant character reflects the new direction the Church had taken since Pope Urban II's speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095. Pope Urban II promised that war against the Moslems was holy and that Christians who fought it would be granted full penance. The Archbishop is both warrior and sage. He intercedes when Roland Oliver begin to fight, reminding the two knights that their real enemy is the pagan horde.
Now, Roland belatedly blows the horn. Many modern readers cannot resolve the contradiction of the poem: Roland refuses to blow the horn earlier over a question of honor, dooming his army. Yet he ends up blowing the horn anyway. His delay costs the lives of twenty thousand Christian. Oliver is furious about it, and condemns Roland's vacillations.
But Roland's heroism has nothing to do with sound decision-making. He, and not Oliver, is mourned by God himself. And the Archbishop's advice about blowing the horn sidesteps the issues of honor and loss of life: blowing the horn late does not lead to a loss of honor, because Charlemagne needs to know what has happened. Part of the feudal system of values is that a good liege lord avenges loyal vassals.
Roland's virtue is courage, and his brand of courage is one that modern readers will most probably associate with fanaticism. Militarily, he makes a bad decision. He sacrifices twenty-thousand lives because of faith and a love for honor. But we must also remember The Song of Roland's place as a piece of propaganda. Roland is exactly the kind of man that the Church needed at the time of the poem's composition. The poem was written sometime in the eleventh or twelfth centuries, with most scholars estimating the date of composition as somewhere between 1098-1100. This time is the era of the First Crusade. The poem is meant to inspire its audience to acts of courage. The poem celebrates courage, zeal, and faith to one's lord above the kind of virtue possessed by Oliver. According to the poem, bravery is more important than wisdom, as shown by the fact that God himself mourns for Roland.
The position of the narrator is worth examining. The narrator does not claim to be an eyewitness to the events of the song, but he does invoke annals to lend his story authority. Giving the death count, the speaker says "Those whom they killed can be easily counted. / It is written in the charters and records, / That, as the annals state, there were four thousand" (ll. 1683-5). History is alluded to for effect, for grandeur. The poem has very little to do with actual historical events, but the vague allusions to "annals" and "records" make the audience feel as if they are hearing the story of one of history's great moments.