Song of Roland

Song of Roland Summary and Analysis of Section 5, Laisses 177-186 or Lines 2397-2569


Charlemagne and his army arrive to find the fields of the dead at Rencesvals. There is great mourning for the dead, and Charles decides to pursue the enemy. He leaves a contingent of men in charge of guarding the bodies, and then sets off in hot pursuit of the pagans. He prays to God for aid, and God performs a great miracle: he stops the sun's movement, prolonging daylight so that the French can catch up to the Saracens. They catch the Saracens in the Val Tenebro, and the slaughter begins. Many of the pagans drown in the River Ebro as they try to escape. The Christians enjoy great wealth. The Franks make camp in the Val Tenebro, exhausted. Charles remains in full armor. The poet takes a moment to describe Charlemagne's sword, Jouise: embedded in its pommel a piece of the lance that pierced Christ.

Charlemagne has strange dreams that night, sent by Angels. He sees a great battle between his army and an array of terrifying beasts; the dream does not make clear who will win. In his second dream, he sees a chained bear. Thirty bears descend from the hills, and ask to have the bear back again. From Charlemagne's palace a hunting dog comes, attacking the largest of the bears. Again, Charlemagne cannot see who wins.


The mourning for the dead is heartfelt, intense. Many of the men swoon, and Charles feels incredible sorrow for the deaths of his men. Military prowess in this poem has nothing to do with Stoicism, or repression of tender feelings. The weeping for the dead is seen as natural, human. Deep feeling speaks well for a soldier; there is no need to hide tender emotions. Charlemagne, the warrior-king par excellence, grieves deeply for his men: "He tugs at his beard like a men beset with grief" (l. 2414).

But grief must be channeled into war. We come here to a theme of the poem and one of the most important parts of the feudal system of values: revenge. Part of a liege lord's duty is to avenge his vassals after their death, and there is no time to lose. Without even enough time to bury the dead, Charlemagne sets off in hot pursuit of the fleeing pagan horde. The one-sidedness of the battle, plus God's miraculous intervention with the sun, re-establishes soundly that the Lord will side with the Christians. For reasons we cannot understand, He has allowed a pagan victory; but here, wrong is set right and pagans are killed in droves.

The splinter from the lance that killed Christ reflects the time of the poem's composition. During the Crusades, knights returned from the Holy Land bearing countless relics of dubious origin. Many carried supposed pieces of the one true cross, or the lance that pierced Christ's side; any piece of wood found in or around Jerusalem was likely to have fantastic claims made about its origin. The relics supposedly had great powers as well, and Charlemagne's possession of such a valuable item adds to his grandeur as a ruler.

Once again, Charles has God-sent dreams. His dream of his army being attacked by beasts anticipates the fight against the Emir. The dream about the bears predicts Ganelon's trial. The bear is Ganelon, the thirty bears are his kinsmen, the large bear who fights is Pinabel, and the loyal hunting dog is Thierry. The fact that the hunting dog comes from the direction of the palace takes ambiguity from the dream: the hunting dog, Thierry, is loyal, while the others are enemies of goodness. But God does not show the ending of these dreams. One interpretation of the dreams' ambiguity is that it is up to Charlemagne to secure victories. Another interpretation is that the dreams' ambiguity creates more sympathy for Charlemagne. God may know the future, but Charles does not see the future with any more definitiveness than the rest of us. He therefore goes into battle with as much fear as a normal man. Often the poem juxtaposes Charles' godlike strength with vulnerability. He has the age of a biblical patriarch, which makes him seem both awesome and frail: in his mourning he seems much like a weary grandfather.