The Song of Roland
Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers
Published by Penguin Books
First published in 1957
At the back of most RPG books is a list of suggested source material that forms the basis for the game’s setting. Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne has an extensive bibliography sectioned off into various categories. In the major epic section, one of the books listed is The Song of Roland, various editions. When Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne Kickstarter was announced, I went to my bookshelf, found my copy and read it again.
Read my initial review of Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne – Mountjoy! Mountjoy! A look at Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne
I was first introduced to The Song of Roland when I was in the sixth grade. I chose to read it as part of the many book reports I was required to complete that year. Some may think that was an unusual choice for a sixth grader. But I was big into D&D and my circle of friends were too. One of them was very heavy into reading classic literature, which in turn influenced me to do the same. I don’t remember what my grade was for the report, but strangely, after 30+ years and many moves, I still have the Penguin Classics copy that I purchased at my local bookstore.
Spoiler alert: The events in The Song of Roland is part of the timeline in Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne. Those who are planning on playing and don’t wish to have the outcome spoiled I recommend that you do not read past this paragraph. But to be fair events in The Song of Roland date back to at least 830 AD, so there have been 1188 years so it’s hardly a spoiler.
The Birth of The Song of Roland
The Song of Roland, Chanson de Roland, is the most famous “Songs of Deed” of the Old French epics. At just over four thousand lines it is short as epics go. The poem is based on the military disaster of the battle at Roncevaux. Eginhardt, the chronicler of Charlemagne who held a favored position in his court, first recounted of the event in his Vita Caroli in the year 830 AD. Though his account was brief and it laid the foundation for the poem. A second recounting was written ten years later but only a summarized version of the event. After that, the tale would go underground for the next two hundred years.
When the tale reemerged, it is reborn as a legend. The tale of Roncevaux which Eginhardt recorded has changed. In Eginhardt’s tale, his account ends with “In the action were killed Eggihard the king’s seneschal, Anselm count of the palace, and Roland duke of the Marches of Brittany, together with a great many more.” The names of Eggihard and Anselm disappeared from the story. Charlemagne who would have been 38 at the time is depicted as the snowy-bearded king, holy emperor, divine defender of Christianity against the Saracens, with his ruling hand extending throughout the civilized world. The conquest into Spain is transformed into a battle between Christianity and Islam. Even the marauding Basques are elevated to an army of thousands of Saracens. Roland is now connected to Charlemagne as his nephew, right hand, and possesses supernatural strength and power — more than any mortal man. Oliver, Roland’s closest companion and the other ten Paladins of Charlemagne, also known as The Peers, have been added to the story. Their defeat and demise is now a plot derived by the Saracen King Marsilion and Roland’s Stepfather Count Ganelon, who was jealous of Roland. Though there are no historical records alluding to Roland being of importance, he must have been some importance to be singled out.
The Song of Roland can be tricky to read if you don’t know the characters in it. When the tale was formed, the characters in the tale were already known figures to the audience. No introductions, relationships, or reason for conflict between the characters was needed. In my paperback book published by Penguin books, the introduction chapter and its sub-chapters have all the information the reader needed to understand the setting, the people, and their motives in the poem. Another thing with my version is the translator, Dorothy L. Sayers, mimics the rhythmic style of the original French poem. So throughout the poem, you’ll notice the spelling of the character’s name will slightly differ at times to fit this rhythm. For instance, Ganelon will sometime be referred as Guènes, Charlemagne as Charles, and King Marsilion as Marsile. There are many other translated versions published that do not use this rhythmic style.
The Song of Roland begins:
Carlon the King, our Emperor Charlemayn,
Full seven long has been abroad in Spain,
He’s won the highlands as far as to the main;
No castle more can stand before his face,
City nor wall is left for him to break,
Save Saragossa in its high mountain place;
Marsilion holds it, the king who hates God’s name,
Mahound he serves, and to Apollyon prays;
He’ll not escape the ruin that awaits.
