The Song of Roland Analysis


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Roncesvalles (rahn-SEHS-val-yay). Pass in northern Spain’s Pyrenees mountain range where Roland, King Charlemagne’s nephew, is believed to have been ambushed and massacred by Basques while Charlemagne was leading his army back to France after his campaigns in Spain. According to The Song of Roland—which was written during the time of the First Crusades, approximately three hundred years after the events it describes took place—Roland’s forces fought the Muslims (Moors or Saracens), rather than the Basques (or Gascons). The unnamed author may have wished to elevate the battle at “Roncevaux” into a struggle between Christians and pagans as a result of the contemporary views of the struggles between the two groups at that time. In addition, Roland is presented as a Frank from France, not the Breton from Brittany that he actually was. Roncesvalles may also symbolize the border between destruction and death and honor and everlasting life.


*Saragossa. City in northeastern Spain located on the south bank of the Ebro River (now the capital of Aragon). One of its towns, Salduba, which is of Celtic and Iberian origin, was made a colony by the Romans during the first century b.c.e., and called “Caesaraugusta,” from which “Saragossa” is adapted. In this epic, Saragossa is the only Spanish city that is not yet under King Charlemagne’s control. Its pagan king Marsile is persuaded by Ganelon to kill Roland (Charlemagne’s nephew and Ganelon’s own stepson), because of the strength that the young man represents for Charlemagne. This locale signifies that which is foreign, pagan, or other; it is also symbolic of treachery and betrayal, especially in the case of Ganelon, one of Charlemagne’s own kinsmen.


*Aix-la-Chapelle (aks-lah-shah-pel). Now Aachen, Germany, a well-known town of historic importance, known especially as having become the permanent residence and burial place of King Charlemagne, In this poem, certain details are altered, such as the origin of those with whom Charlemagne and Roland do battle. For example, Aix-la-Chapelle is described as a place in France, when in fact it is a region in Germany. What is consistent with factual information, however, is that the king is described as living and supporting a chapel there. This setting represents the domain of Charlemagne: that which is Christian, and according to the text, that which is just, right, proper, and honorable.

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

Authorship of The Song of Roland
Little is know about the anonymous author or authors of The Song of Roland. The...

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Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

The Song of Roland comes to the present in many varied, hand-copied manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Each manuscript alters the story...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

700s: During this century Charlemagne expanded his empire to include all of present-day France and Germany, as well as parts of Spain,...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

Many commentators on The Song of Roland debate the question of Roland's character. Does his refusal to summon help for the rear guard...

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Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

The mystere de Roncevaux is a stage adaptation written by Adolphe, Baron d'Avril, and published in 1893 in Paris. The play was...

(The entire section is 141 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Other medieval French epics have survived. They were grouped by twelfth-century scribes into cycles. The Song of Roland is part of the...

(The entire section is 239 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Sources for Further Study
Auerbach, Erich. "Roland against Ganelon," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western...

(The entire section is 452 words.)


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Duggan, Joseph J. A Guide to Studies on the “Chanson de Roland.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1976. A useful bibliographic source.

Haidu, Peter. The Subject of Violence: The “Song of Roland” and the Birth of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Analyzes The Song of Roland as a “beginning moment” in the genealogy of Western culture, a time when Western subjectivity arose alongside a new image of the social body. Haidu combines narrative semiotics and sociocultural history to explain how this change is reflected in the Roland text.

Reed, J. “The Passage of Time in La...

(The entire section is 210 words.)