Song of Roland

Song of Roland Summary and Analysis of Section 2, Laisses 39-87 or Lines 512-1109


Marsile apologizes for his earlier anger and promises great wealth to Ganelon. Marsile asks Ganelon three times if the two-hundred-year-old Charles will ever tire of war; Ganelon replies that Charles will continue to wage war as long as Roland is alive. Ganelon suggests an ambush: as Charles pulls out of Spain, going through the pass of Cize, he will live a rearguard of twenty-thousand men, led by Roland and Oliver. Marsile should attack the rearguard with a force of a hundred thousand pagans.

Ganelon returns to Charles, bearing gifts from Marsile. The traitor claims that the Marsile's uncle the caliph, along with four hundred thousand Moslems, died in a God-sent sea storm. The Franks celebrate, suspecting nothing.

As the Franks are withdrawing, heading toward the pass of Cize, Charles has strange dreams. He dreams that at the pass of Cize Ganelon seized and broke the king's ash lash. He also dreams that he is at Aix. A boar bites his right arm, and a leopard come from the direction of the Ardennes and attacks him; then, a hunting dog appears and fights the other two animals.

The next day, when Charles asks who should head the rearguard, Ganelon nominates Roland. Roland excepts, although his comment indicate that he is angry at his uncle. He willingly take the king's lance, making a show of not dropping it, as Ganelon dropped the king's glove. He refuses the king's offers of retaining a large force. Oliver will join Roland, as will the archbishop. Other volunteers to stay include the rest of the twelve peers: Anseis, Berenger, Engeler, Gerin, Gerer, Gerard of Roussillon, Oliver, Oton, Samson, Yvon, and Yvoire.

Gautier patrols the heights. Charles treks back toward France, and when at last the men see their native land, they weep. Charles is anxious about his dreams; he fears that they portend treachery and Roland's death.

Marsile assembles his men. Marsile's nephew wants to strike at Roland first. He asks Marsile to select twelve barons to lead the Moslem force. The barons are described in some detail; Falsaron, Corsalis, Malprimis, the emir of Balaguer, an alcamor from Moriane, Rugis, Escremiz, Estorgans, Estramariz, Margariz, and Chernubles.

The Christians hear the Moslem force approaching, and Roland welcomes the chance for battle. He has absolute confidence that they will win: "The pagans are wrong and the Christians are right" (l. 1015). On the hill, Oliver sees the Moslem army and reports that their force is vast. He asks Roland to blow his oliphant horn to summon Charlemagne's forces, but Roland refuses. Oliver pleads for Roland to blow the horn, but Roland will do no such thing. They will fight this battle alone.


Note that Charlemagne has become a figure of Biblical proportions. Marsile expresses awe of him, for Charlemagne continues to fight even though he is more than two hundred years old (l. 539). Like a Biblical patriarch, Charlemagne lives an impossibly long life.

Ganelon's betrayal of Roland is motivated both by jealousy and greed. Jealousy is undoubtedly the primary motivation, but the monetary reward he receives links him to the first traitor of Christianity, Judas, who received thirty pieces of silver for betraying Christ. Additionally, the description of the reward, which takes the form of varied exotic goods, gives the poet a chance to describe wonders from the Orient. Remember that part of the motivation for the Crusades was a lust for foreign goods and a desire to see foreign lands.

Charlemagne's dreams, sent by angels, are accurate predictions of the future. In the first dream, the lance of Charlemagne symbolizes Roland. In the second dream, the leopard and the boar (one beast exotic and African, the other native) symbolize Marsile and Ganelon. The hunting dog is Roland, and the king's injury symbolizes what he will lose: he is bitten on his right arm. Earlier in the poem, Ganelon said that if Charlemagne lost Roland, he would lose his right arm (ll. 596-7).

The virtue of duty is emphasized by the troops reaction on their return to France. The troops weep openly when they see their homes. They are not warmongers, hungry for combat; at the end of the poem, when told that he will have to wage another campaign, Charles reacts with sorrow and weariness. The fight against paganism is a question of Christian duty. Although the battle scenes are described with unmistakable pleasure (they'd be rather tedious to read otherwise), elsewhere in the poem we see a longing for home and peace.

The symmetry between the Franks and the Moslems continues to be striking. The Moslems have twelve companions to match the twelve peers; in fact, we learn more about the Moslem equivalents of the twelve peers than we do about the twelve peers themselves. Charlemagne's faith and love are enough to tell us all we need to know about the twelve peers, but the poet takes a moment to describe the terrible enemy in a more direct way. However, these descriptions are for color and excitement rather than for any nuanced understanding of the enemy. The descriptions of the enemy remain fairly one-dimensional. Describing the Almacor from Oriane, the poet says "No one in the land of Spain is more treacherous" (l. 910). Estorgans and Estramariz are described as "felons, wretched traitors" (l. 941). The villains are as dastardly as they come. But these must also be worthy foes for the Christians. What virtues they have, therefore, are feudal virtues like loyalty to their lord and courage on the battlefield. If praising a Moslem, the poet speaks in terms of qualified admiration: "Had he been a Christian, he would have been a worthy baron" (l. 899).

Roland and Oliver exemplify different virtues. Oliver urges caution; wisdom and restraint are part of what makes him a good night. We have seen this side of Oliver already: during the council with Charlemagne, he argues against sending Roland as emissary because of Roland's hotheadedness. Roland refuses to be cautious. He states that because God is on their side, they will crush the Moslems (in spite of the fact that the Moslems outnumber them five to one). Whether he honestly believes that or not is beside the point. The poet praises both Roland and Oliver: "Roland is brave and Oliver is wise; / Both are marvelous vassals" (ll. 1093-4).

And yet the poem makes Roland a hero, and locks Oliver firmly into place as his sidekick. Arguably, Roland's love of honor and his unshakable faith in his troops lead to his death and the death of all of his troops. Had he heeded Oliver, the Christians might have brought about a Moslem defeat without such a massive loss of Christian life. But the epic belongs to Roland and not to Oliver, and it is Roland who is escorted up to heaven by angels after his death. Later, we will examine in greater detail why the poem celebrates Roland and his particular kind of virtue.

The scene of Oliver's sighting of the enemy and pleading with Roland is an example of a technique unique to The Song of Roland, the parallel laisses. The term is not precise; its key characteristic is a slowing of the pace of narrative and a formula of repetition. Laisses 80 and 81 both start with Oliver at the top of a hill. In both laisses, he reports seeing a vast pagan host. Laisses 83-5 focus on Oliver's request that Roland blow his horn. The request is repeated and refused three times, in very similar terms. But the reader does not have the sense of three requests: rather, one feels that the poet is slowing down his pace and focusing on a single moment, that of Oliver's conversation with Roland, and offering three varying versions of it. The effect is something like a stutter, or a film sequence in slow motion, or, better yet, a film sequence cut so that the same event is seen multiple times from different angles. The consecutive laisses overlap, seeming to repeat partially, but not completely, the same description. The poet will use this technique to great effect during Roland's death scene. At other times, the technique seems merely to be repetition, rather than overlapping versions of the same moment. For example, Charlemagne's mourning for Roland in laisses 209-11 works well as a continuous ritualized outpouring of grief.