For seven years, Emperor Charlemayn has been in Spain. He has conquered the whole country, except for the mountain city of Saragossa, which is held by Marsilion, who serves “Mahound” and prays to “Apollyon.” Marsilion will not escape the coming ruin.
Saragossa (Zaragoza) was the capital of the Upper March of al-Andalus, the culturally Muslim territory of the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. Marsilion, however, is described as being vaguely pagan instead of clearly Muslim—“Mahound” is a corruption of Muhammad’s name, and “Apollyon” seems to refer to the Greek god Apollo.
In Saragossa, Marsilion lies on a marble dais in a shady orchard; 20,000 vassals surround him. Marsilion tells his vassals that none of his forces are capable of defeating Charlemayn, the Emperor of France, and asks for their advice. Only wise Blancandrin speaks up. He advises Marsilion to promise Charlemayn his loyalty and to send him lavish gifts if the Franks will return to France. Marsilion should claim that at Michaelmas, he will send to Charlemayn’s court at Aix, swearing fealty, converting to Christianity, and providing hostages. Even when Marsilion fails to show up at Aix and the hostages are duly beheaded, Blancandrin explains, this would be better than the loss of honor and territory.
Even the pagan king is depicted as already knowing that he can’t defeat Charlemayn—reinforcing the image of the Frankish emperor as the ultimate king. The pagans’ behavior is also portrayed as treacherous from the very beginning, a characterization that will persist throughout the poem. Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen, Germany) was the historical Charlemagne’s imperial capital.
At this, King Marsile ends the discussion and sends Blancandrin, along with several other barons, to approach Charlemayn at Cordova, where he is currently laying siege. They should arrive with olive branches in hand, signifying peace; Marsile will pay them all handsomely for this. The men agree, setting out on snow-white mules saddled with silver and bridled with gold.
Marsile is portrayed as a king who doesn’t hesitate to behave deceitfully in order to get what he wants—a characterization that will be contrasted with Charlemayn’s. His men’s loyalty is also partially motivated by money. The men’s diplomatic and noble appearance belies their wicked intent.
At Cordova, Emperor Charlemayn is happy: he has overtaken the city, and all the pagans have been killed or converted to Christianity. He sits in an orchard surrounded by Roland, Oliver, and 15,000 of his men, who play chess or engage in sport while Charlemayn looks on from his throne. When Marsilion’s messengers arrive, they instantly recognize Charlemayn because of his white hair and noble, austere presence. Blancandrin approaches and relays Marsilion’s offer. Upon hearing it, Charlemayn “bows his head and so begins to brood.”
Charlemayn’s happiness over the Christianization of Cordova foreshadows his later treatment of Saragossa. Charlemayn’s kingly presence is such that even strangers can identify him immediately. The first hint of Charlemayn’s internal character is that he doesn’t act rashly, unlike Marsilion—he “broods” over the new turn of events.
Because Charlemayn is “not hasty in reply” and prefers to wait for advice, he doesn’t speak for a long time. Finally, he tells the messengers that Marsilion is still his enemy. Blancandrin promises hostages, including his own son, and adds that Marsilion will follow later and be baptized in Aix’s miraculous springs. The Emperor lodges the envoys for the night and, after Mass the next morning, gathers his barons in council, since “by French advice what’er he does is done.”
Charlemayn’s slowness to speak indicates a deliberative, thoughtful character, again contrasting with Marsilion. He also extends hospitality to the envoys, even though he hasn’t made up his mind yet, showing that he’s generous (a mark of chivalry). Additionally, Charlemayn’s attendance at Mass indicates his piety. He is an ideal French king because he values the input of his own people.
Charlemayn, Roland, Oliver, and Ganelon, “that wrought the treachery,” are among those gathered beneath a pine tree. Charlemayn explains the envoys’ offer and adds that he isn’t sure of Marsile’s true purpose. The French agree that it’s best to stay on their guard—everyone except for Count Roland, that is, who suddenly springs to his feet.
The poet isn’t concerned about giving away plot details; Ganelon is revealed as a traitor before he even acts, showing that the poet is more concerned about how the treachery unfolds. Roland, meanwhile, shows his recklessness right away.
Roland tells Charlemayn he should never trust Marsilion. He reminds Charlemayn of a past treacherous deed: Marsile sent 15 men to sue for peace, then beheaded two men whom Charlemayn had sent back to him in a friendly pledge. Charlemayn should keep waging war in revenge, Roland argues, no matter what the cost.
As it turns out, even though Roland is rash and hot-tempered, his read of Marsilion’s character is accurate. Because Marsilion has behaved treacherously in the past, the poet suggests, he can never be trusted again.
Charlemayn strokes his beard in silence. Then Guènes interjects, “full of pride.” He warns Charlemayn not to trust “a brawling fellow” and that the wise, not the reckless, should be heeded.
Though Ganelon objects to Roland’s recklessness, he displays his own flaws as well; the poet suggests from the beginning that Ganelon’s reactions to Roland conceal his own hostile motives.