The Song of Roland

by

Anonymous

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Song of Roland can help.

The Song of Roland: Laisses 168–186 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Roland’s brains are running out of his ears, and he knows he’ll be dead soon. Taking his Olifant and Durendal the sword, he walks toward Spain. He climbs a mound and falls down underneath a tall tree with four marble stones nearby. Nearby, one Saracen is still alive, having faked his death. Now the Saracen runs toward Roland and begins to seize Durendal—but this is enough to awaken Roland once more. He strikes the Saracen with his Olifant until the enemy is dead.
Roland approaches his death with composure befitting a chivalrous knight, yet still has enough presence of mind to destroy a final enemy. This emphasizes his immense bravery and strength, establishing Roland as an almost larger-than-life figure similar to Charlemayn.
Themes
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Theme Icon
Roland’s sight is beginning to dim. With his remaining strength, he gets up and begins striking Durendal against a nearby stone. To his distress, the sword remains intact. He reflects that Charlemayn once owned Durendal, and then had been commanded by an angel to bestow the sword on Roland. Roland had then used the sword to win many lands for Charlemayn: the territories of Europe, Scotland, England, and even distant Constantinople. Now Roland grieves lest Durendal fall into pagan hands.
Now that Roland has dealt with all his enemies, a final problem plagues him. He tries to render Durendal useless to pagan hands, because the sword is a symbolic extension of both himself and Charlemayn. The weapon would, in his Roland’s, be disgraced if taken up by a foe. Durendal is directly linked to the growth of the Carolingian Empire, symbolizing much more than this one battle.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Theme Icon
Again and again Roland strikes Durendal against a stone, but to no avail. At last he mourns over the many relics embedded in the sword’s golden hilt—it’s unfitting, he says, for such a sword to fall into non-Christian hands.
The sword also contains remnants of saints’ bodies and garments, making it both figuratively and literally a Christian sword. Roland fears that pagan use of Durendal would be a desecration.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Feeling death’s approach, Roland lies face-down under a pine, with Durendal and the Olifant underneath him. He turns his heard in the direction of Spain, “for the French and for Charles,” wanting them to say that he “died a conqueror at the last.” He begs for God’s mercy on his sins and extends his right-hand glove toward heaven. Angels descend to him. As he waits for death, Roland thinks about the lands he’s conquered, about France, and about his upbringing by his uncle Charlemayn. But his last thoughts are a prayer to God, and as Roland dies, God sends archangels to bear Roland’s soul to Paradise.
Roland’s death typifies the fate of a victorious knight—he dies both a “conqueror” (not looking away from his enemies) and a penitent Christian. He dies protecting his sacred sword; his glove reaches heavenward, perhaps symbolizing his willing surrender to God. His last thoughts are of his earthly lord and of God.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Theme Icon
Get the entire The Song of Roland LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Song of Roland PDF
As Roland’s soul goes to heaven, Charlemayn reaches Roncevaux, making his way through heaps of French and Saracen corpses and calling the names of his beloved barons. Getting no response, he plucks his beard in wrath, and “full twenty thousand swoon to the ground for woe.” Looking ahead, Naimon spots the fleeing pagans and urges Charlemayn to avenge his men. Charlemayn sets some of his men to guard the field of the dead and then rides in pursuit of the retreating Saracens. As night begins to fall, he prays that God would cause the sun to stand still so that he can continue the chase. An angel “with whom he was wont to talk” immediately grants this request and urges him onward.
The swooning Franks suggest that Charlemayn’s expressions of grief trigger a nearly automatic reaction in his followers—showing the bond between lord and vassals as well as Charlemayn’s heavily idealized, essentially godlike role. The story of the sun standing still may be a reference to a biblical story in the book of Joshua, in which Joshua prays that the sun will stand still until the Israelites take vengeance on the enemy Amorites. The emperor even converses regularly with an angel—he’s the epitome of a Christian leader.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
The Ideal King Theme Icon
Because the sun stands still, the French successfully overtake the fleeing Paynims and drive them back toward Saragossa. Many, weighted down by heavy armor, drown in the River Ebro. Charlemayn gives thanks to God for this victory, and since the sun is now going down, the French make camp instead of going back to Roncevaux. Charlemayn settles down for sleep, still fully clad in armor. Beside him rests his sword, Joyeuse, which contains the same lance which pierced Christ on the cross. Charlemayn weeps until he falls asleep, thinking of the fallen Roland, Oliver, and Twelve Peers.
With miraculous intervention, Charlemayn has at last led the Franks to a decisive victory. After all the previous details of Charlemayn’s exceptional piety and close connection with heavenly things, it is hardly surprising that his sword contains a portion of the lance used at the crucifixion. Like Roland, Charlemayn does not revel in victory, but weeps for his fallen men, again showing the prominence of grief in an ideal king’s character.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
The Ideal King Theme Icon
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Theme Icon
While Charlemayn sleeps, the archangel Gabriel guards him and grants him a dream—a vision of a battle yet to come. In the dream, strange beasts attack the French, but before Charlemayn can answer their cries for help, he’s attacked by a fierce lion. In a second dream, Charlemayn dreams that he is at Aix, holding a bear by a chain. Talking bears come from the forest and beg Charlemayn to release their kinsman. A greyhound runs out of the palace and fights with the biggest talking bear. In his dreams, the outcomes of these fights are not revealed. Charlemayn sleeps on through the night.
The strange beasts symbolize the Paynims, emphasizing their foreignness and ferocity in Christian eyes. In particular, the lion symbolizes Baligant, whom Charlemayn will battle later. The chained bear at Aix symbolizes Ganelon’s fate, the other bears his kinsmen, and the greyhound and bear represent the coming fight between Thierry and Ganelon’s friend, Pinabel.
Themes
Christianity vs. Paganism Theme Icon
The Ideal King Theme Icon
Treachery vs. Chivalry Theme Icon