The Song of Roland Historical Criticism - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Song of Roland

(La chanson de Roland) French poem, c. 1170.

The following entry presents criticism from 1970 to 1999 on The Song of Roland. For more information on the work, see CMLC, Volume 1.

The greatest French epic and a landmark of medieval literature, La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) is the earliest extant example of the chanson de geste, or “song of deeds,” an enormously popular genre in Europe in the Middle Ages and after. In its celebration of heroic deeds and feudal chivalric ideals, The Song of Roland reveals much about the culture of which it is a product, is invaluable to historians in its depiction of the evolution of ethics and Christianity, and is prized for its literary merit and beauty. The original, anonymous manuscript of The Song of Roland has been lost, so it is best represented by the 4000-line manuscript held at Oxford, which is believed to be a copy of a copy of the original. Written in an Anglo-Norman dialect, it blends legend and romance with historical accounts in telling the tale of Charlemagne's nephew, the beloved knight Roland and his death in the Pyrenees in 778, as the King and his men are returning home from a seven-year-long Spanish campaign. Historians believe the story was told for inspiration, to help rally troops to battle. The Song of Roland has been compared in importance to the Iliad and its depiction of honor and courage has engaged readers for centuries.

Plot and Major Characters

The plot of The Song of Roland unfolds chronologically and directly, with no ancillary matters to interrupt its flow. The characters are largely symbolic representations of various qualities: Charlemagne, the wise king; Roland, the fearless knight; Marsile, the evil infidel; and Ganelon, the treacherous schemer. Charlemagne and his men, weary in their seventh year of battle against pagan forces in Spain, have captured every heathen stronghold but the kingdom of Saragossa. Its ruler, Marsile, offers a treaty: he will convert and be baptized in Charlemagne's capital, Aix. The offer is made in bad faith; Marsile has no intention of surrendering and wants only for Charlemagne to end his siege of the city and get out of Spain. Charlemagne does not trust Marsile but nevertheless accepts the overture, although Roland strenuously objects. Roland nominates his stepfather, Ganelon, as emissary to Marsile. Ganelon initially balks but is forced to accept the dangerous commission. He publicly vows to wreak vengeance on his hated stepson, who laughs derisively at the threat. In collusion with Marsile, Ganelon plots his revenge: he will see to it that Roland is given command of the rear guard, which the Saracens will ambush and destroy. The scheme proceeds as planned: as Charlemagne's army travels homeward, through the Roncevaux pass in the Pyrenees, Roland and the rear guard, which includes the finest knights of France, are ambushed by Marsile's army. Oliver, Roland's closest friend and a brave warrior in his own right, thrice begs his friend to sound his oliphant, or horn, to summon the aid of Charlemagne's main troop. Despite their forces being outnumbered five to one, Roland three times refuses, citing his desire to preserve his family honor and his determination to win alone. When defeat is imminent, Roland at last sounds his oliphant, though it is too late to save the rear guard. He blows his horn so forcefully that his temples burst, and Charlemagne hears and turns his forces around. Even with the rear guard destroyed, the Saracens are unable to vanquish Roland; after he slays Marsile's son and cuts off Marsile's right hand, the pagan army deserts the field, leaving Roland the sole survivor. Amid vain attempts to break Durandal, his sword, so that it may not be taken by a lesser knight, Roland painfully makes his way to the front of the battlefield, wishing Charlemagne and the Franks to know that he died bravely. As Roland dies from the wound he sustained sounding the oliphant, angels descend to accompany his soul to God. After Roland's demise, Charlemagne and the main army gain revenge by annihilating Marsile's troops. Next Charlemagne faces the pagan Baligant; Baligant's defeat represents the defeat of paganism by Christianity. Once this conflict is resolved, the trial of Ganelon begins. In the denouement of The Song of Roland Ganelon argues that his action was not treason against his liege lord, Charlemagne, but honorable personal revenge against Roland. The Frankish barons are disposed to exonerate Ganelon, but the knight Thierry proposes to prove Ganelon's guilt by trial of arms against Ganelon's champion, Pinabel. Thierry, maintaining that Ganelon's action did indeed constitute treason against Charlemagne because his revenge was undertaken while Roland was acting in the King's service, vanquishes his opponent and Ganelon is drawn and quartered. As The Song of Roland ends, a weary and mourning Charlemagne is summoned by the archangel Gabriel to undertake yet another crusade.

