“The Song of Roland” communicates the values of fealty to lord and land that are combined with duty, heroism, and trustworthiness. The struggle that dominates the core of the poem, the battle between King Marsile and Roland, is not just a battle between Christianity and paganism—it is a battle for the soul of fealty and everything that medieval France would have held so dearly.
The Song of Roland is a stirring of French medieval poem and classic of medieval literature. It is the most well-known chanson de geste (song of heroic deeds) and is an exhilarating and remarkable synthesis of the Frankish heroic and tribal tradition and Christianity. The poem manages to combine the Frankish virtues and values of honor, heroism, and fealty with the Christian theology of love, truth, and wisdom in a dazzling tale that truly represents the birth of the literary genus of medieval Christendom: that mixture of the heroic tradition of Frankish-Saxon tribalism and of the theological virtues of Christianity, which eventually culminated in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered in the sixteenth century.
Though the poem’s author remains anonymous, the poet sets the tale in a historical context (though he certainly aggrandizes aspects of history as all great poets do). The historical situatedness of the poem is the late eighth century in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Tours and the Frankish defeat of Islamic forces that had conquered the Iberian Peninsula and invaded southern France. Charlemagne, not yet the emperor of Christendom (though stated to be emperor in the poem), had forged an alliance with the Abbasid Caliphate to afford him a campaign against the breakaway caliphate power in Iberia: the Umayyad Caliphate now centered in Cordoba. Having an alliance with the Baghdad caliphs, Charlemagne, with invitation from pro-Abbasid emirs in northern Spain, invaded the Pyrenees and began a long campaign against the Umayyads. The battle of which the poem sings is loosely based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass where Basque troops ambushed the rearguard of Charlemagne’s forces and annihilated it.
The date of the poem’s composition is still debated. Some favor an early date around the 1030s-1040s while others prefer a later date around the year 1100. The later date argument rests on the obvious theological drama of the poem. Christianity is represented by the Franks. “Paganism” is represented by the Saracens of King Marsile and the Islamic religion that they profess. Moreover, the twelfth-century dating also puts the poem at the birth of the chanson de geste genre which included a trilogy of heroic poems dealing with the Crusades known as the “Crusade Cycle” (Chanson d’Antioche, Chanson des Chétifs, and Chanson de Jérusalem). The argument for the late date rests upon the assumption that the poem reflects the realities of the First Crusade and the battle between Christianity and Islam. This, however, is somewhat inconsequential to us, given the intensity of the poem and its values and symbolism which doesn’t depend on the early or later dating of the poem.
The poem is filled with grand characters given tremendous description. We are told of gallant knights and feudal lords with named swords and horses. We are told of their shiny armor, gold-platted shields, and glistening rings and necklaces. We are told of men with “broad” and “noble” physiques, long beards, and fierce eyes. The men of the poem come to life in a deeply picturesque way.
But it is in these characters that the poem communicates the values and virtues that the poet found important. The battle between Christianity and paganism that pervades the poem is not just a theological struggle; it is also a battle between fealty and truth against treachery and deceit. The characters who are lauded in the poem are depicted as being “true vassals” and honorable and heroic men, men who speak wisdom and truth and do not deceive those around them. The characters who are excoriated are depicted as conniving traitors and deceitful liars whose treachery and lies are the cause of their demise. As such, the feudal values of eleventh and twelfth century France are married to Christianity while the negative values of eleventh and twelfth century France are associated with pagan Saracenism.
There are four principal characters in the poem: Roland, Charlemagne (Charles in English translations), Marsile, and Ganelon. Even though Roland’s companions Oliver and Archbishop Turpin are also central characters, I have not included them among the four principal movers because Oliver and Turpin already exhibit and embody what Roland largely embodies—that is, fealty. The principal characters of the drama embody the values, positive or negative, that feudal France would have understood and known well.
Charlemagne is the simplest character to understand. He is the head of the feudal system and the emperor and king of the “fair land of France.” He is both general and missionary, king and servant. Charlemagne’s first introduction is in the opening lines of the poem, “Charles the king, our great emperor.” Charlemagne’s first speaking lines come after a successful campaign against King Marsile, the poet’s invented King of Iberia. Charlemagne is contemplating returning home and enjoying the fruits of peace when the song begins.
