Song of Roland

Song of Roland Summary and Analysis of Section 7, Laisses 215-272 or Lines 2974-3674


The pagans arrive. Charlemagne puts trust in his vassals, delegating responsibility and asking Rabel and Guineman to take on the responsibilities of Roland and Oliver. Following is a lengthy description of the troops assembled on both sides: on the Frankish side, valiant knights from all over Christendom are ready to fight. Charlemagne prays to God for victory. On the pagan side, heathen knights from all kinds of exotic and strange lands prepare for battle. Malprimis, son of Baligant, requests the honor of first strike, and Baligant grants it. Malprimis will bring Torleu, King of Persia, and Dapamort, King of Lycia, to head up the front line. There is more organization of divisions, and then the battle begins.

Rabel kills Torleu. Dapamort is slain by Guineman. Malprimis makes his way toward Charles, and both Charles and Baligant call out encouraging words to their troops. Duke Naimes kills Malprimis. Canabeus, brother of the emir, wounds Naimes horribly; only divine intervention saves Naimes's life. Charles is horrified to see his good friend so hurt, and kills Canabeus. The emir himself slaughters Guineman.

The battle escalates. Gemalfin, a trusted counselor of the emir, informs him that his brother Canabeus and son Malprimis are dead. Baligant grieves. He asks his trusted friend Jangleu if they will win the day, and Jangleu tells Baligant that their gods will not help them: Charles and his Franks will kill them all. Baligant's resolve is unshaken: "Come what may, he does not wish to hide" (l. 3522). He blows his bugle, rallying his troops, and they mount a brutal assault against the Franks. Count Ogier scolds Charlemagne, reminding him that they must avenge these deaths. They fight boldly, and Count Ogier strikes down Amborre, bringing the dragon pennon to the ground. On seeing Muhammad's standard fall, Baligant "begins to realize / That he is wrong and Charlemagne right" (ll. 3553-4).

The battle continues on through the day, and evening falls. As Charles calls out "Monjoie," the Frankish battle cry, and Baligant calls out "Precieuse," the pagan battle cry, the two kings recognize each other's strong voices. They clash, shattering each other's shields and knocking each other off of their horses. They get up and fight with their swords. Each offers the other a chance to be his vassal in exchange for peace, but both offers are refused. Baligant delivers Charlemagne a powerful blow, exposing the Frankish king's skull, but the angel Gabriel speaks words of encouragement in the king's ear. Charlemagne smashes Baligant's skull. The pagans retreat and the Franks give chase, slaughtering almost all of them.

The chase goes all the way back to Saragossa. Marsile and Bramimonde are horrified by the sight; Marsile dies of grief, and the devils carry his soul to hell. The Franks take Saragossa. Bramimonde surrenders the keys to the towers. The Christians smash the holy relics of the Jews and the Moslems, and Charlemagne proclaims that those who do not convert to Christianity will be put to death. Bramimonde is the exception. She will be taken to France as captive, so that she can become a Christian by her own decision.


The symmetry between Baligant and Charlemagne continues. Just as Charlemagne has a sword called "Joyeuse," in the pommel of which is embedded a shard of the lance that killed Christ, Baligant has a might sword called "Precieuse." In this case, the symmetry has resulted from Baligant's imitation of Charlemagne: "From his arrogance he gave it a name; / From that of Charles about which he had heard / He gave it the name of Preciuse" ( ll. 3143-5). Baligant's parroting of Charlemagne is an excellent way to keep the poem's characteristic symmetry while making Baligant inferior to Charlemagne. He imitates the Christian king, but from the poet's diction indicates that considering himself equal to Charles is pure presumption, coming "from his arrogance."

The equation of Evil with the exotic continues. In Baligant's ranks there are truly fantastic creatures: "And the next [line is] of the large-headed Milceni; / On their spines, along the middle of their backs, / They are as bristly as pigs" (ll. 3221-3). We also have the men from the Occian desert: "Their skins are as hard as iron. / For this reason they scorn helmets and hauberks" (ll. 3249-50).

The scene of preparation alternates between Franks and Moslems, with each side in turn preparing divisions from the farthest reaches of the known world. We also have prayers for victory, and the two rulers giving encouraging talks to their men.

As with the battle at Rencesvals, the poem's account of war is ritualized, rhythmic. Usually, one laisse is devoted to the combat between two men: we have the men moving toward each other, the clash, and one death. The climactic battle takes longer: the battle between Charlemagne and Baligant takes five laisses.

