Charlemagne's army is fighting the Muslims in Spain. The last city standing is Saragossa, held by the Muslim king Marsilla. Threatened by the the might of Charlemagne's army of Franks, Marsilla sends out messengers to Charlemagne, promising treasure and Marsilla's conversion to Christianity if the Franks will go back to France. Charlemagne and his men are tired of fighting and decide to accept this peace offer. They need now to select a messenger to go back to Marsilla's court.
The bold warrior Roland nominates his stepfather Ganelon. Ganelon is enraged; he fears that he'll die in the hands of the bloodthirsty pagans and suspects that this is just Roland's intent. He has long hated and envied his stepson, and, riding back to Saragossa with the Saracen messengers, he finds an opportunity for revenge. He tells the Saracens how they could ambush the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, which will surely be led by Roland as the Franks pick their way back to Spain through the mountain passes, and helps the Saracens plan their attack.
Just as the traitor Ganelon predicted, Roland gallantly volunteers to lead the rear guard. The wise and moderate Oliver and the fierce Archbishop Turpin are among the men Roland picks to join him. Pagans ambush them at Roncesvalles, according to plan; the Christians are overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. Seeing how badly outnumbered they are, Oliver asks Roland to blow on his olifant, his horn made out of an elephant tusk, to call for help from the main body of the Frankish army. Roland proudly refuses to do so, claiming that they need no help, that the rear guard can easily take on the pagan hordes.
While the Franks fight magnificently, there's no way they can continue to hold off against the Saracens, and the battle begins to turn clearly against them. Almost all his men are dead and Roland knows that it's now too late for Charlemagne and his troops to save them, but he blows his olifant anyway, so that the emperor can see what happened to his men and avenge them. Roland blows so hard that his temples burst. He dies a glorious martyr's death, and saints take his soul straight to Paradise.
When Charlemagne and his men reach the battlefield, they find only dead bodies. The pagans have fled, but the Franks pursue them, chasing them into the river Ebro, where they all drown.
Meanwhile, the powerful emir of Babylon, Baligant, has arrived in Spain to help his vassal Marsilla fend off the Frankish threat. Baligant and his enormous Muslim army ride after Charlemagne and his Christian army, meeting them on the battlefield at Roncesvalles, where the Christians are burying and mourning their dead. Both sides fight valiantly. But when Charlemagne kills Baligant, all the pagan army scatter and flee.
Now Saragossa has no defenders left; the Franks take the city. With Marsilla's wife Bramimonde, Charlemagne and his men ride back to Aix, their capital in France.
The Franks discovered Ganelon's betrayal some time ago and keep him in chains until it is time for his trial. Ganelon argues that his action was legitimate revenge, openly proclaimed, not treason. While the council of barons which Charlemagne has assembled to decide the traitor's fate is initially swayed by this claim, one man, Thierry, argues that, because Roland was serving Charlemagne when Ganelon delivered his revenge on him, Ganelon's action constitutes a betrayal of the emperor.
Ganelon's friend Pinabel challenges Thierry to trial by combat; the two will fight a duel to see who's right. By divine intervention, Thierry, the weaker man, wins, killing Pinabel. The Franks are convinced by this of Ganelon's villainy and sentence him to a most painful death. The traitor is torn limb from limb by galloping horses and thirty of his relatives are hanged for good measure.
MEDIEVAL HISTORY LECTURE INDEX...
Charles the Great invaded Spain in the year 778. He had been invited in by the governor of the strategic city of Zaragoza, who had promised to turn the city over to him. He entered through a pass in the western Pyrenees Mountains and marched through the lands of the Basques, a people who had managed to maintain their freedom from Muslim domination and who were not too pleased with the Franks entering their land without even asking permission. Charles took care of their objections by seizing hostages and allowing his men to loot and plunder the countryside as he headed east to Zaragoza. When he reached his objective, however, he found that the Muslim governor had changed his mind, and that the gates of the city were closed to him. After lingering a while to no purpose, he and his army began to retrace their steps. The Basques were still angry with his earlier treatment of them and, as his army went through the pass of Roncevalles, attacked his rearguard. As Einhard noted in his Life of Charlemagne, a few nobles were killed, including "Hrudoland, lord of the Marches of Brittany."
By the 900's, the shrine of Saint James of Compostela, located in the northeastern corner of Spain, had become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites of western Europe, and the main route from France to Saint James lay through the pass of Roncevalles. Over time, Roland became one of the heroes whose battlefield passing pilgrims were eager to see, and, eventually, he became the protagonist of an epic poem. Although historians have argued about when the written version that has survived was composed, most now agree that it dates from sometime about 1200, and was written somewhere in northern France. It is the most famous of a number of similar tales, more or less based upon the events of the era of the Carolingian monarchs and called chansons de geste. This means "songs of deeds," and these songs were the preferred "literature" of the nobility of the twelfth century. They were sung to their audience, much as Beowulf was composed to be sung to an audience the members of which were most illiterate.
