The Song of Roland (Old French, La Chanson de Roland) is the oldest surviving work of French literature, dating from the late 11th century. Taillefer, William the Conqueror's minstrel, charged into battle at Hastings singing a version of it, and if you read the version we have, you can definitely see how it would get the soldiers' blood pumping. A relatively short epic poem, having 4,000 ten-syllable verses, Roland is the closest thing to a Christian Iliad. Like the Greek epic, it was only one, though almost certainly the greatest one, of a large body of now mostly forgotten works,note called in this case the Chansons de Geste or "Songs of Deeds." Its influence was enormous, and adaptations soon appeared in several European languages such as Latin, Occitan, and Middle High German.
Technically, the poem is written in ten-syllable lines, with strong pauses in the middle of each, and ending in assonances (or what might seem to us "bad rhymes"). Lines are divided into stanzas (or laisses) of no fixed length. The language of the poem is Old French, i.e., the language spoken in the Northern half of what is now France from about the 9th to the 14th centuries. Thus:
Set anz tuz pleins ad estet en Espaigne:
Tresqu'en la mer cunquist la tere altaigne.
N'i ad castel ki devant lui remaigne
Mur ne citet n'i est remes a fraindre,
Fors Sarraguce, ki est en une muntaigne.
Li reis Marsilie la tient, ki Deu nen aimet;
Mahumet sert e Apollin recleimet:
Nes poet guarder que mals ne l'i ateignet. AOI.
The plot is a wildly fictionalized version of the Battle of Roncevalles or Roncevaux Pass that was fought as Charlemagne's army left Muslim-controlled Spain in 778 AD. In the opening scene, the Spanish king Marsile hatches a plot to end his seven-year war with Charlemagne by pretending to convert to Christianity and become his vassal. Receiving the Spanish messengers, Charlemagne and his barons debate who to send to Marsile. Our hero Roland volunteers his stepfather Ganelon, to his outrage. Ganelon goes, but conspires with Marsile to ambush the French in the narrow passes of the Pyrénées. The Spaniards fall upon the rearguard led by Roland, the other eleven paladins, and Turpin, the sword-wielding archbishop. The rearguard is slaughtered to a man, and when Charlemagne finds out, he gets mediæval on the Spaniards. All looks lost for the Muslims, until the Emir arrives with an enormous fleet of troop transports. Thus, we have a family conflict, nested within a conflict between France and Spain, nested within a world war between Cross and Crescent.
The Song of Roland provides examples of:
- Adaptation Expansion: The only historical mention of Roland (from Einhard's Life of Charlemagne) is as the warden of the Breton Marches, who was one of several nobles to be killed at Roncevaux.note Later medieval tradition managed to transform this barely notable figure into a Memetic Badass with his own legendary cycle.
- And the Adventure Continues: The song ends with Archangel Gabriel asking Charlemagne to help his ally King Vivien whose city is under siege.
- Armor Is Useless:
- The narration will typically spend a little while detailing how awesome and flashy a particular character’s armor is…only for it to be cut through or pierced in a single blow by their opponent. Roland at one point bisects a fully-armoured Saracen and his horse all with one slash of his sword.
- Averted on a few occasions. For example, when Oliver has been mortally wounded and is bleeding so badly from his head that it renders him blind, he wildly strikes Roland on the head in confusion, but Roland’s helmet saves his life.
- Artistic License – Religion:
- The Muslims in Song of Roland worship the demon Apollyon, keep idols and carry a banner bearing the image of Mohammed. Islam is a monotheistic religion with a rather strict ban on religious images.
- The Battle of Roncevaux Pass is depicted as a grand holy war between Christians and Muslims, in an intentional parallel to The Crusades. However, in reality, the Basques were pagan, not Muslim. Although instead of this being out of ignorance, the crusaders likely treated Islam as synonymous with paganism on purpose.
- Badass Family: Charlemagne and Roland are related. Baligant, his brother, Canabeus, and his son, Malprimes, are the "evil" version of this.
- Badass Preacher: Archbishop Turpin racks up more kills than any of the paladins.
- Bling of War: The Muslim generals wear golden armor with helms encrusted in gems and decorated with flowers, which both go rolling to the ground when one takes a blow to the head. It's like a jihad planned by She-Ra.
- Co-Dragons: Baligant's son (Malprimes) and brother (Canabeus) play this role to him. They're the only members of his army to get any characterisation after him, are the badass fighters, killing several key Christian knights, and are his most trusted advisors. Both of them have to die before Baligant faces Charles to boot.
- Combat Pragmatist: The oh-so-sneaky King Marsile of Saragossa.
- Cool Sword: Wagonloads of 'em, but pride of place must be given to Durendal, which even Roland can't break.
- Death by Despair: When Roland's fiancée Aude (or Alda) hears of his death, she immediately falls down dead. So much for strong female characters in this poem; Aude only got about two lines.