When the poem begins Charlemagne is laying siege to the city of Cordova, which is about to fall. Marsilion, King of Saracens, in Saragossa knows that he can’t defeat the unbeatable Charlemagne. He counsels with his vassals, dukes, and counts and decided to extend an olive branch to Charlemagne. He thinks he can appease Charlemagne to leave him alone. So Marsilion sends an envoy to Charlemagne with an offer. Great wealth in the form of wagons full of gold, camels, bears, falcons, and other beasts in great numbers. He would convert to Christianity, pledge fealty, and give his armies to Charlemagne to command. In exchange, Charlemagne and his ranks would return to France and never set foot in Spain again. Upon receiving Marsilion’s envoy Charlemagne convened his own counsel for advice. Count Ganelon, Roland’s stepfather, believes Marsilion plea for mercy is genuine. His great oratory skills sway the others in the council that Marsilion is defeated and tired of war. Soon a call is heard to see who would be sent to Saragossa to reply. Roland quick to reply volunteers, but his good friend Oliver argues against it.
“Barons, my lords, whom shall we send of you
To Saragossa, the Saren king unto?”
“Myself”, quoth Roland, “may well this errand do.”
“That shall not”, Count Oliver let loose;
“You’re high of heart and stubborn of your mood,
You’d land yourself, I warrant, in some feud.
By the King’s leave this errand I will do,”
The King replies: “Be silent there, you too!
Nor this my beard that’s silver to the view,
He that names any of the Twelve Peers shall rue!”
The French say nothing: they stand abashed and mute.
Charlemagne asks his council for a baron of his land to be sent forth to Saragossa. Roland suggests his stepfather Ganelon. Ganelon steps forward and the two have course words with each other. It’s clear that there is friction there. Ganelon doesn’t want to go because he believes it will be his death and that is why Roland had suggested him. Ganelon final accepts his fate and goes forth, but not before calling out his hatred for Roland, Oliver, and The Peers. Charlemagne dismisses the outburst as nothing but excessive passion from the argument with Roland.
So Ganelon alone heads to Saragossa to meet with Marsilion. Along the road, Ganelon catches up to the Marsilion’s Paynim envoy Blacandrin. Blacandrin sees Ganelon and slows his pace so he can catch up. The two rides alongside each other on the trip and speak ill will of Roland. In no time the two bond and both pledges to slay Count Roland.
Ganelon and Blacandrin reach Saragossa were Marsilion waits. Ganelon relays Charlemagne’s answer and watches as Marsilion’s hand goes to the hilt of his blade at the displeasure of Charlemagne’s amended demands. Charlemagne agrees to spill no more blood but Marsilion, on top of what he promised, must give up half of Spain to Count Roland. Ganelon sees an opportunity to keep his life and end Roland’s. With his quick wit and support from his new ally Blacandrin, he lays out a way to destroy Charlemagne ability to fight. By killing Roland, nephew and right hand, Charlemagne and the Franks will lose all their fight. He suggests Marsilion give Charlemagne what he wants. To gift him with a treasure so large that all the French can marvel at. Charlemagne would be satisfied and go back to France, leaving Roland in his wake as part of his rear-guard to protect him.
“Guènes, fair sir,” [the King Marsilion cries,]
“What must I do to bring Roland to die?”
“I’ll tell you that”, Count Ganelon replies.
“At Sizer Gate the King will have arrived,
There’ll be his nephew Count Roland, the great knight,
Oliver too, on whom he most relies,
With twenty thousand good Frenchmen at their side.
A hundred thousand send of your Paynim kind,
And these shall first engage the French in fight.
Of the French force the loss will not be light –
Yours will be slaughtered, and that I’ll not disguise!
The like assault you’ll launch a second time,
And, first or last, Roland will not get by.
You will have done a deed of arms full fine;
You’ll ne’er again see war in all your life.