The idea that Roland and the other chansons were songs of deeds lead many readers to miss the complexity of these poems. If one views them simply as heroic tales in which one warrior chops up a bunch of other warriors, they can seem rather primitive and quickly become boring. The fact of the matter is that many of the chansons are actually concerned with legal points, and more than a few, like The Song of Roland, have an actual trial as their central episode. You will see this again when you read The Song of the Cid. They are much more like television programs such as Law and Order or Perry Mason than All-Star Wrestling or reruns of Rocky.
This is not to say that the smash and stab parts of these poems are not important. The audience probably loved them, but they realized that they were incidental to the main action, much as the chase scenes in which all sorts of cars smash into each other and blow up, scattering debris over half the city, provide excitement but are not really essential to the plot. Perhaps this is overstating the case. One tends to find out a good deal about the characters of the actors in the drama during these episodes. But it is best to concentrate your attention on the events leading up to the battle-scenes rather than on the blood and glory sections themselves. Another thing to remember is that medieval authors were not "primitive" or "unsophisticated." They did expect their audience to pay close attention to what they were relating and to think about what they were hearing or reading. They also expected them to be familiar with the situations being pictured for them.
It was the duty of every feudal vassal, for instance, to "pay court" to his lord. That meant that the vassal was supposed to present himself on those occasions when the lord called for an assembly to consider problems, to hear complaints and settle disputes, to receive embassies, or anything else requiring serious thought and discussion. Most of the audience of The Song of Roland had experience in such meetings or was at least learning how one should behave when their lord asked them for "aid and counsel." So it should not come as a surprise to see that Roland begins by providing the background necessary to understand why Charlemagne had called a council of his nobles and what issue the members of the council were suppose to discuss and offer advice about. You might keep in mind that a lord was supposed to treat his vassals with respect and honor. This meant that he couldn't ask for their advice and simply reject it if it didn't suit him since that would not be showing his counselors the respect they deserved. Medieval councils were not rubber stamps [They didn't have rubber, in any event. It was one of the things that they discovered in the New World.]
So we have a meeting of the council to decide whether to attack Marsile of Zaragoza, send another ambassador to negotiate with him (he had the last two ambassadors chopped up into little pieces and sent them back to Charlemagne in a basket), or simply pack up and go home. When the council begins, Roland is the first to speak, arguing against going home even though the army has been in Spain for seven years and has gotten quite war-weary. Whoa! Roland is only about eighteen years old, a rather rash young man. It's customary in council for the oldest and most experienced members to speak first, and Roland has just behaved in a very offensive manner. Of course, he is Charlemagne's nephew, the son of Charlemagne's sister, but that's not good enough to excuse his action. Ganelon, as his stepfather, admonishes him, as it is a father's (or a stepfather's) duty to rein his son in when he is behaving badly. But Roland turns on Ganelon and simply ridicules him. Ganelon tells Roland that he has never shown the proper deference to his stepfather, a way of pointing out to the other members of the council that he is not responsible for his stepson's lack of manners. Roland answers by insulting him even more viciously.
Something is obviously very wrong here, and whatever it is simply gets worse. The council is finally swayed into recommending another embassy. I don't know about you, but I would not have relished the idea of being an ambassador to a man who had a record of chopping ambassadors up into little pieces. The members of the council volunteer one by one, and Charlemagne rejects them on the grounds that he can't afford to lose them. Roland then volunteers his stepfather, and Charlemagne accepts the nomination. Ganelon flies into a rage and says that Roland is trying to get him killed. He then promises three times to take vengeance on Roland and his buddies if he gets out of this alive. Bad show! This sort of declaration, repeated three times is known as a "defiance" and is, according to the feudal law of the times, the start of a legitimate feud. If the person issuing the defiance succeeds in killing the person or persons whom he defies, or if he is killed by them, it will not be considered a crime but the resolution of a private matter. Of course, one is not allowed to issue a defiance in a court or council, but Charlemagne does nothing to stop it [except to say "tut, tut"]. So Charlemagne gives Ganelon a sealed letter to deliver to Marsile, outlining terms for a peace, and hands him the wand that will make Ganelon his herald and official representative. But the wand falls before Ganelon can get a grip on it, and he has to pick it up from the ground rather than receiving it from Charlemagne's hand.
This episode sets in motion everything that follows, and it poses a lot of questions that you need to keep in mind if you're ever going to figure out what's actually going on. Why did Roland jump into the discussion out of turn and why didn't Charlemagne call him to order after he simply laughed at his stepfather for trying to correct him? Why is Roland so intent on keeping the war going? How old is he, really -- remember that the army has been in Spain for seven years. Why does Charlemagne reject everyone until he's given the choice of Ganelon? Why does Ganelon suddenly claim that Roland is trying to kill him? Why doesn't Charlemagne intervene and stop Ganelon's defiance? If the council has been called to decide what to do, how come Charlemagne has a letter to Marsile already written and sealed? When the ceremony of the passing of the baton breaks down, why doesn't Charlemagne simply start over again? Did Ganelon simply fumble the pass, or did Charlemagne drop the wand? If Charlemagne did drop the wand, did he do in by accident or on purpose? Why are the counsellors so upset about someone dropping a stick, anyway?