- Death Is Dramatic: Each of the Twelve Peers gets his own stanza in which to die; Oliver (or Olivier)'s death is drawn out over seven stanzas, and Roland takes upwards of 30 finally to kick the bucket.
- Doomed by Canon: In this case, history is canon. Charlemagne's baggage-train, and the historical Roland of the Breton Marshes, died in an ambush in the Pyrenees Mountains in 778 that came to be known as the Battle of Roncevalles, and then was later elaborated into the Song of Roland.
- Dreaming of Things to Come: Charlemagne has animal-themed dreams foretelling both the disaster at Roncevaux and the trial of Ganelon.
- Duel to the Death: Pinabel vs. Thierry, Charles vs. Baligant. That last one's epic.
- Dwindling Party: The 20,000 knights in the rear guard are all doomed to die, ending with our hero Roland.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: First of all, none of the Saracens killed Roland. He died of an aneurysm, because he blew his horn too hard when sounding a summons to Charlemagne, and his brains started to leak out his ears. Then, after mourning over his fallen comrades, Roland staggers towards Spain, tries to destroy his holy sword Durandal and ends up carving a huge cleft in the canyon wall, kills one last Saracen by smashing his horn into his head, then dies with his face turned towards Spain, and the angels Michael and Gabriel come personally to escort him to heaven.
- The Emperor: The Good and the Bad kings, Charlemagne and Baligant.
- Evil Counterpart: Baligant, Emir of Babylon, is pretty clearly the Evil Counterpart to Charles, who he engages in an epic duel by the end.
- Expansion Pack Past: If you take what happens in Orlando Innamorato ("Roland In Love") and Orlando Furioso ("Roland Enraged") as canon with The Song of Roland, then Roland had a pretty interesting life. There are a lot of other texts with stories about him, too. He grew up in a cave, apparently.
- Faint in Shock: Tens of thousands of knights faint en masse when they learn that Roland has died.
- The Hero Dies: Roland dies.
- Historical Domain Character: Karl, King of the Franks and Roman Emperor (Charlemagne); Hruodland, prefect of the borderlands of Brittany (Roland); Tilpin, Archbishop of Rheims (Turpin); possibly others.
- Historical Domain Superperson: Roland was ascribed superhuman abilities, portraying him as so strong and durable that the only reason he died was that he had burst his temples blowing his olifant-horn to summon aid for his mortal troops and bled out. The poem also portrays an elderly Charlemagne as still having strength enough to kill the villain Baligant single-handedly.
- Honor Before Reason: Roland refuses Olivier's advice of calling Charlemagne and his army with his Olifant because he prefers dying to looking like a coward.
- Invincible Hero: Roland simply cannot be killed by the enemy. He dies blowing his horn so hard to summon Charlemagne that his brains run out his ears. And even after that happens, he still has enough energy to kill many more enemy soldiers before wandering off and finding a poetic place to die.
- "Just So" Story: There's a large gap in the Pyrenees - Roland's Breach - that was supposedly created when Roland tried (and failed!) to destroy Durendal by striking it against the ground.
- The Lancer: As the famous line in stanza 87 goes, "Roland is brave and Olivier is wise; they are both marvellously courageous." Olivier is a pretty straight-up Lancer to Roland; his clear-headedness balances Roland's recklessness, and, as the second-best knight of France, the closest to a rival that the mighty Roland can have. In fact, the phrase "Trade a Roland for an Oliver" comes from the fact when they first met, they tried to beat each other in a duel but came out a stalemate. There's even a little Ho Yay to round it out.
- Long List: Several laisses are devoted to lists of warriors or countries supplying warriors for both sides.
- The Low Middle Ages: The setting.
- Low Fantasy: The only fantastical elements of the poem's setting are Roland's unbreakable sword Durendal, and Charlemagne's prophetic dream about the events at Roncevaux, and Ganelon's trial.
- Manly Tears: They flow copiously. There's even manly fainting.
- Meaningful Rename: Marsile's widow Bramidoine becomes Julienne upon her conversion to Christianity.
- A Million Is a Statistic: The kill counts racked up on each side, particularly the Saracens, is pretty unbelievable.
- Multinational Team: Not the troops who perish at Roncevaux, who are all pure French note . However, the armies in general of Charlemagne, Marsile, and Baligant are drawn from a variety of nations.
- Named Weapons: Roland's sword Durendal, Olivier's sword Hauteclere, Charlemagne's Joyeuse, Baligant's sword Preciuse (literally, precioussss). It is uncertain if Roland's horn, "Olifant," is a particular or generic description.
- No Social Skills: Halfway through an argument with Oliver, Roland asks "Are you angry with me?" He also finds people wanting him dead hilarious.
