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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 27-52

Laisses 1-26

Laisses 53-78

Summary

Back at his encampment, Ganelon gets ready for his embassy to Saragossa. His relatives and knights fear for his safety and regret that he was picked for the mission. Joining the Saracen ambassadors, he talks with Blancandrin as they all ride together back to Saragossa. Ganelon speaks of Roland's arrogance and ferocity and blames him for inciting the Franks to unending war. "If someone killed him," says Ganelon, "we might all have peace" (29.391). This interests Blancandrin extremely and the two, the Saracen and the Frank, find a common bond; they both want Roland dead. Cementing it, they pledge to each other to find a way to get rid of him.

Once the ambassadors arrive in Saragossa, Ganelon is presented before Marsilla, sitting on his throne. Ganelon makes his speech boldly, announcing that if Marsilla converts to Christianity, he can be a vassal of Charlemagne and govern half of Spain, but that if he will not the Franks promise him death "in squalor and disgrace" (33.437). Marsilla becomes furious and almost kills Ganelon on the spot, but Ganelon stands up to him, flashing his sword, and the Saracens decide to hear out the Frankish ambassador.

Marsilla withdraws into a private council with his best men, including Blancandrin, who hints at the conspiracy he had worked up with Ganelon on the way to Saragossa and asks the king to have the Frank brought there. Once Ganelon joins the council, the plotting begins. The pagans wonder at Charlemagne's tenacity and endurance, at his unrelenting campaign in Spain, especially in view of his great age; the emperor is more than two hundred years old. "[W]hen will he ever tire of making war?" they ask, and Ganelon replies that "[h]e won't...while Roland lives." Ganelon implies that this Count Roland is so fierce that his encouragement is the chief reason why Charlemagne keeps fighting and so brave that Charlemagne is unbeatable with Roland at his side.

Ganelon tells Marsilla that the Saracens would have no chance against the Franks if they attacked directly. But he outlines a plot that could give them the advantage. The Saracens, advises Ganelon, must appear to follow the peace pact, sending riches and hostages to the Franks. When the Franks then make their way back home to France, they will keep a rear guard of twenty thousand behind them, just as they usually do in such situations, and this rear guard will probably include Roland and Roland's comrade Olivier. In the mountains, cut off from the main body of Charlemagne's army, the guard is vulnerable—this is the time to attack, and with overwhelming force, an army of a hundred thousand Saracens. Caught in a mountain pass, Roland will not be able to escape, and once he is dead, Charlemagne will no longer pose a problem to the Saracens; without Roland, the Franks will be crippled.

The Saracens like the way Ganelon thinks; Marsilla, his wife Queen Bramimonde, and others of his court come to praise the wily Frank and heap him with the most lavish gifts. His mission accomplished, Ganelon departs, with the hostages and treasure for the Franks.

Commentary

In the previous section, we came to understand something of the motive of Ganelon's treachery; here, we see how he works out its mechanism. The way in which Ganelon addresses the Saracen court of Marsilla complicates our understanding of his character; the poet does not depict him as a simple villain, debased in every way. Ganelon speaks so boldly that he enrages the king Marsilla, who almost murders him for his audacious speech then and there. This lends support to the conjecture that it is not because he might die on his embassy to the Franks, but because he bristles at any implication that he is less than a crucial part of Charlemagne's circle of barons that Ganelon is so furious at Roland for nominating him messenger. It seems that Ganelon is taking a daring risk—he wants to fire up the hostility of the Saracens against the Franks by making the haughty speech to Marsilla of laisse 33 so that they will be all the more eager to help him get rid of Roland. His speech is calculated: "Count Ganelon had thought out everything," (33.425); he wants to manipulate the Saracens for the advantage of his plot. All the same, the risk he takes in making such an inflammatory speech is real.

This contributes to our understanding that Ganelon is not vile through and through; the description of how he departs from his vassals and relatives in laisse 27, in which it seems that his knights genuinely care for him and vice versa, implies this as well. We are to understand Ganelon as a man who is well-respected, brave, and noble, who might have been good, but who is consumed by envy and bitterness. It seems even, in his dealings with the pagans, that he still considers himself loyal to Charlemagne and Christianity. He praises Charlemagne highly and even, it seems, sincerely, in laisse 40. In laisse 46, he swears by the saintly relics in his sword and will have nothing to do with the Saracen idols. This is, of course, self-deceit; he can't betray Roland as he does without betraying Charlemagne and Christendom. But because of his narrow focus on the object of his hatred, it seems that he doesn't quite see this.

When Blancandrin and Ganelon arrive before Marsilla in laisse 31, we see again the apparent similarities, the mirroring, between the Christians and the Muslims. Marsilla's throne, like Charlemagne's (see laisse 8), is placed beneath a pine. Laisses 40 through 42 convey remarkably well, all through dialogue, Ganelon's reptilian subtlety, his cleverness in putting his plan into action. The three laisses are variations on each other; many phrases are repeated or only very slightly changed from one to the next. But Ganelon's emphasis gradually shifts from the heroism of Charlemagne to how much this heroism depends on Charlemagne's loyal vassal Roland to incite the pagans to thinking that, without Roland, Charlemagne would be crippled. Interestingly, an impossibly great age—"two hundred years and more" (41.539)—is attributed to the king of the Franks, recalling nothing so much as the patriarchs of the Old Testament.

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