Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Emperor Charlemagne

Emperor Charlemagne (shahr-leh-MAHN-yeh), also called King Charles and Carlon, represented as being two hundred years old, with a flowing white beard, regal bearing, and undiminished vigor. He presides democratically over his court in an orchard near Cordova and accepts the majority view in favor of what proves to be a false peace pact with the Saracens. His militant zeal for Christianizing pagans is offset by his humble submission to fate when his beloved nephew Roland and twenty thousand of his troops are killed by Moorish forces in the Pass of Roncevaux. He laments the deaths of his men before taking terrible vengeance on their conquerors, but he is completely unmoved by the pleas of Ganelon, the traitor knight.


Roland, the duke of the Marches of Brittany and nephew of Charlemagne. The favorite of his uncle, he glories in his post as leader of the emperor’s rear guard, the exposed flank of the French army, on its homeward march from Spain. Roland is the most outspoken of the Twelve Peers, a hater of all pagans, and the enemy of Ganelon, his stepfather. His suggestion that Ganelon be sent to negotiate the truce proposed by the Saracens seems designed as a test of that knight’s loyalty and honor. Brave in battle, Roland is also rash to the point of folly and lacking in foresight. He is the owner of the famous sword Durendal and the horn called Oliphant, both possessing supernatural powers. When Saracens attack the French force in the Pass of Roncevaux, he refuses to blow his horn and summon the main army until it is too late. Relying on his own Durendal and Christian supremacy over pagan knights, he dies by his simple chivalric code after facing the enemy and performing prodigious feats of valor.


Oliver, Roland’s friend and fellow Peer. His prudence balances Roland’s impetuosity, but his warnings are unable to save the day when the Saracen army attacks the French forces at Roncevaux. After estimating the enemy’s strength, he urges Roland to blow his horn, Oliphant, to summon Charlemagne and the chivalry of France riding ahead. Dismounted, he dies with honor, a ring of dead enemies piled about him.


Ganelon (gah-neh-LOH[N]), also called Guènes (gehn), the traitor knight who nurses so deep a grudge against his stepson Roland that he conspires with Marsilion, the Saracen king of Saragossa, to betray the rear guard of the French army to the enemy. When Charlemagne hears the blast of Roland’s horn, blown to summon aid of the emperor,...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)