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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 79-132

Laisses 53-78

Laisses 133-160

Summary

The assembled pagan host, armed and shining, rides toward the mountain pass where they know they will find the Frankish rear guard. Olivier is the first to see them, and he can tell from a distance that the Saracen horde vastly outnumbers the band of Franks. Seeing the advancing army, he already suspects that Ganelon planned this disaster for his stepson. Generously, Roland tells Olivier not to say such things: "I'll hear not one word more, for he's my stepsire" (80.1027). Because the Franks are so outnumbered, Olivier asks Roland to blow his oliphant—a horn made out of an elephant's tusk—so that Charlemagne will hear and come, with his army, to the aid of the rear guard. But Roland is too proud to ask for help; "May God forbid," he says, "that it be said by any man alive I ever blew my horn because of pagans!" (85.1073-1075). No matter how vast the pagan hordes, Roland is confident that the Christians will triumph. The Frankish guard prepares for battle: the archbishop Turpin says that any Christian soldier who dies in the battle will die a glorious martyr's death, Roland promises his men victory, and all together shout Charlemagne's battle cry "Monjoy!" and ride out to strike the Saracens.

When the Frankish and the Saracen hosts confront each other, the Saracens make proud boasts—"This very day sweet France shall lose her fame," brags Aelroth. But the Franks quickly silence them; Roland slaughters Aelroth, Olivier slaughters Falsaron, Turpin slaughters Corsablis. The twelve Frankish peers fight heroically; in a series of one-on-one combats, they take on the Saracen peers and run them through, spitting them on their lances and chucking them off their horses. The pagan souls, once separated from pagan bodies, go, of course, to hell. The fighting is hard and fierce. Although the Franks are so outnumbered, they more than hold their own against the Saracens.

But then the Franks see a still greater Saracen force, led by Marsilla, coming to meet them. Now Roland sees the situation for what it is, telling Olivier that "false Ganelon has sentenced us to die; his treason can no longer be concealed" (112.1457-1458). At this point, the Franks see that victory is impossible, and their hopes turn instead toward killing as many pagans as they can before dying martyrs' deaths. The Christians lose many of their best men, including some among the twelve peers.

Seeing the slaughter of his comrades, Roland no longer speaks in boasts and bluster; he is deeply dismayed. Near despair, he tells Olivier that he'll sound the oliphant; he hopes that it is not too late for Charlemagne to come to their aid. Olivier is angered. "You didn't deign to, comrade," he says bitterly, "when I asked you, and were the king here now, we'd be unharmed." It's clear that it's too late to blow the oliphant, that by the time the king and his army come there will be nothing left of the rear guard to save. Olivier tells Roland that his vainglorious decision not to call for help has cost the lives of all the men of the guard: "Companion, you're to blame, for bravery in no sense is bravado, and prudence is worth more than recklessness. Those French are dead because of your caprice" (131.1722-1725). Turpin steps into the quarrel between the comrades; he advises them that sounding the horn cannot save them now, but that it is still best to blow it, for then Charlemagne will pursue their adversaries and avenge their deaths.

Commentary

In this section we see our first battle. The way in which the poet presents combat provides a striking example of the combination of vividness and ceremony which is so typical of this work and makes its figures and scenes into icons. On one hand, there is the closeness of detail. The poet clearly relishes describing the fine points of horses, armor, weaponry, all the splendor of the pageantry of war—note, for instance, with what minute detail Turpin's horse is described in laisse 114. No one ever simply dies, but each slaughter and death-throe is divided into its constituent actions and put vividly before us: for instance, Olivier does not merely bludgeon Malsaron, but "[h]e breaks his gilt, fleuron-emblazoned shield, / bursting both his eyeballs from his head— / his brain comes tumbling downward to his feet" (106.1354-1356). But, despite such clearness of vision, we still seem to be at some distance from the action. The repetitions of phrases, the slight variation from one laisse of combat to the next, the tidiness of the battle's partition into one-on-one fights, the choreographed balance of the actions of the two sides all make the battle feel something like a ceremony. This stylized quality, which coexists side-by-side with the colorful details, gives us a curiously mixed sense of distance and nearness to the action.

The way in which the narrator presents the story he tells as derived from historical documents—as when he tells us, for instance, that "[t]he number that they killed can be determined; / it is written in the documents and notes: the Chronicle says better than four thousand" (127.1683-1685)—instead of fully immersing himself in the action as if he were there also adds to our sense of distance from the happenings he describes. He does not presume immediacy; to do so, when dealing with figures such as Charlemagne and Roland, would seem audaciously over-familiar. While the story he tells is derived from oral legend and his own invention, not from written records, his allusions to such records served to impress his audience and add to our sense of the distant grandeur of the events recounted. Curiously, the characters within the story sometimes take this historical attitude toward themselves, as if they could not be their own eye-witnesses or if the true immortality they aspired to was not that of heaven but that of the written word; for example, Turpin encourages Charlemagne's men by reminding them that "[I]t is written in the Annals of the Franks / that gallant fighters serve our emperor" (111.1443-1444).

The debate between Roland and Olivier over the blowing of the oliphant is one of the finest sections of the poem for the depiction of character. Roland and Olivier have one of the very close, brotherly companionships between warriors that were very often celebrated in medieval epics. Olivier serves as a perfect foil for Roland; while the two are very similar in most ways—both are dedicated Christians, stout warriors, loyal vassals, gallant, and so forth—there is a marked difference between their characters. The poet puts it simply but perfectly: "Roland is bold, Olivier is wise, / and both of them are marvelously brave" (87.1093-1094). Like Olivier in all other ways, the nature of Roland's boldness is drawn into sharp focus by setting him beside his friend.

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