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La Chanson de Roland The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland is the oldest surviving major work of French literature. It exists in various different manuscript versions which testify to its enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. The oldest of these is the Oxford manuscript which contains a text of some 4004 lines (the number varies slightly in different modern editions) and is usually dated to the middle of the twelfth century (between 1140 and 1170). The epic poem is the first and most outstanding example of the chanson de geste, a literary form that flourished between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries and celebrated the legendary deeds of a hero. The poem is a legendary account with some basis in reality: in 778, the rearguard of Charlemagne's army was slaughtered in the Roncesvalles (old French: Rencesvals) pass of the Pyrenees mountains. Accounts from this dark period of European history are always problematic, but the most reliable European account of the event comes from Einhard, Charlemagne's own biographer.

STORY
For seven years, the valiant Christian king Charlemagne has made war against the Saracens in Spain. Only one Muslim stronghold remains: the city of Saragossa, under the rule of King Marsile and Queen Bramimonde. Marsile, certain that defeat is inevitable, hatches a plot to rid Spain of Charlemagne. He will promise to be Charlemagne's vassal and a Christian convert in exchange for Charlemagne's departure. But once Charlemagne is back in France, Marsile will renege on his promises. Charlemagne and his vassals, weary of the long war, receive Marsile's messengers and try to choose an envoy to negotiate at Marsile's court on Charlemagne's behalf. Roland, a courageous knight and Charlemagne's nephew, nominates his stepfather, Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged, thinking that Roland has nominated him for this dangerous mission in an attempt to be rid of him for good. Ganelon has long been jealous of Roland, and on his diplomatic mission he plots with the Saracens, telling them that they could ambush Charlemagne's rear guard as Charlemagne leaves Spain. Roland will undoubtedly lead the rearguard, and Ganelon promises that with Roland dead, Charlemagne will lose the will to fight.

After Ganelon returns with assurances of Marsile's good faith, Roland, as predicted, ends up leading the rearguard. The twelve peers, later known as the Paladins, Charlemagne's greatest and most beloved vassals, go with him. Among them is Oliver, a wise and prudent man and Roland's best friend. Also in the rearguard is the fiery Archbishop Turpin, a clergyman who also is a great warrior. At the pass of Roncevaux, the twenty thousand Christians of the rearguard are ambushed by a vastly superior force, numbering four hundred thousand. Oliver counsels Roland to blow his olifant horn, to call back Charlemagne's main force, but Roland refuses. The Franks fight valiantly, but in the end they are killed to the man. Roland gives three long mighty blasts on his oliphant so that Charlemagne will return and avenge them. His temples burst from the force required, and he presently expires. He positions himself so as to face toward the enemy's land before dying, and his soul is escorted to heaven by Saint Gabriel, Saint Michael and assorted cherubim. Charlemagne arrives, and he and his men are overwhelmed with grief at the sight of the massacre. He pursues the pagan force, aided by a miracle of God; the sun is held in place in the sky so that the enemy will not have cover of night. The Franks push the Saracens into the riverEbro, where those who are not chopped to pieces are drowned. Marsile has escaped, though Roland succeeded in cutting off his right hand in battle. Wounded and demoralised, he returns to Saragossa, where the remaining Saracens are plunged into despair by their losses. But Baligant, the incredibly powerful emir of Babylon, has arrived to help his vassal. The emir goes to Roncevaux where the Franks are mourning and burying their dead. There is a terrible battle which climaxes with a one-on-one clash between Baligant and Charlemagne. With a touch of divine aid, Charlemagne slays Baligant, and the Saracens retreat. The Franks take Saragossa, where they destroy all Jewish and Muslim religious items and force the conversion of everyone in the city with the exception of Queen Bramimonde. Charlemagne wants her to come to Christ through the agency of love. With her as a captive, the Franks return to their capital, Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle. Ganelon is put on trial for treason. Pinabel, Ganelon's kinsman and a gifted speaker, nearly sways the judges to let Ganelon go. But Thierry, a brave but physically unimposing knight, says that Ganelon's revenge should not have been taken against a man in Charlemagne's service and constitutes treason. To decide the matter, Pinabel and Thierry fight. Though Pinabel is the stronger man, God intervenes and Thierry triumphs. The Franks give Ganelon a traitor's death: "Four chargers are brought out and tied to

Ganelon's feet and hands...four sergeants drive them past the spectators towards a stream...Ganelon is lost, his ligaments will be stretched intolerably until all his limbs are torn apart." They also hang thirty of his kinsmen, not including Pinabel, who is already dead. Charlemagne announces to all that Bramimonde has decided to become a Christian. Her baptism is celebrated, and all seems well. But that night the angel Gabriel comes to Charlemagne in a dream and tells him that he must depart for yet another war against the pagans. Weary and weeping, but resigned to the will of God, Charlemagne inwardly prepares himself for what is to come

