The Song of Roland

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Anonymous

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The Song of Roland: Laisses 265–291 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Charlemayn’s war is over: all the Paynims are dead or have fled. He levels the gates of Saragossa and takes over the city. Queen Bramimond surrenders. That night, the French search out “synagogues […] mosques and heathen shrines,” smashing idols and images. The bishops sanctify the water and force the Paynims to be baptized; if any of them refuse, they are killed. At least 100,000 are converted in this way, except for the Queen—Charlemayn desires to convert her “by love to Christ.”
Part of Charlemayn’s takeover of Saragossa includes Christianizing the city—destroying any remnants of Paynim religions and giving people the visible marker of Christian allegiance. Historically, Charlemagne did engage in conversion practices of this kind, especially among the pagan Saxons.
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Related Quotes
The next day, Charlemayn places 1,000 knights to guard Saragossa, and his army joyfully heads homeward, taking Bramimond with them. When they pass through Bordeaux, they leave the Olifant on a saint’s altar, as a relic for pilgrims. The bodies of Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin are laid to rest in St. Romayne’s at Blaye. Charlemayn continues on his way, not stopping until he reaches Aix. As soon as he arrives, he sends letters to all the judges throughout his domains—it’s time for Ganelon to stand trial.
Charlemayn’s victory is quickly established, and he is ready to return to Aix at last, taking the Saracen queen as a trophy of sorts. The installation of the Olifant as a relic and the burial of heroes signals that the events of the past few days are already passing into enduring legend. However, Charlemayn’s business hasn’t yet been fully resolved.
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When the Emperor enters his hall, he is greeted by the fair Aude. She asks Charlemayn what has become of Roland, who promised to marry her. Charlemayn weeps as he informs Aude that Roland is dead. He offers his son and heir, Louis, in Roland’s place. Aude refuses, however—she falls at Charlemayn’s feet and dies instantly from grief. Charlemayn has her body entombed in a convent.
Aude (Oliver’s sister, briefly mentioned earlier when Roland and Oliver argued) displays her own kind of chivalrous loyalty by dying when she learns that her hero is no more, much like vassals would abandon a fight when their lord was struck down.
Themes
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Before the palace in Aix, Ganelon is tied to a stake and beaten. Meanwhile, all Charlemayn’s vassals gather for the solemn feast of St. Sylvester. Charlemayn explains Ganelon’s betrayal to the assembled men. Ganelon defends himself, claiming that Roland “had wronged me in wealth and in estate,” and that he’s therefore not guilty of treason. The Franks decide this calls for debate.
Ganelon still tries to justify his actions, though he doesn’t make clear exactly how Roland wronged him. However, the Franks refrain from carrying out summary justice on the spot, which mirrors Charlemayn’s own cautiousness and suggests that a deliberative trial is the correct way to deal with such an issue.
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Standing before Charlemayn, Ganelon looks strangely noble. He continues to insist that he has served the Emperor faithfully and that Roland plotted his death. Ganelon may have taken vengeance, but it was not treasonous, he claims. As the Franks continue to debate, Ganelon gathers 30 of his kinsmen, led by his valiant, articulate friend, Pinabel. He urges Pinabel to get him out of this predicament. Pinabel promises that if any Frenchman sentences Ganelon to death, Pinabel will fight him in single combat.
Ganelon’s marshaling of supporters suggests that he doesn’t really have a defensible case, but that his kinsmen’s loyalty—particularly Pinabel’s—can intimidate those who seek to end his life.
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Fearing Pinabel, the gathered vassals discuss the situation in soft voices. They decide that it’s best to let Ganelon go free, as long as he serves Charlemayn faithfully from now on. After all, Roland can never be brought back. And who wants to fight Pinabel? Everyone agrees except for Lord Geoffrey’s brother, Thierry. When the majority report their decision to Charlemayn, he calls them traitors.
Ganelon’s tactic appears to be working—Pinabel effectively intimidates most of the French into silence. Thierry exemplifies courage and loyalty to Roland in the face of such a threat.
Themes
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As Charlemayn broods over the judges’ cowardice, Thierry speaks up. He argues that even if Roland did treat Ganelon badly, betraying Roland was still an act of treachery, and Ganelon acted falsely toward the emperor. He sentences Ganelon to hang. If anyone disputes this, Thierry is ready to fight them. Pinabel then gives Charlemayn his glove and vows to fight Thierry. Thierry gives his glove as well, and the two men wait for horses and arms so that the combat can commence.
Pinabel and Thierry are following the etiquette of single combat. Pinabel has thrown down the gauntlet (offering his glove), and Thierry has accepted the challenge. Again, gloves symbolize the willingness of knights to courageously take on a challenge.
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To prepare for combat, Pinabel and Thierry make confession and attend mass. Then they return to Charlemayn, don their armor, and arm themselves. Knights weep as they watch. On a vast plain below Aix, the combatants spur their horses and finally meet. Quickly both are unhorsed, then begin to fight on foot. The French onlookers are excited, and Charlemayn prays that God will resolve the conflict. Pinabel calls upon Thierry to yield, and Thierry does likewise, but both refuse. They fight on, and after Pinabel lightly wounds Thierry, Thierry finally gives him his death-blow. As Pinabel falls, the French declare that “God’s might is manifest.”
This single combat is a kind of replaying in miniature of the fight that’s just ensued between Charlemayn and Baligant. In both instances, there’s a clear right and wrong—chivalry versus treachery—and only one can prevail. Here, only God can adjudicate between the two, suggesting that Christianity is even more important to French society than knighthood.
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Charlemayn embraces Thierry and wipes the blood from his face. They return to Aix with joy, while Ganelon’s death-sentence is prepared. Charlemayn asks his vassals what he should do with the 30 vassals who pledged themselves to Ganelon. All agree that Ganelon’s kinsmen should be hanged; “treason destroys itself and others too.”
It is not the usual medieval practice for all of a treasonous man’s kinsmen to be killed—it seems, then, that Ganelon’s kinsmen are considered to be complicit in some way. This drives home the poet’s maxim that treachery has far-reaching consequences.
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The French agree that Ganelon should die by torture. He is bound by hands and feet to four “high-mettled stallions” who are then urged to chase a loose mare. Ganelon’s limbs are wrenched from their sockets, and he quickly dies. Vengeance has been taken.
To further reinforce the horror of treason, the poet offers a vivid and gruesome end to the whole matter. Ganelon’s betrayal is repaid.
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Now Charlemayn summons his bishops. He tells them that Bramimond has now been persuaded of the truth of Christianity and must be baptized. Everyone assembles at Aix’s baths, and Bramimond is rechristened Juliana.
Though Charlemayn imposed baptism on the Paynim population of Saragossa, Bramimond purportedly changes views of her own accord and transfers her allegiance accordingly, even changing her name to reflect her new status. Perhaps the persuasion of a queen is viewed as conclusive proof of the truth of Charlemayn’s faith.
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That night, the contented emperor goes to his chamber, but no sooner is he in bed than Gabriel comes with a message—Charlemayn is needed to help King Vivien of Elbira, whose city has been besieged by Paynim tribes. Charlemayn has “small heart” for further combat, and with tears, he laments, “how weary is my life!”
No sooner has Charlemayn reconquered the Paynims than he is called upon to do it again. This conclusion to the poem suggests that the threat of pagan encroachment was seen as constant during the Middle Ages, and that Charlemayn, as the ultimate Christian king, was the only one equal to the task of subduing them.
Themes
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The Ideal King Theme Icon