Roland receives brief mention in Einhard's account of the massacre at Roncesvalles. The Song of Roland transforms him into an epic hero, a model of knighthood for the new era of the Crusades. Roland is hot-tempered and bold, which wins both criticism and praise from his friends. He is Charlemagne's nephew and right-hand man, and he has conquered vast lands for his liege lord. So important is he to Charlemagne's efforts that Ganelon promises the Saracens that Charlemagne will lose the will to fight if Roland dies. Roland also refuses, from the beginning, to negotiate with the Saracens. He sees the war against Islam as being a question of religious obligation. He is bold, but not prudent or wise. Arguably, his decision not to blow the oliphant early in the battle at Rencesvals leads to the deaths of twenty thousand men, among whom are the very dearest of his friends. And yet he is undeniably the poems most glamorous hero. His death scene is one of the most powerful and memorable scenes in French literature, and his soul is escorted to heaven by saints and angels.
Historically, Charlemagne (742?-814) was a Frankish king who defended Christendom and expanded its borders. In The Song of Roland he is made larger than life, a hale warrior more than two centuries old who wearily continues to battle against paganism. Some have argued that the poem should be called The Song of Charlemagne, as the second half of the poem is devoted to Charlemagne's revenge and the completion of his conquest of Spain. At times in the poem, Charlemagne is a combination of incredible majesty and touching vulnerability. He is arguably the most developed character of the poem, a man of unflagging faith and loyalty who nonetheless is weary of war and loss.
Roland's best friend and brother-in-law. Oliver is wise and prudent, less glamorous then Roland but far more intelligent. He and Roland argue angrily about Roland's command decisions at Rencesvals, and Oliver's advice probably would have saved the rearguard. But he dies reconciled to Roland and deeply mourned by his friend.
Archbishop Turin, clergyman and warrior, is one of the poem's most magnetic and charismatic figures. He grants penance to the troops wholesale before battle, and rallies their spirits at key points. He is also a fearless and powerful warrior, among the bravest and toughest in the whole rearguard. His personality and preaching reflect the new mentality of the Crusades, when the Church's orientation became militant.
Roland's stepfather, and traitor. Ganelon has a deep resentment of Roland that is never completely explained in the poem. Certainly jealousy plays a factor, as we see that Charlemagne treasures Roland the twelve peers while considering Ganelon to be expendable. He conspires with the Saracens to kill Roland and the whole rearguard. He is also bribed for his treachery, which links him to Christianity's great traitor, Judas. At the end of the poem, he is put to trial and executed along with thirty of his kinsmen.
Duke Naimes, wise and prudent counselor of Charlemagne. Like the twelve peers, though not of their number, he is considered invaluable to the king. His prudence leads him into some bad decisions: he urges mercy for Marsile, and encourages diplomatic negotiations with the Saracens. He is cool-headed, but not cold: on witnessing the carnage at Rencesvals, he is collected enough to comfort Charlemagne and remind him of his duties.
The rest of the twelve peers: Anseis, Berenger, Engeler, Gerin, Gerer, Gerard of Roussillon, Oton, Samson, Yvon, and Yvoire
The twelve peers are something like Charlemagne's round table. They are mentioned elsewhere in medieval lore, but the exact list of knights varies. They are brave and loyal to Charlemagne, as well as to each other. They stay with Roland for the dangerous position of rearguard. They fight spectacularly at Rencesvals, slaughtering their twelve Saracen counterparts, but by the end of the battle they are all killed.
Mighty knight, whose job in the rearguard is to patrol the peaks. He comes down from the peaks to report that all of his men are dead. He is one of the last three Franks left standing at Rencesvals.
Danish knight who fights bravely with Charlemagne to avenge Roland. He kills Amborre, bringing down the pennon and Muhammed's standard; at this point, Baligant begins to realize that his religion is false.
At Ganelon's trial, Thierry alone insists on Ganelon's guilt. Though physically unimposing, he agrees to battle Pinabel to settle the issue.
Ganelon's kinsmen and skilled speaker. Large and powerful, he agrees to fight Thierry to settle the issue of Ganelon's guilt.
Roland's wife and Oliver's sister. When she hears of Roland's death, she dies of grief.
Moslem monarch of Spain, though in the poem his holdings have been diminished until only the city of Saragossa remains under Moslem control. With the help of his vassals, he hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne for good. He is not a strong man, and his defeats lead him into despair. He loses his hand to Roland. When Baligant, Marsile's liege lord and the emir of Babylone, is crushed by Charlemagne, Marsile dies of grief.
Marsile's trusted and cunning advisor, a symmetric counterpart to Naimes. While Naime's is prudent and merciful, Blancandrin is treacherous and cunning. With Ganelon, he conspires to bring about Roland's death and the massacre of the rearguard.
Marsile's liege lord. Baligant is the incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, Charlemagne's symmetric counterpart. He is ferocious, noble, and brave. Like Charlemagne, he is ancient and convinced of his religion's rightness. He is slain by Charlemagne is single combat.
Marsile's hot-tempered nephew, Roland's counterpart. He leads the pagan twelve peers in the assault against the rearguard. Roland kills him at Rencesvals.
One of the pagan twelve peers. In some ways, he is Archbishop Turin's counterpart. He is a sorcerer from Barbary, skilled in the black arts, and he is slain by the Archbishop.
One of the pagan twelve. He nearly kills Oliver, but God's intervention protects the Christian knight. He is handsome and an excellent knight, an example of a noble pagan whose only fault is his false religion.
Marsile's uncle and commander of vast forces, including a fearsome contingent from Ethiopia. At Rencesvals, Marsile retreats but Marganice remains. He delivers a fatal blow to Oliver, but Oliver also manages to kill him.
The rest of the Saracen twelve: Falsaron, Malprimis, the emir of Balaguer, an alcamor from Moriane, Rugis, Escremiz, Estorgans, Estramariz, and Chernubles.
Twelve lords selected to lead the assault on the rear guard. They are actually described in more depth than the Frankish twelve peers: the poet takes advantage of the opportunity to create a colorful cast of villains from exotic and sinister lands. Some, like Chernubles, seem like evil itself: he comes from a land of devils, where the sun has never touched. Others, like the emir of Balaguer, seem noble: "Had he been a Christian, he would have been a worthy baron" (l. 899).
Marsile's son. He is killed by Roland.
Marsile's wife and the Queen of the Saracens in Spain. Charlemagne eventually takes her captive and brings her back to his capitol, Aix. At the end of the poem, she converts to Christianity.
Song of Roland Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Song of Roland is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The poem is a legendary account with some basis in reality: in 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was slaughtered in the Roncesvalles (old French: Rencesvals) pass of the Pyrenees mountains. Accounts from this dark period of European history...