Like the writer of a mystery story, the author of The Song of Roland has given you a lot of clues that he expects you to follow up as you learn the rest of the story. And like the writer of a mystery story, the author has given you clues that seem to point in all sorts of directions. And, if you've read many good mysteries, you are probably aware that the most important clue might very well be something that the author did not say. That's a good thing to keep in the back of your mind as you begin to read The Song of Roland. Is there something important that the author seems to have left out?
And, if you are "really" interested...
The Song of Roland: Translations of the Versions in Assonance and Rhyme of the Chanson De Roland
Joseph J. Duggan and Annalee C. Rejhon
A review from The Medieval Review...
Duggan, Joseph J., and Annalee C. Rejhon, trans. The Song of
Roland: Translations of the Versions in Assonance and Rhyme of the
Chanson de Roland. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. 519. EUR 90.00.
Reviewed by Gerard J. Brault
The Pennsylvania State University, Emeritus
The world famous chanson de geste known as The Song of Roland
survives in many different versions. However, it is the Anglo-Norman
text found in a manuscript discovered by French antiquarian Francisque
Michel in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and first
published by him in 1837 that has attracted the attention of most
scholars. And rightly so.
Endeavoring to establish its original form, elucidate the meaning of
key passages, and encapsulate the broader significance of this epic,
generations of commentators and editors have published a wealth of
studies that highlight its great importance. As a consequence, it is
the only version that is taught in schools and known to general
readers, usually in a modern translation.
Be that as it may, the other early retellings of the poem are
certainly worthy of perusal and study. Joseph J. Duggan, who recently
retired as Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the
University of California, Berkeley, deserves great praise for
recruiting an international team of seasoned and respected scholars--
Robert F. Cook, William W. Kibler, Annalee C. Rejhon, Ian Short, and
Wolfgang G. van Emden (Karen Akiyama provided a concordance of
laisses)--who earlier published a long-awaited set of the entire
French corpus.  Like the work under review here, it is
characterized by sound editorial judgment and analysis.
Duggan and his spouse and collaborator, Annalee C. Rejhon (she is
Lecturer in the same department at Berkeley with an added specialty in
Middle Welsh), have now brought out modern English translations of the
Oxford and the Châteauroux-Venice 7 (CV7) Versions respectively.
Over the years, there have been numerous English translations of the
first of these texts, but CV7 now receives its first rendering in this
language. Both versions are competently edited and well-annotated by
their translators. Some of the differences readers may find in other
translations of the Oxford version have to do with decisions made
editing the text upon which it is based. Here Duggan used Short's
edition in the 2005 collection mentioned above and Rejhon utilized
Duggan's in the same series.
There are some interesting variations in these two versions of the
same poem and it is to be hoped that their availability together in
this elegant new work will stimulate detailed comparisons leading to
new insights. Also, one cannot help but be curious about how a
translator renders thorny passages. To cite but one example, Duggan
translates Oxford's concluding line (4002) "Ci falt la geste que
Turoldus declinet" as: "Here ends the tale that Turoldus
Some of Duggan's earlier contributions to Roland studies shed
light on the preceding sentence. Early on, he published A
Concordance of the Chanson de Roland, which, to this day, remains
a very useful tool for scholars of this epic, especially those engaged
in a close reading of the work. 
This major reference work was followed by Duggan's book entitled The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft, a provocative analysis of our chanson de geste in the footsteps of Milman Perry, Albert B. Lord, and Jean Rychner. 
Duggan's approach to the Roland, elaborated and energetically
defended in this 1973 study, led to a debate with William C. Calin,
Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida. It took the
form of four major articles in the Spring 1981 Issue of Olifant, the journal of the American-Canadian Branch of the Société Rencesvals (Calin, pp. 227-237; Duggan, pp. 238-255; Calin, pp. 256-285; Duggan, pp. 286-316). In this carefully reasoned
discussion, Duggan made his case and was ably opposed by Calin,
writing in defense of more traditional approaches.
Among other contributions, one may also cite Duggan's Guide to
Studies on the Chanson de Roland.  Though modest and outdated,
it can still be consulted with profit today.
In 1978, the 1200th anniversary of the battle of Roncevaux, which is
central to our poem, inspired a number of commemorations--notably an
itinerant international congress along the pilgrimage road to Santiago
de Compostela--and an unusually bountiful harvest of publications.
The uninitiated person desirous of obtaining an English translation of
The Song of Roland, whether for casual perusal or for serious
study, is confronted with a bewildering number of options. There are
dozens of texts available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle, a couple
of the latter actually for free as e-books. On Amazon.com, Duggan and
Rejhon's translations reviewed here go for a whopping $157.
But you certainly get what you pay for.
1. Joseph J. Duggan, gen. ed., La Chanson de Roland/The Song of
Roland: The French Corpus (Turnhout: Brepolss, 2005).
2. Idem, A Concordance of the Chanson de Roland (Columbus: Ohio
State University Press, 1969).
3. Idem, The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
4. Idem, Guide to Studies on the Chanson de Roland (London:
Grant and Cutler, 1976).
The Song of Roland [Wikipedia]
The Song of Roland