Major Themes

The Song of Roland's central themes are heroism, bravery, and honor. Many critics interpret Roland's refusal to call for help in the course of his last battle as overweening pride. Sarah Kay and other scholars, however, maintain that Roland is improperly judged when his behavior is evaluated by modern standards and that his behavior was beyond reproach according to the ethos in his own time. Critics use the story as a means of studying the history of ethics and its evolution over the centuries.

Critical Reception

Much attention has been focused on study of the surviving texts of the tale. The manuscript housed at the Bodleian Library at Oxford is the oldest and is generally considered the truest and most beautiful rendition of The Song of Roland. The twelfth-century German adaptation, the Rolandslied (circa 1185), is frequently studied as well, as are Norse, Welsh, Dutch, Franco-Italian, Latin, and other French versions. Eugene Vance has written of the evolution of the work through the centuries, beginning as oral poetry with portions improvised in various retelling by various reciters. What The Song of Roland reveals about the development of Christianity is taken up by E. Zimroth, Gerard J. Brault, and Laura Ashe, among others. Dating the work has always been problematic for scholars and historians. Among those offering their insights on this question are Dorothy L. Sayers and Hans E. Keller. Keller explains why assorted experts, using dialectical studies and histories of legal procedure to help them, have come up with so many different dates for composition, ranging over more than a century, from 1086 to 1170. The question of authorship is equally vexing. Some scholars believe that no single author can be credited with its creation, but that generations of poets revised and embellished The Song of Roland over many years. They do not believe the Oxford text is definitive, but simply representative of many different texts which have not survived. Opposed to this traditionalist view are the individualists, who declare that at some particular point during the telling of the legend of Roland, an individual deliberately set it to paper as an act of individual genius. The Oxford manuscript ends with a reference to Turoldus, but scholars cannot agree on whether it means that Turoldus is its author or merely a scribe. As is always the case with translations, especially of archaically written poetry, there are unsolvable problems and compromises in every edition, but there is a wide range from which to choose. The numerous translations reflect the universal critical acclaim and popularity of The Song of Roland.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

La Chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland] c. 1170

The Song of Roland (translated by Dorothy L. Sayers) 1957

The Song of Roland (translated by Robert Harrison) 1970

The Song of Roland (translated by W. S. Merwin) 1970

The Song of Roland (translated by Gerard J. Brault) 1978

The Song of Roland (translated by Frederick Goldin) 1978

The Song of Roland (translated by D. D. R. Owen) 1981

The Song of Roland (translated by Glyn Burgess) 1990

The Song of Roland (translated by Patricia Terry) 1998

Eugene Vance (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Vance, Eugene. “Formulaic Language and Heroic Warfare.” In Reading the “Song of Roland,” pp. 21-38. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Vance explains how the author of The Song of Roland uses traditional verbal formulas while managing to convey contradictions and abstractions in the poem.]

The manuscript of the Oxford version of the Song of Roland was produced by an Anglo-Norman scribe sometime during the third quarter of the twelfth century. Its language is basically the dialect spoken in England a century after the Norman conquest (1066);1 but the actual poem on which the Oxford...

(The entire section is 6985 words.)

W. S. Merwin (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Merwin, W. S. Introduction to The Song of Roland, translated by W. S. Merwin, pp. v-xiii. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Merwin outlines Charlemagne's disastrous battle in the Pyrenees in which Roland was killed and describes how the tale of the defeat, through retelling, eventually achieved legendary status.]

Some time near the end of July, Charles (Charles the King, Charles the Emperor, Charles the Great, Charlemagne) turned his army north toward the Pyrenees and France. The year was 778. He was thirty-six years old and he was not used to failure, but even the royal chroniclers would have difficulty in trying to describe his...

(The entire section is 3532 words.)

E. Zimroth (essay date 1973)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Zimroth, E. “Grace and Free Will in the Chanson de Roland.Essays in French Literature, no. 9 (November 1973): 1-13.

[In the following essay, Zimroth analyzes the interrelationship in The Song of Roland between predeterminism, free will, and divine grace.]

The larger picture of the Chanson de Roland is of a world rigidly circumscribed by divine preordination. The epic seems to illustrate the assumption that there exists a divine plan to be fulfilled in the future; the course of history here is predetermined by God so that with the progression of time, God's will is made apparent. That portion of the divine plan dramatized in the epic...