There is a certain democratic atmosphere in the council. Democracy, here, is not the “rule of the people” as much as it is reflective of that older Anglo-Saxon and Frankish tradition of oligarchic and aristocratic self-rule which eventually morphed into civil self-rule in England and the United States. Though Charlemagne is recounted as emperor and king, to which he does have final authority, he nonetheless asks for advice from his noble lords. It is in this council of war and peace that Roland and Ganelon are introduced.
Roland suspects Marsile of treachery and makes this bluntly known to all around him. Marsile and his emissaries, as understood by Charlemagne, want peace. They are even going as far as to sacrifice their sons and convert to Christianity to save their power. But the Saracens are obviously deceitful in their intentions—at least this is what Roland suspects. While Charlemagne is skeptical of Marsile’s offer, the allure of the “fair land of France” and the possibility to enjoy peace are extremely enticing to the war-weary Franks. Though skeptical of Marsile’s intentions, Charlemagne seeks peace and a return to home.
It is Roland, therefore, who acts as the only buttress against Saracen deception. When Roland speaks he reminds the council that the Saracens have not been trustworthy since the war began. If they have never been trustworthy before, why should they be trusted now? As he reminds all, “King Marsile committed a most treacherous act; / He sent fifteen of his pagans, / each bearing an olive branch. / They addressed you with these very same words; / You sought advice from your Franks / And they counselled you in a somewhat reckless fashion. / You sent two of your counts… He took their heads on the hills beneath Haltile.”
Roland’s speech reminds us of the deceit and treachery that Marsile has already committed and shown himself willing to commit to hold onto power. Through Roland’s speech we witness the manifestation of the struggle between truth and deceit, which is reflected and embodied in tribal fealty even unto death. Roland is trustworthy. He gives the wise advice during the council’s deliberation, thus establishing Roland as a wise and heroic baron to Charlemagne. But he is overruled by his stepfather, Ganelon.
There is, on closer inspection, a longstanding rivalry and jealousy between Ganelon and Roland. The two dislike each other. One can go as far as to say they hate each other. In fact, Ganelon pronounces his hatred for Roland during and after the council in which he is selected by Charlemagne to meet with King Marsile. Ganelon believes that he will die on this mission though Charlemagne’s will, as lord and king, must be obeyed. Ganelon curses his compatriots as he leaves.
Ganelon is introduced in negative terms: “Ganelon came, who committed the act of treason.” The poet writes as if the audience or reader already knows of the treachery of Ganelon. Whenever Ganelon is around and speaks, the poet makes clear that he was the one who betrayed Roland and, more importantly, betrayed Charlemagne. As such, Ganelon betrayed all France and the very virtues and values that fair France and Christianity represent.
But the poet also describes Ganelon as a tempting figure; he is truly a prince of this world. In this respect, Ganelon is based on the greatest traitor and rebel of all time: Lucifer. Like Lucifer, Ganelon is well-spoken and a dashing and handsome figure. The poet describes Ganelon’s earthly appearance in glowing terms, “His eyes flashed, his face was very fierce. / His body was noble, his torso broad; / So handsome was he that all his peers gaze at him.”
When Ganelon arrives at the court of King Marsile to make peace between the two kings he hatches a plan to kill Roland under the pretext that if Roland lives the two great kingdoms will be forever at war. Through his own deceit and treachery Ganelon acts in a manner where he could defend himself as having complied with Charlemagne’s will but also having rid himself of the thorn in his side (Roland). As Ganelon says, “If anyone killed [Roland], we should then all have peace.”
To underscore the depravity of Ganelon’s actions, as Ganelon discusses with Blancandrin (King Marsile’s advisor) the plan to kill Roland and secure peace, the poet again interjects his disapproval of treachery: “[Blancandrin] took Ganelon by the fingers of his right hand / And leads him to the king in the garden. / There they plan the wicked act of treason.” When Ganelon convinces King Marsile of ambushing Roland as Charlemagne and the army are returning to France, the poet again reiterates the depravity of Ganelon’s actions when he seals his pact with the Saracens saying, “[Ganelon] swore the treason and committed his crime.”
After devising the plan of battle Ganelon is showered with praise by the Saracen nobles. They call him a “truly noble man” though the audience, thanks to the poet, knows otherwise. The various nobles also give Ganelon many gifts: swords, necklaces, jewels, and more. Ganelon wins the affections of this world and his treasures are of this world. Ganelon wins earthly prizes for his treachery and is therefore barred from the gates of paradise which, as we shall see, is open to those who uphold fealty even unto death.
