The Song of Roland

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The Song of Roland or La Chanson de Roland, the earliest surviving masterpiece of French literature, is an epic poem written in Old French which reached its final form in or around the later 11th century. It centres on the death of Charlemagne's nephew Roland at the battle of Roncevaux. Nothing is known of the author except that his name may have been Turoldus.


Quotations in the original Old French come from the edition by F. Whitehead: La Chanson de Roland (Oxford, 1946). Translations are taken from the version by Howard S. Robertson: The Song of Roland (London, 1972), ISBN 0460017772.
White is his beard and hoary is his head,
His stature noble and his countenance proud.
  • Un faldestoed i unt fait tut d'or mer,
    La siet li reis ki dulce France tient.
    Blanche ad la barbe e tut flurit le chef,
    Gent ad le cors e le cuntenant fier;
    S'est k·il demandet, ne l'estoet enseigner.
    • Upon a faldstool wrought in purest gold
      Sits Charlemagne, the king who rules all France.
      White is his beard and hoary is his head,
      His stature noble and his countenance proud –
      No need to point him out to any man.
    • Stanza VIII, line 115.
  • Dist Oliver: "Paien unt grant esforz,
    De noz Franceis m'i semblet aveir mult poi.
    Cumpaign Rollant, kar sunez vostre corn!
    Si l'orrat Carles, si returnerat l'ost."
    Respunt Rollant: "Jo fereie que fols,
    En dulce France en perdreie mun los".
    • Says Oliver, "The pagans are in force,
      While of our Franks it seems there are too few.
      Therefore, companion Roland, sound your horn!
      King Charles will hear, the army will turn back."
      Roland replies, "That would be mad, insane!
      For I would lose renown throughout sweet France."
    • Stanza LXXXIII, line 1049
  • Rollant est proz e Oliver est sage.
    • Heroic Roland and wise Oliver.
    • Stanza LXXXVII, line 1093
  • Pur sun seignur deit hom susfrir granz mals
    E endurer e forz freiz e granz chalz,
    Si·n deit hom perdre del sanc e de la char.
    • A man should suffer greatly for his lord,
      Endure both biting cold and sweltering heat
      And sacrifice for him both flesh and blood.
    • Stanza LXXXVIII, line 1117
  • Kar vasselage par sens nen est folie,
    Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie.
    • For courage mixed with prudence is not foolish,
      And moderation betters recklessness.
    • Stanza CXXXI, line 1724
  • Rollant ad mis l'olifan a sa buche,
    Empeint le ben, par grant vertut le sunet.
    Halt sunt li pui e la voiz est mult lunge,
    Granz ·xxx· liwes l’oïrent il respundre.
    Karles l'oït e ses cumpaignes tutes.
    Ço dit li reis: "Bataille funt nostre hume."
    • Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
      Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
      The hills are high; the horn's voice loud and long;
      They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
      King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
      The king declares, "Our men are in a battle."
    • Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753
Brave French, I see you die on my account,
And I unable to protect your lives!
  • Tere de France, mult estes dulz païs,
    Oi desertét a tant ruboste exill!
    Barons franceis, pur mei vos vei murir,
    Jo ne vos pois tenser ne guarantir.
    • Oh land of France, oh blissful, pleasant land,
      Today laid desolate by such cruel waste!
      Brave French, I see you die on my account,
      And I unable to protect your lives!
    • Stanza CXL, line 1861
  • Mult ad apris ki bien conuist ahan.
    • He has learned much who knows the pain of struggle.
    • Stanza CLXXXIV, line 2524
  • "Deus," dist li reis, "si penuse est ma vie!"
    Pluret des oilz, sa barbe blanche tiret.
    Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.
    • "God," says the king, "how wearisome my life!"
      He weeps and pulls at his white beard.
      Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.
    • Stanza CCXCVIII, line 4000

About The Song of Roland

  • [The battle of Roncevaux] should have been remembered as a humiliation. Yet it was not. For among the dead of Charlemagne’s army was an officer known as Roland. Although Roland scarcely merited a mention in the chronicle accounts of the battle, during the Middle Ages he would gain a form of meme status. His name became the byword for and archetype of the courageous Christian knight who died heroically for his lord and faith, fighting in a losing cause but emerging with the greater glory for it. In the eleventh century, one version of the many minstrel songs composed about Roland was written down in verse as The Song of Roland (La chanson de Roland). Today this is revered as the oldest surviving work of French literature, and although the world it describes bears little actual resemblance to Carolingian Francia (it is much closer to France during the Crusades), the story was no less popular for it. Describing the climactic moments at Roncevaux, the song tells of Roland blowing a mighty horn to alert Charlemagne to his desperate plight. The warrior puffs so hard into the instrument that his temples literally burst and blood spurts from his mouth. Later in the song, once all his companions are dead and he himself is dying, Roland summons his last ounce of strength to defeat a Saracen who was trying to steal his sword, beating the eyes out of his skull and laying him dead on the ground. Eventually, Roland himself dies, but before repenting his sins and joining hands with the archangels Gabriel and Michael, his last thoughts are for “the fair land of France, the men of his lineage [and] Charlemagne, his lord, who raised him.” Needless to say, this was all fantasy. Neither Charlemagne nor the unfortunate, real-life Roland could have imagined that a dismal defeat at the Pass of Roncevaux would have eventually inspired such a dramatic scene—let alone a foundational text in European literature. Yet somehow, for Charlemagne, even abject failure often contained the seeds of triumph.
    • Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021).
  • Roland is ideal and universal, and the story of his defeat, of the blast of his horn, and the last stroke of Durendal is a kind of funeral march or "heroic symphony" into which a meaning may be read for every new hero, to the end of the world.
    • W. P. Ker Epic and Romance (New York, 1957) p. 295.
  • Tunc cantilena Rollandi inchoata, ut martium viri exemplum pugnaturos accenderet, inclamatoque Dei auxilio prelium consertum bellatumque acriter, neutris in multam diei horam cedentibus.
    • Then the soldiers began the song of Roland so that the martial example of this man should excite them, and calling upon God's help, they began the fight and most bitter battle, with neither side yielding until late in the day.
    • William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk. 3, section 242; describing the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings; translation from John Haines Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères (Cambridge, 2004) p. 58.
  • At the start of its campaign, the Church manufactured for propaganda purposes both the threat and evilness of the enemy. The Church had spent many years developing a Western hatred of Muslims so that it could take Muslim lands. This too, is a lesson: a propaganda machine for hate always has a war waiting. This was why during the Cold War, the U.S. government became infuriated at any suggestion that the Soviets were their "moral equivalent." Eleventh-century chroniclers drastically revised early medieval history to demonize Muslims. A famous example is the beautiful eleventh-century poem Le Chanson de Roland, which depicts a 778 engagement in the Pyrenees between Charlemagne and the evil Saracens, describing an ambush by the deceitful Muslims in which the Christians valiantly defended themselves. Like Muslims, the Christians, too, could write poetic war propaganda. In truth, Charlemagne had already made a deal with competing Muslim leaders and easily took Spanish cities by a prearranged collaboration. But then, having not fought any real battles, on his way back to France he sacked Pamplona, a Basque city. It was the Basques and not the Muslims who attacked his rear column in the mountain pass. In reality there were not two all-powerful forces, the Christians and the Muslims, but many warring groups. Urban II unified the Christians by creating this myth of a single, all-powerful Saracen, which for a time was a great Christian advantage since there was no unity among Muslims.