(The entire section is 4953 words.)

Hans E. Keller (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Keller, Hans E. “The Song of Roland: A Mid-Twelfth Century Song of Propaganda for the Capetian Kingdom.” Olifant 3, no. 4 (May 1976): 242-58.

[In the following essay, Keller considers and rejects various dates of composition for The Song of Roland, advances his own timeline for its development, and contends that its chief purpose was to advance the interests of the Capetian kingdom.]

For more than a century now scholars have been discussing the Oxford version of the Song of Roland. It is thus scarcely surprising that all of those who have dealt with the poem have been intrigued as to the authorship of such an incomparable masterpiece,...

(The entire section is 7044 words.)

Gerard J. Brault (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Brault, Gerard J. Introduction to “The Song of Roland”: An Analytical Edition, Vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary, pp. 1-116. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Brault discusses the historical, political, and religious background to The Song of Roland.]


The Song of Roland is an epic poem that recounts the events surrounding the death of Charlemagne's nephew Roland at Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. The Emperor and his men were journeying home after a military campaign in Spain. The disaster actually took place in the year 778, some three centuries...

(The entire section is 21552 words.)

Frederick Goldin (essay date 1978)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldin, Frederick. Introduction to The Song of Roland, translated by Frederick Goldin, pp. 3-46. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Goldin explains the roles of history, Christianity, and loyalty in understanding the world of The Song of Roland.]

In the year 777 the Saracen governor of Barcelona and Gerona, Sulaiman ibn Yaqzan ibn Al-Arabi, appeared before Charles, King of the Franks, to persuade him to bring his army into Spain. Al-Arabi had revolted against the authority of the Emir Abd al Rahman of Cordova (a rebel himself against the Abbassid caliphs), and he now made the following offer: if Charles came to his aid...

(The entire section is 20763 words.)

John F. Benton (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Benton, John F. “‘Nostre Franceis n'unt talent de füir’: The Song of Roland and the Enculturation of a Warrior Class.” Olifant 6, nos. 3 and 4 (Spring and Summer 1979): 237-58.

[In the following essay, Benton examines how the treatment of war in The Song of Roland inspired soldiers in the twelfth and twentieth centuries.]

During the German siege of Paris in December 1870, a learned and patriotic medievalist, Gaston Paris, delivered a set of lectures at the Collège de France on La Chanson de Roland et la nationalité française.1 It would now be timely for a specialist in contemporary history and literature to...

(The entire section is 10073 words.)

Eugene Vance (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Vance, Eugene. “Roland and the Poetics of Memory.” In Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, edited by Josué V. Harari, pp. 374-403. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.

[In the following essay, Vance analyzes the narrative patterns of The Song of Roland and explains its emphasis on commemoration.]

La différence, c'est ce qui fait que le mouvement de la signification n'est possible que si chaque élément dit “présent,” apparaissant sur la scène de la présence, se rapporte à autre chose que lui-même, gardant en lui la marque de l'élément passé et se laissant déjà creuser par la marque...

(The entire section is 11385 words.)

Peter Haidu (essay date 1989)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Haidu, Peter. “Funerary Rituals in the Chanson de Roland.” In Continuations: Essays on Medieval French Literature and Language: In Honor of John L. Grigsby, edited by Norris J. Lacy and Gloria Torrini-Roblin, pp. 187-202. Birmingham: Summa Publications, Inc., 1989.

[In the following essay, Haidu explores how Charles breaks with tradition in his reaction to Roland's death.]

The Baligant episode interrupts, in its various segments, narrative developments whose coherence is defined by a common theme: not only do they come after Roland's death, these narrative syntagms are concerned with problems posed by that death. Death is a problem for the living, as...

(The entire section is 6061 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Allen, John R. “Kinship in the Chanson de Roland.” In Jean Misrahi Memorial Volume: Studies in Medieval Literature, edited by Hans R. Runte, Henri Niedzielski, and William L. Hendrickson, pp. 34-45. Columbia, South Carolina: French Literature Publications Company, 1977.

Examines the family structures presented in The Song of Roland.

Ashby-Beach, Genette. The Song of Roland: A Generative Study of the Formulaic Language in the Single Combat. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1985, 190p.

Describes the methodology used in the analysis of formulaic language and uses it to analyze The Song of Roland.


(The entire section is 544 words.)