Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1708 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Song of Roland Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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 Saracens, or Muslims, in Spain. The Frankish (French) forces have conquered all of Spain except for the city of Saragossa, ruled by the Saracen King Marsile. Charlemagne's men are weary from their long battles and yearn to return to their lands in France. Likewise, the Saracens are eager for the French to leave them in peace. Knowing that his army is no match for the French forces, Marsile holds a council to ask his men for advice. The knight Blancandrin suggests that they play upon the French desire to return home by paying Charlemagne rich tribute and promising to follow him back to France and convert to Christianity—never intending, of course, to do so. This way the Saracens will rid Spain of the French army. The Saracens agree that this is an excellent plot, and they send an envoy and a caravan loaded with riches to the French king with the proposal. Charlemagne calls a council of the Peers, his twelve most trusted advisors, to decide what to do.
The Peers encourage Charlemagne to accept Marsile's offer and end the war. Only Roland speaks out against the plan, reminding the French of past incidents of Saracen treachery. His is the lone dissenting voice, and he is disregarded. Several men volunteer to serve as Charlemagne's envoy back to Marsile, but are rejected because of the danger of the mission. Roland...
(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 honor of leading the raid against the French rear guard. Like the French forces, the Saracen contingent includes Marsile's twelve most trusted and valiant warriors. The Saracens, who vastly outnumber the French rear guard, outfit themselves richly for battle in gleaming golden armor, and the sound of their battle trumpets is heard by the French rear guard. Olivier, Roland's closest friend, sees the Saracens approaching, armed for battle, and declares Ganelon a traitor, but Roland will hear no evil of his stepfather. Olivier encourages Roland to blow the horn that will call the rest of Charlemagne's forces back to help defeat the Saracens. Roland contends that to call for help would dishonor him as a knight. He vows to kill all of the Saracens, single-handedly if necessary. Olivier continues to beg Roland to blow his horn, as the enemy approaches. Finally, when it is too late for Charlemagne to come to their rescue, Archbishop Turpin blesses the French barons so that they will die as holy martyrs, and they engage the Saracens.
With their battle cry of "Montjoie," the French barons confront the Saracens, described by the author as a series of one-to-one combats. The carnage is great on both sides, and the Saracens call for reinforcements. Roland announces his intention to sound his horn to call Charlemagne. Olivier now...
(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 are laid to rest. Aude, the sister of Olivier and fiancee of Roland, learns about their deaths from Charlemagne. She asks God not to let her live on without Roland, and she falls dead at Charlemagne's feet.
Ganelon stands accused of treason to Charlemagne. His argument is that he indeed plotted revenge on Roland, but that he always remained faithful and loyal to Charlemagne. He thus pleads vengeance, which is legal, and not treason, which merits death. Ganelon is seconded by thirty of his relatives, with the mighty warrior Pinabel as his champion. Pinabel will fight Charlemagne's representative, and the warrior who wins proves the case for his side. None of Charlemagne's barons, however, will stand up to the mighty Pinabel. A small, slight warrior named Thierry approaches, volunteering to fight the giant Pinabel. Thierry feels that Charlemagne's accusation of treason is just, since Roland was in Charlemagne's service at the time the vengeance was carried out. God helps Thierry to slay Pinabel, and Ganelon and his thirty relatives are put to death for the treason.
The tale closes with a conversion. The wise Queen Bramimonde, brought to France as a captive of war, converts to Christianity. The narrative stresses that the conversion is not forced, but is her choice, which for the twelfth-century transcriber of...
(The entire section is 305 words.)