What Is "The Song of Roland" About?

by Alex Tannin

"The Song of Roland" is usually regarded as the oldest surviving work of French literature. It is an epic poem dating from the mid-12th century. The original writer is unknown, although it's thought the manuscript and storyline have been altered repeatedly over the years. "The Song of Roland" is a celebration of the heroic acts of King Charlemagne.


King Charlemagne is waging war against the Saracens of Spain. Only one of their strongholds remains: Saragossa, governed by King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile strikes a deal with Charlemagne: He will kill the King of Spain and convert to Christianity if Charlemagne leaves Saragossa alone. Charlemagne accepts these conditions, but Marsile soon reneges on the deal. Charlemagne's court convenes to decide on an envoy to send to Saragossa to negotiate. Charlemagne's nephew, Roland, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is convinced Roland is trying to get him killed, so on his mission he betrays information to the Saracens about Charlemagne's movements so they can kill him.

Roland's Death

Ganelon returns to Charlemagne's court, and Charlemagne and his peers set off for Marsile. Among those present are Roland's best friend, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin, a clergyman skilled in armed combat. Members of Charlemagne's rear guard are ambushed by the Saracens at Roncevaux and are wiped out. Before dying, Roland blows his oliphant -- a horn -- so Charlemagne is aware of what's going on and can avenge his death. Roland's soul is lifted to heaven by Saint Gabriel and Saint Michael.

Saragossa's Fall

Charlemagne arrives at the scene and sets his men after the Saracens. Many are chopped to pieces or drowned in the River Ebro. Marsile escapes, although his right hand is cut off. The Emir of Babylon, Baligant, offers his support to Marsile and sets off in pursuit of Charlemagne. Charlemagne defeats him in a one-on-one battle, with help from God. Charlemagne's forces capture Saragossa and destroy all non-Christian religious items. All citizens are forced to convert to Christianity, with the exception of Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne's forces kidnap her and take her back to their capital.

Ganelon's Trial

Ganelon is tried for treason and found guilty. He is given a traitor's death and has his hands and feet tied to four horses, tearing him apart. Thirty of his kinsmen are also executed. Bramimonde announces her conversion to Christianity, setting off large-scale celebrations in the kingdom. However, that evening the Archangel Gabriel visits Charlemagne in a dream and tells him he must continue his fighting overseas and leave the kingdom as soon as possible.

About the Author

Born in Northampton, Alex Tannin has been writing across the journalistic landscape since 2003. His articles have appeared in "The Guardian," "Bizarre Magazine" and for Gaydar Radio and the Press Association, among others. He holds a Postgraduate Diploma in print journalism from Leeds Trinity and All Saints College.