The song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland) is a poem written in the 8th century about King Charlemagne and the battle of Roncevaux in 778.
It tells of Charlemagne’s fight with the Muslims in Spain and the Muslim king Marsilla. There is one last city left to fall, the city of Saragossa. Marsilla is aware of Charlemagne’s huge army and fearing he is about to lose he decides to strike a deal with the Emperor.
Marsilla sends out his messengers to Charlemagne and his army of Franks and offers all his treasure and a promise of his conversion to Christianity if only they leave the city and return to France. Charlemagne and his army are tired of war and decide to take up his offer. A messenger needs to be selected to send back a peace offering to Marsilla’s court and the brave knight ‘Roland’ elects his step father Ganelon. Ganelon is furious as he believes Roland is trying to have him murdered by the pagans, he has always envied his brave stepson and so on his way to Marsilla with his escorts he hatches a plan for revenge.
When he reaches the court he conspires with the Saracens informing them that as the Franks make their way back to France through narrow mountain passes, they may take the opportunity to ambush them from the rear thus leaving Charlemagne’s army vulnerable to defeat. Ganelon knows that Roland will be leading the rear guard and will be rid of him once and for all.
Ganelon’s predictions are correct when Roland gallantly offers to lead the rear guard accompanied by Olivier and arch bishop Turpin. The Saracens ambush them at Roncesvalles and Roland and his men are quickly overwhelmed. Upon seeing the sheer numbers of the Saracen army Olivier tells Roland to sound his Oliphant to alert Charlemagne that they are under attack. Roland refuses choosing to try and defeat the army himself. He feels that his army can beat back the Saracen hordes. It isn’t long before they are quickly overwhelmed and are staring defeat in the face. He realises that it is now too late for Charlemagne and the main Frankish army to come and save them but decides to sound his Oliphant anyway. He knows that the Emperor will see what has happened and avenge their deaths.
When Charlemagne arrives he is too late and all that is left are dead bodies. In the meantime the emir of Babylon, Baligant, has arrived in support of his ally Marsilla. They go in search of Charlemagne and his army and find them at Roncesvalles burying their dead. Baligant and his enormous Muslim army and the Franks fight valiantly until Charlemagne kills Baligant and the Saracen army turn and run. Charlemagne takes the city of Saragossa and Marsilla’s wife and return to France victorious. The franks had previously discovered Ganelon’s betrayal and put him on trial for treason. As he is kept in chains he declares to the court that he had legitimate reasons for revenge and that he could not have committed treason.
Initially Charlemagne’s council of barons are convinced by Ganelon’s story but one man ‘Thierry’ stands in his way arguing that as Roland had been serving under Charlemagne at the time then Ganelon’s actions were those of a traitor against the Emperor himself. Ganelon’s friend Pinabel, a large and imposing man challenges Thierry to a duel to the death for Ganelon’s fate. Thierry, the weaker man by far, wins and it appears to the rest of the council that by divine intervention Ganelon must be guilty. Ganelon is sentenced to the most painful death imaginable, he is torn limb from limb by galloping horses and then 30 of his relatives are hung.
That night the angel Gabriel came down to Charlemagne to tell him that his war was not over. He must carry on and defeat the pagans. Weary and weeping but obedient before God he prepares for war.