Study Guide

The Song of Roland

by Anonymous, Unknown

The Song of Roland Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The boy Roland grows up far from his home country and lives with his penniless mother in a cave formerly occupied by a lonely monk. Nevertheless, his mother teaches him that someday he should be a brave hero like his father, Milon, and serve with the great army of Charlemagne. When he asks his mother to tell him the story of his birth, he learns that through his father he is descended from great heroes of old, Trojan Hector on one side and Wotan, king of the Norse gods, on the other. When his father, Milon, incurs the wrath of Charlemagne for taking the king’s sister, the Princess Bertha, as his wife, he goes to Italy and dies there fighting pagans in single-handed combat.

One summer, when Roland is still only a lad, he meets his friend Oliver, the son of a local prince, and the two watch the coming of the great Charlemagne into Italy, where the king is to receive the blessing of the pope at Rome. Roland is impressed with the royal pageant but not overawed. That night, he walks into Charlemagne’s banquet hall and demands his own and his mother’s rights. Amused by the boy’s daring, Charlemagne orders that Bertha be brought to him. When the emperor recognizes his long-lost sister, he rejoices and gives her and her son a place of honor in his court.

Roland’s boyhood years pass quickly and with increasing honors. At first he is merely a page in the court—attending the ladies, carrying messages, and learning court etiquette. He is permitted to accompany the king’s knights during war with the Saxons, and he is present when the swan knight, of the race of Lohengrin, appears at the court of Charlemagne.

When Roland is fourteen years old, he becomes a squire and makes the acquaintance of Ogier the Dane, the son of Duke Godfrey and a hostage prince at Charlemagne’s court. The two boys become great friends. When, urged on by a new queen, Ogier’s father plans a revolt against Charlemagne, the emperor in retaliation threatens to kill Ogier. Roland intervenes and saves his friend’s life.

When barbarians attack Rome, Charlemagne, in an effort to save the pope, ignores the rebellion of the Danes and sets off to the south, taking Ogier with him as a prisoner. The great army is assisted on its passage across the Alps by a magnificent white stag that appears and leads the army through the mountain passes.

In the battles that follow, Charlemagne’s army is divided. One force, led by the cowardly son of Charlemagne and the false knight Alory, attempts to retreat, thus placing the emperor’s life in jeopardy. Roland and Ogier, aided by other squires, don the garments of the cowards and save the day. Charlemagne knights them on the battlefield.

One of the pagan knights proposes a personal combat. In this encounter, Ogier and a son of Charlemagne named Charlot meet two barbarians, Prince Sadone and Karaheut. The pagans trap Ogier and threaten to put him to death, but Charlot escapes. Karaheut, who was to have fought Ogier, rebels against the unchivalrous action of his pagan prince and surrenders to Charlemagne, to be treated exactly as Ogier would be treated. Reinforcements come to the pagans, among them the giant king of Maiolgre. In a dispute over the marriage of Glorianda, a Danish prisoner, Ogier fights for Glorianda and puts his enemy to rout. Charlemagne attacks at the same time, and as a result Ogier and Roland are reunited, and the pope is restored to his throne.

Roland is invested with royal arms. His sword is the famous Durandal; his battle horn is the horn of his grandfather, Charles the Hammer. None but Roland can blow that horn. His armor is the best in the kingdom.

A new war begins when Count Gerard refuses homage to the emperor. Oliver, grandson of the count, is among the knights opposed to Charlemagne. After the French besiege the fortress of Viana for seven months, it is decided to settle the war by encounter between a champion from each army. Roland is chosen to fight for Charlemagne. Unknown to him, his adversary is to be Oliver, his boyhood friend. When the two discover each other’s identity, they embrace.

A few weeks later on a boar hunt near Viana,...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)

The Song of Roland Chapter Summaries

Part 1 Summary

Part I: The Betrayal of the Peers
The Chanson de Roland begins at the close of Charlemagne's seven-year campaign against...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Part 2 Summary

Part II: The Last Stand of the Peers
On the other side, the Saracens are preparing for the attack. Marsile gives his nephew the...

(The entire section is 717 words.)

Part 3 Summary

Part III: The Trial
Victorious, but at a great price, the French army returns home. The bodies of Roland, Olivier, and Turpin...

(The entire section is 305 words.)