With Roland dead, the French army would wither and disperse. Marsilion makes Ganelon take an oath on the Koran that he would betray Roland. Satisfied with Ganelon’s oath, Marsilion sends him back to Charlemagne with seven hundred camels of precious metal. Upon Ganelon’s return, he uses his silver tongue once more and tells Charlemagne that Marsilion forces have fled and drowned in the sea. Marsilion will submit and travel forth to Aix, where Charlemagne Palace lay, to convert, pledge his fealty, and accept half his fief of Spain. Charlemagne is pleased and orders the horses turned to home. When asked who will hold rear-guard, Ganelon offers Roland.
“Quoth Ganelon: ‘I name my nephew Roland;
You have no baron who can beat him for boldness.'”stanza 58
Roland upon hearing that his step-father named him for rear-guard he vowed to provide safe passage to the French through the pass at Sizer Gate. Just as Ganelon planned, Roland’s friend Oliver joins him, as well as The Peers. Charlemagne army heads home to France leaving the rear-guard in Spain. But Charlemagne is unease of the affair.
All the twelve peers in Spain are left behind,
Full twenty thousand stout Frenchman at their side;
Valiant they are, and have no fear to die.
To land of France the Emperor homeward hies.
And still his face beneath his cloak he hides.
Close at his rein the good Duke Naimon rides;
He asks the King: “What troubles thus your mind?”
“This is ill done”, quoth Charles, “to ask me why!
So much I grieve I cannot choose but sigh.
Through Ganelon fair France is ruined quite.
An angel showed me a vision in the night,
How in my hand he broke my lance outright,
He that my nephew to the rear-guard assigned.
In foreign marches abandoned, Roland bides –
God! if I lose him I shall not find his like.”
Marsilion’s forces ready themselves for battle at the predestined place, Roncevaux. Each of his vassals wishes to claim the life of Roland in the name of their faith. Great horns blow as Marsilion’s army of Paynim moves forward. When the Paynim horns reach the French’s rear-guard Oliver turns to Roland and says:
“I think , companion mine, We’ll need this day with Saracens to fight.”
Roland replies: “I hope to God you’re right!…”stanza 79
Oliver looks forth and sees the coming Paynim army. So large, so vast, that he can’t count their numbers. He now knows what he suspected, that Ganelon betrayed them. Never the less the Frenchmen pledge their swords to Roland and do not wish to yield. Oliver urges Roland to blow his horn to alert Charlemagne and his forces so they can turn and help; for he knows they are vastly outnumbered. Roland is brash and arrogant and dismisses Oliver cries. Archbishop Turpin calls forth prayers before Roland’s army rides forth to meet the Saracens on the field of battle.
Quoth Oliver: “I have no more to say;
To sound your horn for help you wound not deign,
So here you are, you’ve not got Charlemayn;
Little he knows brave heart! he’s not to blame.
Nor those with him, nowise in fault are they.
Ride forward then and do the best you may!
Barons my lord, hold firm amid the fray!
Now for God’s sake be resolute, I pray,
to strike hard blows, to give them and to take.
King Carlon’s war-cry forget not to proclaim!”
A mighty shout the Frenchmen give straightway;
Whoso had heard the cry “Mountjoy” they raise
He would remember its valiance all his days.
They charge – Lord God, was ever sight so brave?
They spur their steeds to make the greater haste,
They fall afighting – there is no other way –
The Saracans join battle undismayed;
Paynims and Franks are fighting face to face.
The poem continues with graphic detail of men fighting and dying.
“He splits the breast and batters in the breast-bone,
Through the man’s back drives out the backbone bended,”stanza 93
“He cleaves the shield, and the good hauberk splits,
On his stout spear the trunk of him spits
And flings him dead ‘mid thousand Sarrasins.”stanza 102
As night falls under an unmeasured rain, Marsilion’s first attack ends. The French survey the field and find many of their good men dead among the pile of Paynim bodies. Come morning Marsilion launched his second attack.
Now can the French count up the Paynim might
They see it filling the plains from side to side.