Major Themes:
Good and Evil
The Song of Roland gives us Good vs. Evil, pure and simple, Star Wars style. The horror of war is not intensified by ambiguous moral justifications, as in Homer's Iliad, nor are heroes deterred by compassion for the enemy, as in the Mahabharata. War is great, even glamorous. The cost is heavy, but only for the heroes. Villains deserve neither compassion nor grief. The Franks represent pure Good; they are moved by the will of God. The Saracens are evil, and on dying their souls are dragged down to hell by devils. Just like the Crusades, the war in The Song of Roland is seen as a holy mission.

Loyalty and Vassalage


Heroism in the poem is based on feudal ideas. Even the pagans in the poem can be considered heroic, when they are evaluated in terms of loyalty and vassalage. The feudal system linked lords and vassals with a series of obligations and loyalties. A vassal gave his total loyalty in exchange for protection and vengeance should the vassal be killed in service of his lord. In The Song of Roland, vassalage is depicted as parallel to Christianity. Roland's ultimate liege lord is God, and it is in serving Charlemagne that Roland fulfills his duties as a Christian.

The Benevolent God


God is all-powerful. God is all-good. These two statements are assumptions for the medieval mind. Characters in The Song of Roland assume that God will intervene in events; it seems perfectly reasonable to believe, for example, that deciding the verdict at Ganelon's trial should be done by combat, because God will supposedly aid the man in the right.

The Will of God and Man's Place


God commands, and Man acts. Although humans sometimes need divine aid to carry out God's plans, much of the hard work is left to men like Charlemagne. Faith in an allpowerful and benevolent God does not mean that we can be complacent. Part of God's plan is to have men carry out his wishes for him. God provides help, but it is in fighting for good that man achieves new heights of greatness.

Duty
Closely connected to the themes of vassalage and the will of God and man's place, duty is one of the key values of the poem. It is for duty, not love of war, that Charlemagne continues to battle against the forces of Islam. It is out of a sense of duty that Roland fights to the death at Rencesvals. Duty causes Charlemagne to avenge Roland's death. In the poem, duty is often linked to love. The bonds between Charlemagne and Roland, or between Roland and his men, are marked by deep respect and affection. Duty arises spontaneously from this love, or should, just as unquestioning duty follows naturally from the sublime love of God.

CHARACTERS

Principal characters

Baligant, emir of Babylon; Marsile enlists his help against Charlemagne. Blancandrin, wise pagan; suggests bribing Charlemagne out of Spain with hostages and gifts, and then suggests dishonouring a promise to allow Marsile's baptism Bramimonde, Queen of Saragossa; captured and converted by Charlemagne after the city falls Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor; his forces fight the Saracens in Spain. Ganelon, treacherous lord and Roland's stepfather who encourages Marsile to attack the French

King Marsile, Saracen king of Spain; Roland wounds him and he dies of his wound later. Olivier, Roland's friend; mortally wounded by Margarice. He represents wisdom. Roland, the hero of the Song; nephew of Charlemagne; leads the rear guard of the French forces; bursts his temples by blowing his oliphant-horn, wounds from which he eventually dies facing the enemy's land. Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims, represents the force of the Church.

Secondary characters

Aude, the fiance of Roland and Olivier's sister Basan, French baron, murdered while serving as Ambassador of Marsile. Brengier, one of the twelve paladins killed by Marsiles troops; kills Estramarin; killed by Grandoyne. Besgun, chief cook of Charlemagne's army; guards Ganelon after Ganelon's treachery is discovered. Geboin, guards the French dead; becomes leader of Charlemagne's 2nd column. Godefroy, standard bearer of Charlemagne; brother of Thierry, Charlemagnes defender against Pinabel. Grandoyne, fighter on Marsiles side; son of the Cappadocian King Capuel; kills Gerin, Gerier, Berenger, Guy St. Antoine, and Duke Astorge; killed by Roland. Hamon, joint Commander of Charlemagne's Eighth Division. Lorant, French commander of one of the of first divisions against Baligant; killed by Baligant. Milon, guards the French dead while Charlemagne pursues the Saracen forces. Ogier, a Dane who leads the third column in Charlemagne's army against Baligant's forces. Othon, guards the French dead while Charlemagne pursues the Saracen forces. Pinabel, fights for Ganelon in the judicial combat. Thierry, fights for Charlemagne in the judicial combat.

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