God is conceived of by both sides as an intervener, and events on earth, even without miraculous intervention, are ascribed to him. Baligant begins to fear he might be wrong when he sees the standard of Muhammad fall. Like Bramimonde earlier, who took the Saracen loss as proof that the gods had abandoned them, Baligant ascribes earthly events to divine antecedents.

In the final battle between Charlemagne and Baligant, the two men are evenly matched. They both dehorse the other, and break the other's shield. Baligant delivers Charlemagne a nearly-lethal blow, and only the encouragement of the angel Gabriel helps Charlemagne to focus. The divine intervention insures a Christian victory and affirms the correctness of the Franks' faith.

Readers might object at this point, wondering why God did nothing to help Roland. Worth point out is the fact that the intervention is slight: it amounts to little more than the sound of the angel's voice, which calls Charlemagne to his senses. But even so, it seems strange that a God who can stop the sun in the sky does nothing to save the rearguard. Equally strange is the fact that God intervenes to save warriors at some points, only to let them die later. The most notable example of this phenomenon is Oliver, who is saved in laisse 103, but dies not long afterward. Here, the theme of divine plan and free will might best be considered in comparison with the same themes in another great war epic, Homer's Iliad.

In the Iliad, the relationship between fate and free will is often paradoxical. At times, the gods seem to control events. At others, even they seem subject to fate. And at other times, humans seem able to defy fate; when Achilles takes on Troy in a particularly fierce assault, the gods interfere to prevent Troy from being taken before the right time.

Some of the same paradoxes run through The Song of Roland. God interferes at choice times, but certain choices are left up to men. No direct divine hand is seen in Roland's fateful decision not to blow the oliphant. Charlemagne's dreams in laisses 185-6 have ambiguous endings, leading some interpreters to conclude that fate is still in his hands (although an alternative interpretation is proposed in this ClassicNote). At any rate, in both of the situations predicted by those dreams, God intervenes at decisive moments. But in events like the death of Roland, the poet has problems that do not exist in Homer.

For the ancient Greeks, the gods were often hostile. Cruel fate was therefore not a surprising thing. But for the Christian world that produced The Song of Roland, cruel fate, the deaths of heroes, and the suffering of the good had to be reconciled to the idea that the universe was ruled by an all-powerful and benevolent God. The solutions here in the poem may seem unsatisfactory to modern audiences.

Implicitly in this poem, the struggle of evil, to mean something, must be left in the hands of men. Although Gabriel intercedes during Charlemagne's duel with Baligant, the intervention is light: Charles is still the one who delivers the killing blow. God provides aid, but it is in fighting for good that man achieves new heights of greatness. Consider Roland: he is arguably a foolish commander, but because of his bravery and the depths of his passion and love (he weeps and swoons for his dying men, remember), he is God's favorite. And Roland's death arguably fits well with a divine plan. It leads to Charlemagne's revenge, which cripples Moslem power and drives the Moslems out of Spain for good (in the poem, at least). And arguably, Roland's death is an end in itself. Without suffering and martyrdom, Roland would not rise to the heights that he does. His ascent into heaven, following his terrible grief and death, has a kind of beauty that (from a certain point of view) would not be possible if God simply waved his hand and made the world a perfect place.

The poem also must be considered within the context of its purpose. We are reading propaganda, with some fairly brutal elements. Charlemagne actions after the conquest of Saragossa usually do not fit most modern readers' ideas of a magnanimous victory. He destroys all sacred items of others faiths, and he executes anyone who does not wish to become Christian. And then, without the slightest sense of irony, the poet says that Bramimonde is going to be brought back as a captive in France so that she can convert later "through love" (l. 3274). Because of the time and purpose of the poem, all actions by Christians against Moslems are above judgment. Brutality against the hellbound is perfectly justified. The simplistic ideology guiding The Song of Roland is reflected in many of the poem's characteristics: clean, tidy symmetry; characters more or less devoid of psychological depth; unabashed equation of foreignness with evil alongside an undisguised avarice for foreign wealth. Some readers find these characteristics off-putting. Almost all would agree that for all of its preoccupation with righteousness and Christian goodness, this epic poem is far less sophisticated, and far more brutal and barbaric, than the earlier epics of Rome, Greece, and India.