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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 177-188

Laisses 161-176

Laisses 189-213

Summary

When Charlemagne and his men arrive at Roncesvals, they see heaps of bodies and not a single living man. Thousands of the knights and barons faint; all weep. Naimes sees, far ahead in the distance, the fleeing pagan army, and urges that the Franks pursue them and get their revenge. Leaving behind a band of men to guard the battlefield, to keep thieves and beasts off the dead Franks, Charlemagne and his men ride after the Saracens. But dusk is beginning to fall. Charlemagne prays to God to make the sun stand still, so they can continue their chase, and an angel tells him that God will indeed do this, so that the Franks can pursue their mission of vengeance.

And in fact, the sun does stand still in the sky. The Franks overtake the pagans and chase them into the Ebro river, where they all drown. After the emperor offers his thanks to God, they pitch camp and turn in for the night. Charlemagne is tired and suffers greatly, thinking of the men he has lost. While he sleeps, Saint Gabriel sends him prophetic visions, the meaning of which is not clear to the emperor. The tone of them, however, is distinctly ominous.

Meanwhile, in Saragossa, Marsilla laments the loss of his men, his son Jurfaleu, and of his own right hand. All the people of the city curse Charlemagne for their losses and go to insult and beat their idols for having let them down.

Commentary

After the death of Roland, Charlemagne becomes the protagonist and the tone and the nature of the epic shift. While the earlier part of the poem was essentially a human drama, focusing especially on the characters of Roland, Olivier, and Ganelon, the latter part, recounting Charlemagne's revenge, is marked by the frequency of supernatural occurrences and a starker, less subtle view of good and evil. While the supernatural was certainly present in the earlier section, God's hand on earth had a lighter touch; there is nothing miraculous. And while the pagans, all throughout, are evil, and the Christians are good, without room for nuance, the focus on the characters of certain of the Christian warriors allowed fine distinctions. Ganelon, for example, is without doubt a villain, but not an uncomplicated one. The same goes for Roland as a hero.

Here, beginning when God suspends the course of the sun for Charlemagne, the heavenly hosts play a more active role. Saint Gabriel again sends him visions; the first foretells the battle with Baligant, the second the trial of Ganelon.

The narration of the reaction in Saragossa to the news of the decimation of the pagan troops both at Roncesvals and afterward, when the Franks push them into the river, contrasts their idolatry with the attitude of the Christians. When the Franks were massacred at Roncesvals, their reaction was not to curse the Lord for having allowed the slaughter to occur; their faith was unshaken and they embraced the opportunity to die martyrs. While the underlying belief that the divinity helps his worshippers is shared by the Christians and the Muslims of the poem, leaving both sides hypothetically open to the charge that their adoration contains an element of the mercenary, the Christians do not castigate their God when He fails to come through, as it were, on his part of the bargain, while the pagans of Saragossa do, casting their idols down into the dirt. Thus, not only are the Muslims presented as serving false gods, but as serving them badly, while the Christians serve their Lord with the humility and reverence of ideal vassals.

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