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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 133-160

Laisses 79-132

Laisses 161-176

Summary

Roland blows his oliphant so hard that his temple bursts, badly wounding him. Charlemagne and his men hear him, far in the distance. Charles understands the signal, knows that the rear guard is embattled. But Ganelon tries to stall the emperor's troops, tries to convince Charlemagne that he's senile and hearing things, then that Roland is just blowing the oliphant to show off, that, in any case, the rear guard is in no danger and that they should ride on into France. The barons realize that Ganelon is a false traitor trying to deceive them to stop them from helping Roland, and they arrest Ganelon, telling the camp cooks to stay there and guard him "like any common thug" (137.1819). The Frankish army ride off in the direction of the sound of the horn blasts.

Back on the battlefield, meanwhile, Roland surveys the heaps of dead and dying Christian soldiers around him, weeps, laments, and prays to God to deliver their souls to heaven. But he continues to fight gallantly despite his great grief and his injury, cutting off Marsilla's right hand. Olivier is mortally wounded, but likewise continues to fight as his life slips away. Seeing Olivier hurt so, Roland faints, still on his horse. As death nears, Olivier's vision is confused because he has lost so much blood, and, in the blur of it, he does not recognize Roland and gives him a blow to the head, splitting his comrade's helmet but not cutting into his skull. Roland softly asks Olivier if he meant that blow; Olivier recognizes his voice and apologizes and Roland forgives him. Knowing that death is upon him, Olivier gets off his horse and prays before dying, and Roland weeps for the death of his companion, fainting away from the grief of it.

When Roland recovers, he looks around and sees that, of all the rear guard, only Turpin and Gautier, who just came down from the mountains, are still alive. The three Franks remaining are stalwart warriors, but they are mightily outnumbered. Gautier is soon killed and Turpin is soon injured and unhorsed. Roland again sounds his oliphant; hearing the feebleness of the blast, Charlemagne can tell that his nephew has not long to live. Riding fast toward the battlefield, Charlemagne's men blow their trumpets.

Hearing the trumpets, the pagans start with terror, knowing that the emperor is on his way. They make one last attack on Roland and flee; when the Saracens have left, Roland and Turpin are still standing, though mortally wounded.

While Roland blows his oliphant in laisses 133 through 135, a sense of urgency is built up by the narration's alternation between him and Charlemagne's army. Within each of these laisses we see both the mortal injury Roland receives by blowing so mightily on his horn and the stalling technique of the traitor Ganelon, both of which contribute to our fear that Charlemagne and his men may come too late.

When the main Frankish army rides back to Roncesvals, we are given once again a variation on the ominous description of the landscape around this massacre ground, which we've heard before; here is another of the repetitions that holds the poem together. In laisse 66 we are given the picture that follows: "The hills are high, the valleys deep in shade, / with dull brown cliffs and awe-inspiring gorges." Here we get a slight variation: "The hills are high and shadowy and large, / the valleys deep, with swiftly running streams" (138.1830- 1831).

Commentary

We have seen already that the Frankish knights are always ready to weep and faint away, behaving more like sentimental ladies than like the modern image of the warrior. A line in this section makes it explicit that this open display of emotion is part of the poet's knightly ideal: we are told of Roland that, on seeing the Frankish dead, "like a noble knight he weeps for them" in the middle of the battle (140.1853). This is part of the esteem the poet grants to passion. Unlike the warrior ideals of many other cultures and eras, which celebrate detachment and a stiff upper lip, the capacity for high emotion seems to be one of the chief tests of character for this poet. This is one of Roland's chief qualities, and one that ultimately makes up for his arrogant error. Note also how, in the descriptions earlier of the one-on-one combats between the Saracens and the Franks, the deep fury that the Franks feel at hearing the pagan boasts is always noted and sometimes seems to be described as the cause of their successes. Roland, for instance, admiring Olivier's skill, says, rather arrogantly, "My comrade, when he's angry, / fights well enough to be compared to me" (117.1558-1559). The association here between anger and military skill is a corollary of a more general association between passion and nobility of character, even passion and salvation.

In laisse 141, we have one of the very few similes in the poem that extends beyond a short, highly conventionalized phrase: "Just as the stag will run before the hounds, / the pagans break and run away from Roland" (141.1874- 1875). Also, we have, in the mocking way that the archbishop refers to cloistered monks (a knight "must be fierce and powerful in combat— / if not, he isn't worth four deniers— / should be instead a monastery monk / and pray the livelong day for all our sins,"(141.1879-1882)) a striking example of the active focus of Western Christendom during the time of the Crusades.

When Roland cuts off Marsilla's right hand in laisse 142, this is another of the symmetries between the pagans and the Christians that run throughout the poem, because Roland is often referred to as the right arm of the Christian king Charlemagne (see laisse 45, for instance) and will soon be cut off—die—himself. Thus, this is not only another mirroring effect, but also foreshadows Roland's fate.

The narrator's stance toward the story he tells—that he knows about the happenings he describes from various historical chronicles and the like—is again brought to the surface by the authentication he provides for Turpin's valor after he is wounded: "Thus says the geste and he who was afield, / the noble Giles, for w hom God brought forth wonders" (155.2095-2096). His allusion is to Saint Giles, who, historically, has no connection whatsoever to Roncesvals. But this reference, like others to similarly prestigious sources, gives both an effect of reliability and of a kind of distance that casts a grandeur over the story.

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