The Song of Roland

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Anonymous

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The Song of Roland: Laisses 138–167 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Back at the battle, Roland sorrowfully surveys the fallen Franks and grieves the deaths of so many faithful knights, as well as the fate of those who are currently rushing to his aid. He enters the field again with his sword, Durendal, bent on revenge. Archbishop Turpin approves, remarking that unless a knight is fierce in battle, it’s better for him to become a monk.
Turpin’s remark is ironic, since he manages to be both clergyman and fierce warrior himself. It’s clear that although the Christian faith is paramount to the French, knighthood and fighting nobly is also incredibly important.
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It becomes known that no prisoners will be taken, and the battle is waged all the more fiercely. Marsile himself rides into the fray and slays several French knights. Roland, irate, warns Marsile that he will soon become acquainted with his sword. Accordingly, he slices off Marsile’s sword-arm and then beheads Marsile’s son Jurfaret. At this, the Paynims cry to Mahound for help and begin to flee back toward Spain. However, Marsile’s uncle Marganice stays behind, commanding a massive army of African soldiers. Knowing death is near, Roland shouts encouragement to the remaining French, telling them that when Charlemayn arrives, he should see that the French have fought honorably.
If no prisoners will be taken, then the warriors have nothing left to lose. Roland himself disables King Marsile, which prompts many Saracens to retreat, since their lord has been taken out of the action. By contrast, Roland thinks it’s most honorable to remain in the fray for as long as one possibly can.
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Marganice stabs Oliver through the back with his spear. Feeling that he’s about to die, Oliver promptly chops off Marganice’s head and then calls to Roland for help. Oliver keeps calling “Mountjoy!” and killing Saracens. When Roland sees his gray-faced, bleeding friend, he laments until he swoons in his saddle. Having nearly bled to death, Oliver is blind, so when he reaches Roland, he strikes at him with his sword, though he doesn’t give him a mortal wound. When Roland identifies himself and gently rebukes his friend, Oliver asks his pardon. The two bow courteously to each other. Oliver gets off his horse, makes his confession, and prays for France, Charlemayn, and Roland. Then he collapses and dies. Roland bids his friend goodbye and again swoons in his saddle from grief.
Though Oliver has disapproved of Roland’s actions during the battle, it doesn’t stop him from acquitting himself faithfully until the very end, and seeking out Roland when death is near. The two share a touching reconciliation marked by chivalrous courtesy, having set aside their quarrel, and Oliver’s pious death exemplifies the behavior of a Christian knight.
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When Roland recovers, he sees that all the French, except for Archbishop Turpin and Walter Hum, have died. At Walter’s urging, Roland begins fighting again, alongside the other two men. Though alarmed by the three men’s prowess, more Saracens pour into the fray. Roland is undeterred, even though it’s thousands of Saracens against three Franks. Walter soon dies, and the Archbishop’s horse is slain underneath him. Even after Turpin has been stabbed with four lances, he still runs to Roland’s side and strikes down 400 enemies with his sword.
The height of chivalrous virtue is to keep fighting even when there’s no hope left, because loyalty to one’s lord and one’s comrades demands this. Turpin’s ability to embody this is second only to Roland’s—his legendary stabbing spree is fantastical, but it suggests that not only can a clergyman fight well, but that he is to be unflinching in his defense of the Church.
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Roland fights on, but he’s fading quickly. With his remaining strength he blows the Olifant again. When Charlemayn hears the feeble sound, he knows Roland must be dying. His men blow their trumpets in response, and the Saracens know they’ll soon be facing the Emperor himself. Four hundred of the stoutest pagan warriors make a fresh assault on Roland, Turpin supporting him. Even though they know that Charlemayn is now on his way, the two resolve to strike all the more fiercely.
The precise cause of Roland’s death isn’t made clear, but his trumpeting for help seems to have exhausted him even more than the combat, showing how faithfully he cares for his men’s wellbeing. He also demonstrates his desire to go down fighting.
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The pagans make a last assault on Roland, whose armor is shredded and whose horse Veillantif is killed, yet whose body remains unharmed. The pagans finally flee back to Spain, and Roland, unhorsed, can’t pursue them. Instead he bandages Archbishop Turpin’s wounds and then decides to find and identify the bodies of his fallen comrades. He walks through the heights and valleys, finds each dead knight, and carries each man’s remains back to the Archbishop, who weeps and blesses them.
Though Roland has successfully helped drive off the Saracens, he doesn’t pause to triumph over them. Instead, he cares for his fallen comrades—showing that he is chivalrous to the very end.
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After Roland finds Oliver’s body, he weeps tenderly and swoons once more. Turpin picks up Roland’s olifant and tries to walk to a nearby river to fetch some water for him, but he is too weak, and he soon collapses in his death-throes. When Roland regains consciousness, he sees Turpin’s body and prays for the mighty Archbishop’s repose in Paradise.
Turpin’s last act is a gesture of mercy toward Roland, perhaps a reminder that despite his bloodlust, he was a faithful priest above all.
Themes
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