In the poem, not only is Ganelon the devil in disguise but also he mirrors the other great biblical traitor found in the New Testament. As the battle rages the poet alludes to Judas in conjunction with Ganelon’s treachery. As Charlemagne weeps for Roland and his brave lords being killed in battle, the poet says, “[Charlemagne] was ill served that by Ganelon / Who went to Saragossa to sell his household; / He was later to lose his life and his limbs. / In the trial at Aix he was condemned to hang / And thirty of his relatives with him / Who did not expect to die.”
Here Ganelon morphs from Lucifer incarnate to Judas incarnate. Ganelon’s betrayal of Charlemagne echoes the biblical testament of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver by the “thirty of his relatives” that died with him. Moreover, just as Judas hung himself and lost life and limb, so too will Ganelon be hung and lose life and limb in the process. Treachery is a most serious crime and sin. In fact, it is the worst crime and sin. The poet reinforces the depiction of Ganelon as a Judas during his trial scene near the conclusion of the work. Charlemagne declares, “[Ganelon] betrayed the twelve peers for money.”
King Marsile, the pagan Saracen ruler of Spain in the poem, is the embodiment of deceitfulness and worldly power and is the contrast to Charlemagne’s noble character. Interestingly enough, the poem opens in Marsile’s court after the brief invocation of Charlemagne as lord and emperor. Marsile and Blancandrin (the king’s wicked advisor) deliberate how to best maintain their rule despite the defeats they have suffered from Charlemagne and his forces. That is when they devise the plan to offer peace by swearing fealty and conversion. The intent is to buy time to rebuild and strike later.
Unlike Ganelon, Marsile and the pagan Saracens are not traitors. They are, however, untrustworthy and deceitful people. They are interested only in power. As previously mentioned, Blancandrin is willing to go as far as offering his son as a sacrifice to temporarily gain peace and to recover their forces to do battle and defeat Charlemagne later. Though not traitors in the way Ganelon is, the pagan Saracens in the poem embody everything contrary to the virtues and values of Frankish fealty, loyalty, and loving servitude.
Through the contrasts of Marsile with Charlemagne and Roland the poet presents Christianity as the religion in which trust and loving fealty reaches its highest aspirations. Paganism, which is really Saracenism in the poem, is cast as the dialectical opposite of Christianity. Those who seek power and are willing to lie and steal to obtain power (or hold power) cannot be good Christians or good vassals. Pagan Saracenism reveals itself as being incompatible with being a good lord; in short, pagan Saracenism as recounted in the poem forsakes fealty and leads to death (as we shall see). Therefore, Marsile embodies the antithetic ideals and values of Charlemagne, Roland, and Christianity.
The heart of the poem is the battle where Roland and his companions die. The battle is the instantiation of the values of tribal fealty that the poet is promoting. The Franks, under Roland, show themselves to be pious Christians and good vassals in their heroic stand against Marsile’s army. They all, eventually, perish for their lord and land.
During the battle narrative the thematic contrast between truth and deceit is also coursing through the lines as men have their limbs hacked off and entrails spilled out over the field. The first three pagans to die—Aelroth (nephew of King Marsile and therefore the blood opposite to Roland who is Charlemagne’s nephew), Duke Falsaron (brother of King Marsile), and King Corsablix (the Berber king and ally to King Marsile)—fall because they all utter a lie which demands them to be cut down. Lying is tied to death throughout the poem. Archbishop Turpin says it best when he kills Corsablix: “Vile pagan, you have told a lie; / [Charlemagne], my lord, will always guard us well.” Not only are the pagan warriors who speak lies during the battle struck down, so too is the greatest liar of them all (Ganelon) struck down by poem’s end.
To help underscore the negativity of treachery and bloodlust, the greatest of the pagan warriors, Abisme, is killed by Archbishop Turpin. Abisme is described as the greatest and most vile villains in King Marsile’s army:
Out in the front rides a Saracen, Abisme;
[King Marsile] had no greater villain in his company,
A man of evil traits and mighty treachery.
He does not believe in God, the son of the Virgin Mary;
And is as black as molten pitch.
He loves treachery and murder
More than he would love all the gold in Galicia.
No one has ever seen him play or laugh;
He is a man of courage and great zeal
And thereby a friend to Marsile, the treacherous king.
