Song of Roland

Song of Roland Summary and Analysis of Section 4, Laisses 139-176 or Lines 1842-2396


Roland mourns the deaths of his men, and spurs himself on to kill as many Moslems as he can. Marsile fights fiercely as well, killing several of the twelve peers. Roland's fierce response terrifies the pagans, and a hundred thousand of them, including Marsile, flee. But his uncle Marganice remains, along with his fearsome entourage of troops from Africa. His assembly of warriors includes the contingent from "accursed" Ethiopia, where the men are black and have "large noses and broad ears" (l. 1918). The sight of them unsettles even Roland, who feels certain that the Franks will die. The Ethiopians alone number fifty thousand, and the Franks have only sixty men left.

Marganice battles Oliver, and manages to mortally wound him, but the dying Oliver strikes Marganice a lethal blow. He calls for Roland's help. Oliver fights on, asking Roland to come and fight by his side one last time. On seeing Oliver wounded, Roland faints, but he is so securely strapped to his horse that he cannot fall off. Oliver's sight is so blurred that he cannot recognize Roland, and strikes him a might blow; luckily, Roland is not hurt. When he hears Roland's voice, he apologizes to him. Roland forgives him, and they bow to each other. Oliver dies, and Roland bellows and wails in grief. He faints again.

Now all the Franks are dead, save three: Roland, Gautier, and the Archbishop. The three make a last stand. Gautier is killed by the first volley of lances and spears; the Archbishop fights on bravely, despite being horribly wounded. Roland and the Archbishop fight on. Roland's temples are burst from his last attempt to blow the oliphant, but he blows the horn again, feebly. Far away, Charles hears it, and orders his men to blow their horns in reply. The sound frightens the pagans, who know now that Charlemagne is coming. The pagans let loose a volley of missile weapons, killing Roland's horse right from under him. They flee, and Roland has no way to pursue. He tries to make the Archbishop comfortable, and then goes to search for the bodies of their dear friends. He brings the bodies of the twelve peers back to the Archbishop, who absolves them. Roland weeps and swoons again. The Archbishop goes to get water for him from a stream. On the way there, he collapses, confesses his sins, and dies. Roland wakes and mourns for him.

Roland climbs a hill, faces Spain, grasps his sword and his oliphant, and collapses. A pagan who was playing dead attacks him, but Roland comes to and kills him. Roland begins to strike mighty blows against a stone nearby, recounting the many victories he won for Charles. He hopes to break the sword because he fears it will fall into pagan hands; the sword is full of holy relics. He wears down the stone, but the sword does not break. Roland senses death is near. He confesses his sins. He holds his right glove up to God, and Angels come down to him from heaven. He lays down beneath the pine tree, turns to face Spain, and reflects on his life and struggles. He dies. A cherubin angel, along with Saints Michael and Gabriel, come down to bring his soul to heaven.


The exotic detail of "accursed" Ethiopians is supposed to contribute to an aura of fear. Evil here is foreign, strange, and dark-skinned; a recurring themes of the poem is this equation of evil with foreignness. Evil and foreign are the same thing; this conception of evil is consistent with the aims of the poem, which include inciting Christians to go fight a war against the exotic and sinister forces of Islam.

Things become quite grim for the Christians in this section. We are reaching the deaths of the major characters now (Oliver, the Archbishop, and Rolan), and so more time is spent on each death scene. Christianity permeates the poem even more as the heroes face the next life. Vitally important is the need for each of these characters to confess their sins, even as they die, so that they can be absolved of their wrongdoing before going on to the next world.

Note that Roland, though brave, is no heartless killing machine, nor is he a Stoic. He feels deeply for the loss of life, weeping and even fainting when his dear ones are killed. Oliver's death is one of the most beautiful passages of the whole poem. The scene preceding is about forgiveness. Oliver has accidentally struck Roland, and the wound is a metaphor for the hurt friends do to each other though they have the best intentions. Remember that Roland and Oliver have fought about Roland's command decisions and temperament. But in the end, Oliver leaves this world speaking words of love. The forgiveness between friends parallels the powerful theme of forgiveness in Christianity; just as God forgives the penitent, a good Christian pardons others.

Roland's death scene is hailed by many as the poem's greatest moment. It is the climax of the poem, and it occurs when the poem is only half-over. Some scholars have argued that the second half of the poem, detailing Charlemagne's revenge, was composed and added by a different poet.

Honor remains important to the knight right to the end: he tries to destroy his sword rather than let it fall into enemy hands. He also takes time to recount his victories. The list serves both to show the importance of honor to Roland, while establishing for the audience that he was Charlemagne's greatest warrior. Finally, Roland dies facing the enemy, looking out at the land he died to defend in Charlemagne's name.

The pace slows significantly for this climactic scene. The poet often alternates short, summary-style segments with play-by-play detailed description of a scene. Roland's death, as the great moment of the poem, is narrated slowly, with care. We seem to watch the death repeatedly, and in slow motion.

The poet makes use of repetition to heighten the drama of the moment; there is something of a stutter-effect in the scene, as we read consecutive laisses that at times seem to be delivering different versions of the same moment. The effect is akin to slow motion in film, or doing a rapidly cut sequence with the same action filmed from three different angles. For example, Roland strikes Durendal against stone in laisses 171-3, and the poet's play with tense has no known precedent in earlier literature. The speaker ceases to describe events as following one another successively: instead, we see the same event three times, described with slight difference. In laisse 171, we hear that "The steel grates, but does not break or become notched" (l. 2302). A similar statement is made in both following laisses, but the poet is not merely saying that Roland is continuously striking the stone. Following each of the three statements on the sword's vulnerability, Roland sees that it cannot break and mourns, with slightly different words. There is no attention to "naturalistic" narrative here. We are seeing a moment, described three different ways. The same can be said for Roland's death. Three times, the poet tells us that Roland hands his right glove to God (lines 2365, 2373, and 2389). The poet tells us twice, in two consecutive laisses that angels come down to Roland (line 2374 and 2393-6). This method is sometimes jarring for modern readers, but it is one of the great distinguishing characteristics of the poem. The gesture of lifting the right glove to God is a powerful metaphor for Roland's place. The gesture was traditionally made by vassals to their lords: in offering his right glove to the Lord, Roland is showing that his first and most important liege lord is God. The gesture metaphorically joins Christianity with feudalism, in a way that suits perfectly its function as a piece of Church propaganda. The poet, by way of art, makes the warrior values of the knights parallel the values of Christianity. To serve a Christian king on the field of battle is to serve God.

Important is the fact that Roland dies unvanquished. No enemy has directly defeated him; he has died from the accumulation of wounds, including the wound he inflicted on himself blowing the oliphant. Also significant is Roland's focus on his faith. He weeps for the life he will lose, the life that will end, but forces himself to pay attention to the next world: "He cannot help weeping and heaving great sighs; / But he does not wish to be unmindful of himself" (ll. 2381-2). He needs to focus and confess his sins. Roland exemplifies a certain set of values: Christian, loyal to the death, bold. He is the hero whom angels (a cherubin no less, one of the highest angels in the celestial hierarchy) and saints escort directly to heaven. Despite his errors, his courage and perfect loyalty make him a perfect soldier and Christian.