They urge on Roland and Oliver likewise
And the Twelve Peers to flee for all their lives;
To whom straightway the Prelate speaks his mind:
“Barons, my lord, these shameful thoughts put by;
By God I charge you, hold fast and do not fly,
Lest brave men sing ill songs in your despite.
Better it were to perish in the fight,
Soon, very soon we all are marked to die,
None of us here will see to-morrow’s light;
One thing there is I promise you outright;
To you stand open the gates of Paradise,
There with the holy sweet Innocents to bide.”
His words so fill them with courage and delight
There’s none among but shouts “Mountjoy” on high.
The second battle is the rear-guard’s doom. Early in the fight one of The Peers’ best knights, Engelier is killed by a lance-point. Next comes death for other Peers: Samson, Anséis, Gérin, Bérengier, and many more until only, Turpin, Oliver, and Roland remain. Roland knows the battle is lost. He yields to Oliver’s past call, to blow his horn to signal Charlemagne. To this Oliver scorns Roland. It is Roland’s recklessness that has caused the situation to get so dire. The two argue until Archbishop Turpin steps in. He tells Roland that blowing the horn now will not save them, but to let Charlemagne know what happened here, so vengeance can be sought.
“The County Roland with pain and anguish winds
His Olifant, and blows with all his might.
Blood from his mouth comes spurting scarlet-bright
He’s burst the veins of his temples outright.
From hand and horn the call goes shrilling high;
King Carlon hears it who through the passes rides,
Duke Naimon hears, and all the French beside.
Quoth Charles: “I hear the horn of Roland cry!
He’d never sound it but in the thick of fight.”
“There is no battle”, Count Ganelon replies;
“You’re growing old, your hair is sere and white …”stanza 134
Ganelon continues to try to convince Charlemagne that all is well, while Roland continues to blow his horn with all his life force. Charlemagne sees through Ganelon’s deceit and has him arrested. He then turns his army to aid the call. For Roland and Oliver, their time has come. Each return to the field of battle to meet their fates. Oliver is the first to receive a fatal blow.
“…And from behind deals Oliver a blow;
Deep in his back the burnished mail is broke,
That the spear’s point stands forth at his breast-bone.” stanza 145
Though dealt a mortal wound Oliver continues fighting. He calls out to Roland to stand together. Roland turns to his friend and the sight of his death causes him great grief. He uses it to fuel his drive to fight. Archbishop Turpin is next with his shield and helm is split in two, leaving a nasty head wound. In his chest he’s been pierced with spears, his horse killed from under him, sending him to the ground. He quickly gets to his feet and joins Roland. Roland seeing Turpin with no horse vows to stand with Turpin, but soon Roland’s horse is struck dead as well. Knowing Roland can’t pursue them without a horse, the Paynim turn, and retreat. Roland turns his attention to the grievously wounded Turpin. Turpin’s wounds are too great to treat. He lies the man down upon a green hill-side and says:
“Ah, noble sir, pray give me leave awhile;
These friends of ours, we loved so well in life,
We must not leave them thus lying where they died.
I will go seek them, find, and identify,
And lay them here together in your sight.”
“Go and return,” the Bishop makes replay;
“Thanks be to God, this field is yours and mine.” stanza 161
Roland leaves and gathers all of the fallen Peers. He brings them back to the green hill-side and lays them near. He carries Oliver close to his breast and lays him with the rest so Turpin can give them prayers. Roland mourns his friend’s death as Turpin’s life slips away. Throughout the battle, Roland too received mortal wounds but it does not stop him from continuing after the Paynims.
Now Roland feel that he is at death’s door;
Out of his ears the brain is running forth.
Now for his peers he prays God call them all,
And for himself St Gabriel’s aid implores;
Then in each hand he takes, lest shame befal,
His Olifant and Durendal his sword.
Far as a quarrel flies from a cross-bow drawn,
Toward land of Spain he goes, to a wide lawn,
And climbs a mound where grows a fair tree tall,
And marble stones beneath it stands by four.