But not all the pagan warriors are hewn down in battle. Margariz, “a very valiant knight, / Handsome, strong, swift and nimble,” attacks Oliver early in the battle. Margariz has spoken no lies about Charlemagne or the “fair land of France.” Margariz is not killed when he attacks Oliver (who in turn is spared by a miraculous intervention by God during their duel). This, I think, is worth remembering when observing the contrast of values: The pagan antagonists who utter lies are all killed at some point in the poem.
The graphic and grotesque description of killing in the Song of Roland mirrors that of other great epic literature of Antiquity. But by including commentary on the high virtues of fealty (honesty and loyalty) it differs dramatically from the language of antique heroic literature. Homer, Virgil, and Statius, in their respective poems, simply describe the horrific deaths of those men slain in combat. The men who die in antique heroic literature die because of the audacity of their opponents or the actions of the gods deflecting arrowheads and spear shafts. This is not the case in the Song of Roland. While the poem does describe in brutal and gory detail some of the killing blows, many of the pagan warriors who are slain die because of some preceding act of lying on their part, which the poet feels the need to include before killing off.
The poet, then, could not make the association with lying and death any clearer than having men who lie quickly slain on the battlefield in the most gruesome of ways. Their eyes are gorged out of their sockets. Their faces are split in half by sword strikes. Their brains spill out of their helmet. Listeners of the poem would have no illusion about the severity of lying. Lying is a betrayal of truth; but it is also a betrayal of one’s duty to king and land. Those who lie, thereby forsaking truth and betraying their oaths to king and land, must be struck down by the flaming sword of God who is also Truth itself.
There is also much emotion permeating through the poem. The death of Oliver breaks the heart of Roland; he clutches his friend in his arms as he passes from this world unto the gates of paradise. The death of Roland, the death of Archbishop Turpin, and the weeping of Charlemagne equally move the heart to pity and compassion; we are meant to weep alongside Charlemagne as he looks upon the mangled carcasses of his former friends and vassals.
But the heart of the poem communicates the values of fealty to lord and land that are combined with duty, heroism, and trustworthiness. The struggle that dominates the core of the poem, the battle between King Marsile and Roland, is not just a battle between Christianity and paganism—it is a battle for the soul of fealty and everything that eleventh- and twelfth-century France would have held so dearly. Insofar that Christianity is the religion which demands fealty to king and country and is the religion of love that allows for one’s love of king and country to consummate itself, Christianity is the supreme religion for the Frankish people and their values.
The triumph of Roland is the triumph of fealty and all that is entailed and encompassed in the virtues and values of fealty. In his devotion to Charlemagne and the “fair land of France” Roland passed from this life into the next and was ushered into eternity. In fact, when Archbishop Turpin speaks to the men during the battle he informs them to do their duty as lords and knights and to die as martyrs; this ensures life in paradise for them. The poet, then, marries tribal fealty to the highest reality offered in Christianity. Those who do their duty to lord and land reach the gates of paradise:
And the archbishop told them what was on his mind:
‘Lord barons, do not indulge in base thoughts;
In God’s name I beg you not to flee,
So that no man of worth can sing a shameful song.
It is far better for us to die fighting.
We are promised this: soon we shall meet our end;
Beyond this day we shall cease to be alive.
But in one thing I can act as guarantor:
Holy paradise open to you;
You will take your seat among the Innocents.’
At these words the Franks rejoice.
The Song of Roland is a unique poem of the medieval world. The work blends Frankish-Gothic fealty and feudalism with the theological virtues of Christianity in a remarkable synthesis that provides for action, energy, and emotion. All the liars in play, including King Marsile (who is injured during the battle), die. The liars die because they betrayed the highest value of fealty which is trustworthiness that is concretely manifested in duty to lord and land. There can be no mistaking the intent of this heroic song of valor. When Ganelon is hung the poet says “[i]f he were loyal, he would seem the perfect baron.”
Fealty is the most important value communicated in the poem, and fealty is manifested by the love, duty, and loyalty to lord and land. The triumph and immortality of Roland is nothing short of the triumph and immortality of the fealty demanded by lord and land and consummated in the love of lord and land. Those who actualize their fealty—the highest reality of which is sacrificial love to lord and land—as Archbishop Turpin guaranteed, enter the realm of holy paradise where loving fealty to the Supreme Lord and Land reigns for ever and ever.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is a detail from “Mort de Roland” (c. 1455-1460) by Jean Fouquet (ca. 1420–1481) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.