Summary of "The Song of Roland"

by Lanh Ma

"The Song of Roland" is an epic French poem penned by an anonymous author; the Online Medieval and Classical Library states that the text may date to the middle of the 11th century. In French it is known as "La Chanson de Roland," and it relays the story of Roland, the mythical knight of the historical king Charlemagne, or Charles the Great. The story features themes of loyalty, courage and religion.


The titular character of the work is Roland, nephew of Charlemagne, his stepfather, Ganelon, and Charlemagne himself. All of these characters, along with Archbishop Turin and Roland's best friend, Oliver, are aligned with the Frankish army. Two other Frankish characters are Pinabel, Ganelon's relative, and Thierry, a Frankish knight. Ranged against the Franks are the Saracens, led by King Marsile, Queen Bramimonde and the emir Baligant.


After seven years of war, Charlemagne has defeated all of the Saracens in Spain with the exception of the stronghold at the Saragosssa. To trick the Franks, King Marsile offers to convert to Christianity, with the full intention of reneging later. While deciding on an envoy to send to the Saracens, Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon for the task. Ganelon considers this a plot by his stepson to kill him, and betrays Charlemagne, surreptitiously deciding to align with the Saracens.


Ganelon informs the Saracens that the best place to attack the Frankish army is at the rear guard, which is lead by Roland. The Saracens attack, and the entire 20,000 man guard is killed, with Roland refusing to sound a call for help to the main army. He holds off until the very end when, with his dying breath, he summons the army to see the result of the battle. Charlemagne and the main force chase the Saracens, who are unable to get away because God halts the sun in the sky, denying them the cover of night.


King Marsile returns to Sargossa with terrible losses, though he is joined by the emir Baligant, who brings reinforcements. Another battle ensues, in which Baligant is killed in single combat with Charlemagne and the Franks emerge victorious. The Muslims of the city are forced to convert, with the exception of Queen Bramimonde, who Charlemagne desires to convert of her own free will. Ganelon is convicted of treason and drawn and quartered, while Queen Bramimonde decides to convert to Christianity. Later, the angel Gabriel appears to Charlemagne, revealing to the weary king that he must once again go to war against pagans.