Face downward there on the green grass he falls,
And swoon away, for his at death’s door.
A Paynim pretending, laying down among the dead, sees Roland fall. He goes to Roland and tries to steal his sword, Durendal. Roland, still with fight in him, raises his hand with his horn and smashed the thieves skull. Roland’s final act is to stare towards Spain as he passes away.
Charlemagne and the French ride into Roncevaux. They see their fallen countrymen and weep. The Paynim responsible are not too far away. Clouds of dust from their retreat mark their path. Charlemagne orders a few French to stand guard over the dead. No man or beast is to touch any of the fallen until he returns. The horns trumpet and Charlemagne’s army is once again on the move. This time chasing the Paynim horde so he can have his vengeance.
They pursue them closely and overtake them at the Vale of Tenebrosa. They cut off their retreat and slaughter them before they can reach Saragossa. It’s too late in the day to go back to Roncevaux, so Charlemagne’s army makes camp. That night Charlemagne has strange dreams, visions. He sees great monstrous beasts come forth and attack the French who cry for help. With great speed and ferocity, Charlemagne comes to their aid and defeats the beasts. Come morning, Charlemagne and the French return to Roncevaux.
Meanwhile, Marsilion has safely fled back to Saragossa to his wife, Bramimond, Queen of Spain. His army defeated and his losses heavy. But there he finds that a letter he sent, to Baligant in Babylon when Charlemagne first entered Spain, has been answered. A fleet of ships with Arab fighting-men has arrived. King Marsilion admits defeat and gives Spain with all its land to the newly arrived Emir to hold. The Emir’s army goes forth to meet Charlemagne.
Charlemagne having returned to Roncevaux goes forth alone. He searches for the body of his nephew. He finds the body of Roland up on the hill where he died. He grieves openly for his nephew.
“Roland, my friend, God bring thee to His rest,
And set they soul in Paradise the blest!
He that slew thee hath ruined France as well.
So great my grief, I would that I were dead,
Grief for my household, thus slain in my defense!
Now grant me God that lay on Mary’s breast
That ere my foot in Sizer pass be set,
Out of my body my spirit may be reft
And placed with theirs, along with them to dwell,
And under earth my flesh besides their flesh!”
He weeps for woe, his silver beard he rends.
Then saith Duke Naimon: “Charles is in great distress.”
The French gather their dead and bury them in a large trench. The bodies of Roland, Oliver, and Turpin are given burial-rites. As Charlemagne’s army is ready to head for home the Emir’s army appears. Charlemagne is reminded of his bitter loss and orders his army to mount and charge. He splits his army into ten columns and engages the Arab army who is thirty columns strong. The two armies fight into the night. Charlemagne and the Emir come face to face and fight. The Emir lands a blow on Charlemagne’s helm. Splitting it open and removing a palm-sized chunk of flesh from his scalp. Charlemagne hears Saint Gabriel, whose voice returns his strength. With that Charlemagne counters with a deadly blow.
“At the Emir he drives his good French blade,
He carves the helm with jewel-stones ablaze;
He splits the skull, he dashes out the brains,
Down to the beard he cleaves him through the face,
And, past all healing, he flings him down, clean slain.” stanza 262
With the Emir dead the French have gained the day. The Paynims flee and the French pursue. They chase the Paynims back to Saragossa. Marsilion sees that the Paynims are all dead or have fled. Charlemagne takes the town without any resistance. Marsilion is slain and The French smash all the heathen shrines. Its town’s people are baptized; death to those who resist.
With the city under Charlemagne’s command, he heads for home with the bodies of Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin. On the way, they stop at Bordeaux a city of great fame. On the altar of Sev’rin the good saint, Charlemagne lay Roland’s Olifant. They continue on to Blaye were the three are laid to rest in white tombs.
Charlemagne continues on to Aix and sends for his judges, for it’s Ganelon’s time to pay for his crime. While waiting for his judges to arrive, Charlemagne encounters Aude, a fair maiden that was to wed Roland. He gives her the terrible news of his death, in turn, the news drains her of her life. She falls down dead and is taken away to a convent for last rites.
