The Song of Roland (written after 1095) is a heroic epic about an honorable knight, Roland, and his king, Charlemagne, who are fighting against the invading Muslims in Spain.
The thrilling story begins with the advisor of the Muslim King Marsilie, wanting to deceive Charlemagne, the Frankish Holy Roman Emperor, into leaving Spain. When the Islamic king agrees, Blancandrin (the king’s advisor) goes to tell Charlemagne, who in turn asks advice from his closest men: Roland, Ganelon (Roland’s father) and the prominent Barons. Roland strongly advises against accepting the offer but a duke and Ganelon convince the King otherwise.
When Ganelon goes to the Islamic camp to tell Blancandrin of the Franks’ decision, the two wicked advisors plot against Roland and decide to kill him. When Charlemagne and his troops leave Spain, Roland is left behind in the rearguard with twenty thousand troops.
The Muslims attack Roland with 400,000 troops. After a heroic and amazingly even-sided battle, the Franks, including Roland, are killed. Charlemagne returns and fights against the Muslims in revenge, finally defeating them. The Franks then forcibly baptize the Muslims—all except the Islamic queen. The queen is taken by Charlemagne to be converted by his love.
The Military Standards of Roland vs. those of Oliver
Just before entering into battle with the Muslims, Roland refuses to blow a trumpet to warn Charlemagne, who would then return with reinforcements. From Roland’s point of view, honor and leaving a heroic legend is more important than signaling for help, even if this means death.
However, Oliver, Roland’s closest friend, knows that 20,000 men (Franks) against 400,000 men (Muslims) means sure death. Oliver practically thinks that no matter how much honor this type of death would bring, asking for help is the smartest course of action.
“Do you think the typical listener to a recitation of this poem would have spotted the discrepancies?”
In the Song of Roland there are several instances in which the poem is comically far away from reality and is factually inconsistent. An excusable explanation for this is a poet’s freedom in writing. I think that a typical listener of the Middle Ages would have noticed these discrepancies and excused them on the basis that they made the story more interesting.
A couple of these “poetical mistakes” are:
- the Muslims begin with 20,000 troops then suddenly have 400,000.
- the Muslims are portrayed as being polytheists and idol worshippers.
- one trumpet, blown by Roland, is expected by Oliver to be heard hundreds of miles away across the mountains, whereas four thousand (blown by the Muslims) are not heard.