Charlemagne, the king of the Christian Franks, has been wreaking havoc in Muslim Spain for seven years and has conquered all the land except the city of Saragossa, still held by the Muslim king Marsilla. Marsilla, however, doubts that he can hold out long against the might of Charlemagne's army. Calling a council, he asks his wisest men what they ought to do to save themselves from being destroyed by the Franks. Blancandrin advises that they send Charlemagne an offer of vast riches and a promise that Marsilla will come to the Frankish capital of Aix to learn to be a good Christian and convert. The Saracens aren't planning on coming through on this offer, and in case the Franks suspect them of just such falsity, Blancandrin says that they can offer hostages to the Franks. Of course, once Charlemagne, back in France, realizes that neither Marsilla nor the treasure is on its way, the Franks will kill the hostages, but that's the cost of saving the city of Saragossa and Marsilla's honor. The pagans agree to the plan and Blancandrin goes as a messenger, olive branch in hand, to Charlemagne's camp.
The emperor and his men, having just taken the city of Cordova from the Muslims, are in a jolly mood when the messenger arrives. Blancandrin tells Charlemagne of Marsilla's offer and promises hostages, including his own son, as guarantees of good faith. Charlemagne is tempted by this proposed pact because of his weariness; after all, seven years is a long time to fight in a strange land, and the emperor is an old man. He calls together a council of his barons to meet under a pine.
Count Roland makes a fiery speech. He reminds the emperor that Marsilla has a history of deceit; once before Marsilla sent to the Franks a peace envoy delivering similar offers and promises, and Charlemagne sent over to the pagans two messengers, Basan and Basil, who the Saracens then slaughtered. Roland is uncompromising and fierce; he urges the Franks to lay siege to Saragossa and not to compromise with the treacherous Marsilla.
Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, calls such an extreme stance vainglorious and foolish; he's had enough of this hard campaign. Naimes agrees, arguing that the Franks have sufficiently humbled Marsilla and that the time has come for mercy. The council is swayed by Ganelon and Naimes; now a messenger must be chosen to go to Saragossa. Roland and Olivier volunteer, but Charlemagne insists that none of the twelve peers—his inner circle of vassals—may go.
Roland nominates Ganelon for the post; Ganelon's response is bitter rage. He threatens his stepson: "If God should deign that I come back again, then I shall stir up such a feud with you that it will last as long as you're alive!" (20.289-291). Ganelon rages, fearing that he may meet the same fate as Basan and Basil. Charlemagne responds by saying simply, "When I command, it's up to you to go" (23.318).
Charlemagne now bestows the staff and glove upon his messenger Ganelon, according to ceremony, but Ganelon, reaching out to take the glove, lets it drop. Seeing this, the Franks foresee that the embassy will have dire consequences for them. Ganelon leaves the council, with the staff, the letter, and Charlemagne's blessing.
The temporality of The Song of Roland is extremely straightforward. It begins at the beginning and ends at the end—the order in which the narrated events happen and the order in which they are told is identical. This sort of temporal organization, while it is the simplest, is not the most common; many ancient epics begin in the middle and then use flashbacks to fill in what happened before. Since the entire story told is set in motion by Ganelon's treachery, the story begins by explaining how this betrayal came about.
While the temporal order is simple, the poet plays with the duration of events, forming a rhythm out of them. This rhythm is particularly pronounced in this first section of the poem: we have one laisse of summary, letting us know where we are and giving us some basic exposition, then the scene of Marsilla's council, then another single laisse summarizing the journey of the Saracen messengers to Charlemagne's camp, then the scene of Blancandrin's presentation of the peace offer, then one laisse summarizing how the camp goes to bed and wakes up, and then the very dramatic scene of the council of the Franks. There is an alternating rhythm of telling (the quick narrative summaries) and showing (the longer dramatic scenes, filled with dialogue.)
The first laisse tells us of the inevitability of the defeat of Muslim evil by Christian good. Because the Christian God is all-powerful and deeply concerned with the fate of his worshippers, there is no doubt that they will eventually win, although they must struggle. The Saracens are doomed from the start by their worship of false gods. They really haven't got a chance: "Marsilla...does not love God, / but serves Mohammed and invokes Apollo. / No matter what he does, his ruin will come" (1.7-9).
While there is the most absolute of differences between the Franks and the Saracens—the former are good and the latter are evil—they organize themselves identically. The Saracens are the precise image of the Franks, only reversed. In the scene of Marsilla's council and the scene of Charlemagne's council, we can see that the Saracens and the Franks conduct themselves identically in matters of manners and forms. Saracen society is portrayed as having the same feudal structure as Frankish society, and the better Saracens display the same feudal virtues as the good Franks; Blancandrin, for instance, "was very chivalrous and dutiful / and able in the service of his lord" (3.25-26). However, they place an unholy trinity of idols at the apex of their feudal pyramid, instead of the one true God of the Christians, and so they are always ultimately serving evil, however loyal and true they are to the lord immediately above them in their society. The effect of basing a society around anything but the Christian God is a constant tendency toward evil, whatever the limited virtues of certain Saracens. This is shown by the ease with which the Saracens in Marsilla's council assent to a plan of saving their own honor and lands by offering a false peace to Charlemagne, which will inevitably end in the execution of their own sons who they will offer as hostages.
The most important characters—our hero and martyr Roland, his great comrade Olivier, the despicable traitor Ganelon, the perfect Christian king Charlemagne—of the poem are introduced in the dramatic scene of Charlemagne's council. The narrator gives us some basic information about them directly, and tells us at the beginning that Ganelon is a traitor, but we must figure out their motivation and characters by their speeches to each other. Appearance, certainly, is no clue to character in The Song of Roland; we are told that our chief villain is extremely handsome (20.285).
We first are introduced to Roland by his bold speech of laisse 14, arguing that the Franks should pay no attention to the Saracens' offer of peace. He recalls how the Saracens have deceived the Franks with just such offers in the past, and he seems to be motivated by an underlying understanding that the war that Charlemagne's men are fighting in Spain is sacred. Their cause is too large for offers of treasure to mean anything in relation to it; their reasons for fighting are not such as allow compromise with the enemy. He speaks like a crusader. The theme of Roland's pride is also introduced in this first speech; he boastfully lists the cities he has conquered as part of his argument for why they must not accept the Saracens' peace.
Ganelon, however, in his speech of laisse 15 countering Roland's, urges pragmatic considerations, for he, unlike Roland doesn't understand the war as absolute and sacred. In the debate among the council as they try to decide who should go to Marsilla, it becomed clear that Ganelon bitterly resents his stepson. Because earlier messengers to Marsilla had been slaughtered, Ganelon considers Roland's nomination of him as a messenger nearly the same as wishing him dead. But what truly enrages Ganelon is the suggestion that he is dispensable. Charlemagne refuses to let Roland or Olivier go and says "by this beard that you see streaked with white, / the dozen peers are not to be appointed!" (18.261-262). Roland is one of the dozen peers; Ganelon is not. It seems that Charlemagne considers the dozen too valuable to take the chance of losing them to the pagans so fruitlessly, but he's willing to take this chance with Ganelon. Ganelon is infuriated by this implied insult more than he is afraid that he may indeed die; we see this in how he refuses to let Roland go in his place (21.296). If it were pure cowardice that motivated Ganelon, he would be relieved to let Roland go in his stead. But this would just make Roland look all the more brave and noble, and Ganelon hates how Roland is always going about looking so very brave and noble. It is his jealousy for the esteem that Roland enjoys in the eyes of the emperor and the barons that drives Ganelon to want to take Roland down a notch more than anything else.