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Roland – The Original Story

Please note: this article was written in 2001 and is part of my Master's thesis. It is here for archival purposes only. See the bottom of this page for licensing information.

-Vika Zafrin (email me with any questions)

TThe following storyline is the basic premise of the Oxford manuscript of the French Song of Roland. It is also, with some modifications, the premise behind the re-tellings/re-writings of the French poem in the rest of Europe (see Konrad, Karlamagnús Saga, Cân Rolant).
After king Charlemagne spends seven grueling years conquering parts of Spain for Christianity, the pagans' last bastion in that country is governed by King Marsilie. Charlemagne's host lays siege to Saragossa, where Marsilie resides. The Saracen king holds a high council and is advised to deceive Charlemagne by the heathen sage Blancadrin and—treacherously—by Ganelon, ambassador from Charlemagne and stepfather to Roland. Marsilie pretends to accept the French king's authority and promises to follow him to France, where he will convert to the victor's religion.

Marsilie has no intention of keeping his promise. His purpose is to separate Charlemagne and most of his army from the rearguard, making the latter vulnerable to attack. Ganelon, for his part, will make sure that the rearguard is led by Roland and the rest of the Twelve Peers, advisors to the elderly king and his most valiant warriors. If the Twelve were to be killed by the Saracens, Charlemagne would effectively cease to exist as a threat to the pagan world.

The plot proceeds according to plan; Roland and the Peers, along with 20,000 Franks, remain behind to guard the newly-conquered land. The Saracens ambush them, outnumbering them five to one. Oliver, Roland's faithful companion, urges him to sound his magic horn Oliphant, summoning the help of Charles and the rest of the French host and assuring a victory for the Christians. Roland's pride prevents him from granting Oliver's request; as a result, the rearguard puts up a valiant battle but is vastly overpowered and finally massacred. Too late, Roland realizes his mistake and sounds Oliphant; but he dies, the last of the rearguard, before Charlemagne's troops return to help him.

The French king, finding his best warriors gruesomely slain on the battlefield and the remaining heathens in flight, pursues the latter and avenges Roland's death by destroying the Saracen host. The Frankish knights are given a proper Christian burial at the battle site; Roland, Oliver and Bishop Turpin are buried back in France, and no expense is spared. Ganelon is tried, convicted and punished by being drawn and quartered. Alde, Oliver's sister and Roland's promised bride, dies upon hearing of his demise, and is buried a maiden. France grieves for its fallen.
The storyline pursued by the Oxford manuscript of the French Song of Roland (SoR), and subsequently by other European versions of it, differs significantly from the historical scenario. Roland's blood relationship to Charlemagne, for example, seems to be an invention of the author of the SoR, since Hruodlandus appears to have been a Breton and not a Frank. The historical Basques are called Saracens in the manuscript. In any case they are pagans, which allows for the vast narrative possibilities associated with the clash of religions–an appealing prospect to the author of the SoR, who probably wrote it around the time of the First Crusade. (Burgess 8) Ganelon's figure is also introduced only in the manuscript. While Einhard certainly presents us with the possibility of treachery on the part of an individual, the author of the SoR goes so far as to connect Roland to this character by a close tie (stepfather) and explore a familial rivalry between the two. That this rivalry is largely the product of Ganelon's paranoid imagination is clear enough in the text, which makes no claim to impartiality. Ganelon's feelings are almost justified, however, if one figures in Roland's infamous pride, which ultimately (through his unwillingness to blow his horn and ask for help) costs him and the rearguard their lives.

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