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Song of Roland

Anonymous

Laisses 214-236

Laisses 189-213

Laisses 237-263

Summary

As Charlemagne's men prepare to leave the field of carnage, two messengers from Baligant ride up and proclaim battle. Charles swiftly organizes his army, telling his men that now is the time to avenge Roland's death. He asks his men Rabel and Guinemant to ride ahead and lead the troops, taking the places of Olivier and Roland. The men are divided into battalions of all sorts of valiant Christians—Frenchmen, Bavarians, Normans, Bretons, and so forth. They ride out, proud and confident, to meet the pagan hordes.

The emir Baligant, a noble and valiant man, has also organized his army. He has battalions of all sorts of fierce pagans—Armenians, Moors, Turks, Persians, and all the rest. He grants his son Malprimes the first blow of the battle. The armies, Christian and pagan, meet and exchange threats and boasts.

Commentary

In the overall plan of the poem, Roland's martyrdom is balanced against Charlemagne's revenge; that the pagan and Christian forces run into each other at Roncesvals this time around as well reminds us of this balance, and of Charlemagne's motive.

We have noted previously that the character of Baligant is devised in such a way as to make him the Islamic counterpart of Charlemagne; here we are told further that this is actually a conscious affectation of Baligant's. The mirroring we see between the two is in part the result of Baligant's effort to imitate the king of the Franks: Baligant has given his sword a name "because he's heard them speak of Charles's sword / he lets his own be known as 'Precieuse.' / This then will be his war cry in the field; he orders all his knights to sing it out" (228.3145-3148). Baligant, we are told, is a copycat; he gives his sword a name that rhymes with the name of Charles's, Joyeuse. Because the imitation is usually regarded as automatically inferior to the original, this is the perfect way for the poet to unite his formal scheme of symmetry with his desire to leave us with no trace of a doubt as to Charles's superiority. When we are told also that Baligant orders his knights to make Precieuse their battle-cry, this further emphasizes that Baligant's similarity to Charlemagne is partly contrived and further suggests that Baligant's men are lacking in spontaneous enthusiasm for him.

Symmetry is again carefully observed in the descriptions of the preparations for battle on each side; first the leader arms himself, then the men are organized into battalions, then all pray. In the ordering of Baligant's battalions, the Islamic world is exoticized by the inclusion of vivid, inventive descriptions of physically bizarre groups, like the "big-headed men of Misnes" (232.3221) who have "tufted bristles, just like hogs" (232.3223) running down their backs and the troops from Occian Deserta who have "skins...every bit as hard as iron" (233.3249).

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