Judgment day is here. Ganelon is dressed in chains as he stands accused of treason against the Franks.
“Barons, my lords,” then saith King Charlemayn,
“Judge you ‘twixt me and Ganelon this day.
He went with me and with my host to Spain;
By twenty thousand he’s had my Frenchmen slain,
Also my nephew, whom you’ll not see again,
And Oliver, that courteous lord and brave –
All the Twelve Peers for money he betrayed.”
“I’d scorn,” quoth Guènes, “not to admit that same;
Roland had wronged me in wealth and in estate,
Therefore I plotted his death and his disgrace.
But I deny treason against the state.”
The Franks reply: “This calls for much debate.”
Ganelon pleads his case for ill-will toward Roland, Oliver, and The Peers but not of treason to the judges. Ganelon knows he will fare well. He saw several of his own kin among the judges and one who leads them all, Pinabel. Pinabel pledges to make sure Ganelon is freed. The judges deliberate Ganelon’s fate. Only one among them, Thierry, Lord Geoffery’s brother, does not agree. The judges return to Charlemagne to give their ruling.
To Charlemayn these lords return once more;
They tell the King: “Thus humbly prays your court:
That you should pardon Count Ganelon his fault,
And he will serve you in faith and love henceforth.
Pray let him live; he is right nobly born;
His death can never bring back that valiant lord,
Nor yet for money can the dead be restored.”
The King replies: “False traitors are ye all.”
Thierry steps forth and lets his disgust fly free. He says Ganelon’s betrayal of Roland was treachery and murder, for that he deserves death by hanging. Pinabel approaches Charlemagne and wishes to settle the case with combat against Thierry. Charlemagne agrees and thirty hostages, who are pledged to Pinabel, are held until justice is done. Thierry pledges to his faith to Charlemagne and the two combatants take a seat as the combat is arranged. While they wait they hear mass and eat the bread of Christ. The field is readied and the men don their armor and mount their coursers. They charge at one another with their hauberk in hand. Knock them each other off their horses. Both quickly get to their feet and draw their swords. Words are exchanged between the two. Pinabel asks Thierry to yield but he will do no such thing. Pinabel strike Theirry, a blow on the face, cutting his right cheek.
When Thierry feels the blade bite through his flesh,
And sees the blood upon the grass run red,
Then he lets drive a blow at Pinabel.
Down to the nasal he cleaves the bright steel helm,
Shears through the brain and spills it from his head,
Wrenches the blade out and shakes him from it dead.
With that great stroke he wins and makes an end.
The Franks all cry: “God’s might is manifest!
Justice demands the rope for Guène’s neck,
And for his kinsmen who set their lives in pledge!”
Charlemagne sets forth to enact justice. The Franks cry for the hostages to die along with Ganelon. Charlemagne makes it so and has the thirty hostages who pledged to Pinbel are hanged at the tree of doom. Now it’s time for Ganelon’s execution; death by torture is decreed. His hands and feet are bound to ropes leading to four horses. Four sergeants entice the horses to great speed as Ganelon’s limbs come loose at the sockets until they are completely free.
With Ganelon dead and vengeance satisfied, Charlemagne summons his bishops. For he has a captive, a noble dame, who he wishes to be baptized. The bishops baptize her Juliana, former Bramimond, Queen of Spain. The tale ends on a somber note with Charlemagne conversing with St. Gabriel and weeping for his weary life.
If there is one book to read to inspire your game, The Song of Roland can’t be beat. It encompasses the feel, setting, and the times quite well. It’s also useful if one wants to play out the events of August 778, which is the recorded date of the battle at Roncevaux. There are many versions to read, but I suggest the one I’ve outlined above. It’s unique and true to the original rhythmic stylings which become quite catchy. I swear for days after you’ll speak in beats. Now, won’t that be neat?
~ Stephen Pennisi (DadsAngry)