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Song of Roland


Laisses 189-213

Summary Laisses 189-213


Years ago, when Charlemagne had just begun his campaign against Muslim Spain, Marsilla had sent requests for help to Baligant, the tremendously powerful emir of Babylon. It takes him a while to get around to it, but Baligant does at last fit out a great flotilla to go to Spain to help his vassal Marsilla.

Once Baligant and his men arrive in Spain, the emir sends out messengers to Saragossa, directing them to tell Marsilla that he has come to put an end to Charles's campaign. "I'm going into France to fight with Charles," Baligant boasts, "if he will not beg mercy at my feet and turn his back upon the Christian law, then I shall take the crown right off his head" (193.2681-2684).

When the two envoys come to Saragossa, they find general disorder and despair. The people of the city, and Queen Bramimonde in particular, blame and scold their gods for having allowed such heavy Saracen losses; all their best fighting men were either killed at Roncesvals or drowned in the Ebro. Marsilla, much humbled by the loss of his son Jurfaleu, who Roland killed at Roncesvals, and of his own right hand, tells the messengers how much he and his men have suffered at the hands of the Franks. He urges them to tell the emir to fight Charlemagne's army, which, he tells the messengers, is most likely still near the Ebro river. Marsilla goes so far as to offer to cede his lands to the emir in return for protection against the fierce Frankish army.

The messengers return to Baligant and recount to him the news from Saragossa. Baligant promises to avenge Marsilla's losses and suffering. Baligant and his men ride to Saragossa, where they find Marsilla dying from the wounds he received at Roncesvals. Marsilla gives Baligant his lands and Baligant leaves to chase down the Christians.

Meanwhile, Charlemagne and his men ride back to bloodied Roncesvals to mourn for their lost companions. Charlemagne finds Roland's body and grieves over it. The king is swept away by sorrow; "I feel so sad I do not want to live," he says (209.2929). All the Frankish dead, besides Roland, Olivier, and Turpin, are buried in a common grave on the field and blessed. The three greatest champions are embalmed, swathed, and put in wagons to be taken back to sweet France.


In the initial part of this section, describing the arrival of Baligant, the narrative has a lot of ground to cover and thus moves along at a very rapid pace, summarizing rather than placing fully developed scenes before us. The transition to the Baligant episode is rather abrupt; while other major plot developments, such as the treachery of Ganelon or the massacre at Roncesvals, were foreshadowed far in advance of their arrival, Baligant seems to spring upon us all at once, although the battle with him is prophesied in one of the visions sent to Charlemagne. Some scholars have wondered if Baligant is perhaps a tacked-on interpolation. While our impression of the suddenness of Baligant's arrival might seem to argue for this, the form of the epic seen in its entirety requires Baligant; Charlemagne must avenge the death of Roland and thus he requires pagans to conquer. Because of the symmetries that govern the poem, and because Charlemagne must take on a worthy enemy for his victory to be meaningful, the poem requires that Charlemagne fight an opponent who towers above the Islamic world to the degree that Charlemagne towers above Christendom. Baligant is necessary for the overall balance of The Song of Roland.

The description of Baligant gives us the sense that here indeed is a worthy adversary for Charlemagne, that he is Charlemagne's Islamic equivalent. Like Charlemagne, Baligant is impossibly old, "a very ancient man, / who had lived through Homer's time and Vergil's too" (189.2615-2616). While Marsilla, never noble enough to offer the Franks a good and fair fight, fought out of fear, Baligant, like Charles, fights for religious reasons; he wants Charlemagne to "turn his back upon the Christian law" (193.2683).

The second part of this section describes the grief of the Franks for the dead at Roncesvals, most particularly the grief of Charlemagne for Roland, and the burial of the dead. In the verses describing Charlemagne watching over Roland's body, the poet again uses the technique of the laisses similaires to suspend a single moment, as if in amber. Laisses 206 and 207 are alternate versions of each other, as are the ends of laisses 207 and 209; thus the echoes are interwoven. The effect is to urge us to consider deeply the loss that Charlemagne feels; as mentioned earlier, his capacity for overwhelming emotion, and his frank expression of it (unlike the laconically macho action hero that our culture more frequently presents, Charlemagne weeps, faints, yanks out his hair and says things like "I feel so sad I do not want to live," (209.2929)), ennoble him in the poet's eyes.