- Plot Armor: When Oliver has lost so much blood that he can't tell friend from foe, he strikes Roland, cutting his helmet from top to nosepiece. Roland is not injured in any way.
- Punished for Sympathy: When Ganelon is convicted of treason, 30 of his relatives who defended him during the trial are hanged.
- Rasputinian Death: Roland, Oliver, Turpin... Chose the one you want. Deaths of none of them are neither quick nor calm. Damn it, Roland even awakes from his death to kill the thief trying to steal his sword!
- Right Makes Might: In the trial by combat at the end, it's explicitly stated that Pinabel, Ganelon's champion, is the taller and stronger man; one of his blows is enough to kill even the strongest knight. Charlemagne's champion, Thierry, is described as thin, wiry, and rather scrappy-looking. Nevertheless, Thierry survives a head-on blow from Pinabel, and then kills him with one stroke.
- Satellite Love Interest: Aude. She's Olivier's sister and Roland's betrothed.. and that's it. She isn't even mentioned until Roland finally decides to blow his horn, and then she promptly dies of grief after finding out that he died in battle. (Their relationship was later fleshed out in a prequel, Girart de Vienne.)
- Say Your Prayers: Upon learning that Saracens are approaching, Roland and his 20,000 knights hear mass and confess their sins. Both Roland and Olivier also dramatically confess their sins and pray to God as they die.
- Self-Destructive Charge: The entire Battle of Roncevaux is pretty much one big Self-Destructive Charge, but one of the most poignant individual examples is when Olivier is stabbed from behind through the chest with a spear and nevertheless charges into the enemy ranks with a fervour so intense that, blinded by his blood loss, he accidentally strikes his best friend Roland on the helm.
- Shut Up, Kirk!: Baligant's reply to Charlemagne saying "Accept Christ, and your first friend I'll be!" is "Your sermon's ill-preached." and a blow with his scimitar.
- Trial by Combat: This is how a Carolingian court decides if Ganelon is guilty of treason or not.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Proof that this trope is Older Than Print.
- Viewers Are Goldfish: This may be the effect of the poem's habit of repeating descriptions of important actions or speeches, viz., Marsile's asking Ganelon if Charlemagne will ever tire of going to war. Such repetitions seem to have been a convention in mediæval literature - this is due to the fact that traditional epic poetry, such as The Iliad, the Aeneid, and of course this poem, was meant to be memorized and recited to an audience. The repetition is a memetic tool for the reciter, who would otherwise have his hands even more full. Also, the whole poem wasn't recited whole but only parts of it. The repetitions acted as a summary of the previous episodes.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Roland's mantra is "We'll fight well and then my uncle will love me!", even though his uncle already seems to. Some Values Dissonance is at play here; while Roland is Charlemagne's nephew, he is also his subordinate, and thus has sworn to fight to his last breath for his emperor, and thus might very well lose his uncle's love (or at least the public expression thereof) if it looks like he's not giving his all.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Early in the battle, Olivier begs Roland to blow the Olifant and summon Charlemagne's forces to their aid, but Roland refuses because it would make him look weak. Naturally, after the battle turns against them, Roland finally decides to blow the damn horn to call for aid, and Olivier angrily asks him what the hell he's thinking blowing it now, as calling for aid in the middle of the battle will probably get them all demoted for incompetence. Turpin eventually steps in and argues that they're probably all doomed anyway, but at least blowing the horn will alert their allies to their fate.
- We Hardly Knew Ye: Roland's fiancée Aude drops dead after saying two lines.
- Wicked Stepmother: Think it's a sexist cliché? Roland got a wicked stepfather back in the 11th century.
- Worthy Opponent: The narrator comments that Balligant would have been the perfect man if he'd only been Christian.
- Your Days Are Numbered: Fate is a constant motif in the Song of Roland. The narrator frequently informs readers that Roland's days are numbered, and the weird thing is, most of the characters seem to know it, too, although "fate" prevents them from doing anything about it. In the Robert Harrison translation, Harrison argues that Roland's death is necessary in order to restore Charlemagne's willingness to finish off the Saracens; after all, at the start of the epic, he and his forces are so war-weary after seven years in Spain that he's prepared to let Marsile keep half of Spain in exchange for a promise that Marsile will convert to Christianity, rather than launch what looks like a costly campaign to take Saragossa.
- Your Head Asplode: Roland blows his horn so hard that this happens to him.
- You Shall Not Pass!: Sort of. The strategic intention of the battle in Roncevalles would be to keep the Saracens from entering France. However, it's clear in the poem that the Saracens, having just suffered seven years of war under Charlemagne's Spanish campaign, have no interest in following the Franks back home; they're just glad they're gone, and seized the chance to kill Roland as he left. And Roland is very clear that he's fighting for his own honour and pride, and for Charlemagne and France. The strategic necessity to hold the pass doesn't ever cross his mind.