Click here for the text of The Song of Roland
Charles the Great invaded Spain in the year 778. He had been invited in by the governor of the strategic city of Zaragoza, who had promised to turn the city over to him. He entered through a pass in the western Pyrenees Mountains and marched through the lands of the Basques, a people who had managed to maintain their freedom from Muslim domination and who were not too pleased with the Franks entering their land without even asking permission. Charles took care of their objections by seizing hostages and allowing his men to loot and plunder the countryside as he headed east to Zaragoza. When he reached his objective, however, he found that the Muslim governor had changed his mind, and that the gates of the city were closed to him. After lingering a while to no purpose, he and his army began to retrace their steps. The Basques were still angry with his earlier treatment of them and, as his army went through the pass of Roncevalles, attacked his rearguard. As Einhard noted in his Life of Charlemagne, a few nobles were killed, including "Hrudoland, lord of the Marches of Brittany."
By the 900's, the shrine of Saint James of Compostela, located in the
northeastern corner of Spain, had become one of the most popular
pilgrimage sites of western Europe, and the main route from France to
Saint James lay through the pass of Roncevalles. Over time, Roland became
one of the heroes whose battlefield passing pilgrims were eager to see,
and, eventually, he became the protagonist of an epic poem. Although
historians have argued about when the written version that has survived
was composed, most now agree that it dates from sometime about 1200, and
was written somewhere in northern France. It is the most famous of a
number of similar tales, more or less based upon the events of the era of
the Carolingian monarchs and called chansons de geste. This means
"songs of deeds," and these songs were the preferred "literature" of the
nobility of the twelfth century. They were sung to their audience, much as
Beowulf was composed to be sung to an audience the members of
which were most illiterate.
The idea that Roland and the other chansons were songs of deeds lead many readers to miss the complexity of these poems. If one views them simply as heroic tales in which one warrior chops up a bunch of other warriors, they can seem rather primitive and quickly become boring. The fact of the matter is that many of the chansons are actually concerned with legal points, and more than a few, like The Song of Roland, have an actual trial as their central episode. You will see this again when you read The Song of the Cid. They are much more like television programs such as Law and Order or Perry Mason than All-Star Wrestling or reruns of Rocky.
This is not to say that the smash and stab parts of these poems are not important. The audience probably loved them, but they realized that they were incidental to the main action, much as the chase scenes in which all sorts of cars smash into each other and blow up, scattering debris over half the city, provide excitement but are not really essential to the plot. Perhaps this is overstating the case. One tends to find out a good deal about the characters of the actors in the drama during these episodes. But it is best to concentrate your attention on the events leading up to the battle-scenes rather than on the blood and glory sections themselves. Another thing to remember is that medieval authors were not "primitive" or "unsophisticated." They did expect their audience to pay close attention to what they were relating and to think about what they were hearing or reading. They also expected them to be familiar with the situations being pictured for them.
It was the duty of every feudal vassal, for instance, to "pay court" to his lord. That meant that the vassal was supposed to present himself on those occasions when the lord called for an assembly to consider problems, to hear complaints and settle disputes, to receive embassies, or anything else requiring serious thought and discussion. Most of the audience of The Song of Roland had experience in such meetings or was at least learning how one should behave when their lord asked them for "aid and counsel." So it should not come as a surprise to see that Roland begins by providing the background necessary to understand why Charlemagne had called a council of his nobles and what issue the members of the council were suppose to discuss and offer advice about. You might keep in mind that a lord was supposed to treat his vassals with respect and honor. This meant that he couldn't ask for their advice and simply reject it if it didn't suit him since that would not be showing his counselors the respect they deserved. Medieval councils were not rubber stamps [They didn't have rubber, in any event. It was one of the things that they discovered in the New World.]
So we have a meeting of the council to decide whether to attack Marsile of Zaragoza, send another ambassador to negotiate with him (he had the last two ambassadors chopped up into little pieces and sent them back to Charlemagne in a basket), or simply pack up and go home. When the council begins, Roland is the first to speak, arguing against going home even though the army has been in Spain for seven years and has gotten quite war-weary. Whoa! Roland is only about eighteen years old, a rather rash young man. It's customary in council for the oldest and most experienced members to speak first, and Roland has just behaved in a very offensive manner. Of course, he is Charlemagne's nephew, the son of Charlemagne's sister, but that's not good enough to excuse his action. Ganelon, as his stepfather, admonishes him, as it is a father's (or a stepfather's) duty to rein his son in when he is behaving badly. But Roland turns on Ganelon and simply ridicules him. Ganelon tells Roland that he has never shown the proper deference to his stepfather, a way of pointing out to the other members of the council that he is not responsible for his stepson's lack of manners. Roland answers by insulting him even more viciously.
Something is obviously very wrong here, and whatever it is simply gets worse. The council is finally swayed into recommending another embassy. I don't know about you, but I would not have relished the idea of being an ambassador to a man who had a record of chopping ambassadors up into little pieces. The members of the council volunteer one by one, and Charlemagne rejects them on the grounds that he can't afford to lose them. Roland then volunteers his stepfather, and Charlemagne accepts the nomination. Ganelon flies into a rage and says that Roland is trying to get him killed. He then promises three times to take vengeance on Roland and his buddies if he gets out of this alive. Bad show! This sort of declaration, repeated three times is known as a "defiance" and is, according to the feudal law of the times, the start of a legitimate feud. If the person issuing the defiance succeeds in killing the person or persons whom he defies, or if he is killed by them, it will not be considered a crime but the resolution of a private matter. Of course, one is not allowed to issue a defiance in a court or council, but Charlemagne does nothing to stop it [except to say "tut, tut"]. So Charlemagne gives Ganelon a sealed letter to deliver to Marsile, outlining terms for a peace, and hands him the wand that will make Ganelon his herald and official representative. But the wand falls before Ganelon can get a grip on it, and he has to pick it up from the ground rather than receiving it from Charlemagne's hand.
This episode sets in motion everything that follows, and it poses a lot of questions that you need to keep in mind if you're ever going to figure out what's actually going on. Why did Roland jump into the discussion out of turn and why didn't Charlemagne call him to order after he simply laughed at his stepfather for trying to correct him? Why is Roland so intent on keeping the war going? How old is he, really -- remember that the army has been in Spain for seven years. Why does Charlemagne reject everyone until he's given the choice of Ganelon? Why does Ganelon suddenly claim that Roland is trying to kill him? Why doesn't Charlemagne intervene and stop Ganelon's defiance? If the council has been called to decide what to do, how come Charlemagne has a letter to Marsile already written and sealed? When the ceremony of the passing of the baton breaks down, why doesn't Charlemagne simply start over again? Did Ganelon simply fumble the pass, or did Charlemagne drop the wand? If Charlemagne did drop the wand, did he do in by accident or on purpose? Why are the counsellors so upset about someone dropping a stick, anyway?
Like the writer of a mystery story, the author of The Song of Roland has given you a lot of clues that he expects you to follow up as you learn the rest of the story. And like the writer of a mystery story, the author has given you clues that seem to point in all sorts of directions. And, if you've read many good mysteries, you are probably aware that the most important clue might very well be something that the author did not say. That's a good thing to keep in the back of your mind as you begin to read The Song of Roland. Is there something important that the author seems to have left out?
Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
The University of Kansas