Meanwhile, Emperor Charlemayn waits for Ganelon’s return. After attending Mass, he stands with Roland, Oliver, and many dukes, while Ganelon addresses him “with cunning false pretence.” Ganelon hands him the keys to Saragossa and presents the treasure and hostages. He claims that Marsile’s uncle, the caliph, refused to accept Christianity and abandoned Marsile, then was drowned in a storm at sea. However, Ganelon claims, Marsile will soon arrive in France to pledge his fealty to Charlemayn. Charlemayn’s men strike camp and prepare to journey home.
Charlemayn’s pious churchgoing is intended to contrast with Marsilion’s “idol” worship. Ganelon deceitfully gives Charlemayn the impression that Marsile is in a weakened position and therefore eager to come under Charlemayn’s protection. Charlemayn takes the bait, and it looks, at this point, as though Ganelon’s treachery will prevail.
Charlemayn’s army proceeds to the border of France, high in the Pyrenees mountains. As they halt for the night, the pagan army secretly draws near, weapons ready, waiting for the morning. Meanwhile, Charlemayn falls asleep and dreams. In his first dream, he dreams that Ganelon seizes and breaks his lance. Next, he dreams that wild animals threaten him at home in Aix.
Translator Dorothy Sayers’s footnote suggests that the wild animals—a bear, a leopard, and a greyhound—symbolize Ganelon, Marsilion, and Roland respectively. Both these dreams foretell imminent danger, and their prophetic nature also reinforces the portrayal of Charlemayn as a semi-divine king.
The next morning, Charlemayn inquires who should compose the rearguard which will hold the mountain passes. Ganelon speaks up, nominating Roland for this task, which angers Charlemayn. But before Charlemayn can appoint someone else, Roland speaks up and claims the job, “as knighthood bids him do.” He asks for Charlemayn’s bow as a token of this task, promising he won’t let it slip, as Ganelon did the glove. Though Charlemayn sheds tears, he grants the bow, at Naimon’s urging. At first, Charlemayn offers Roland half of his army in support, but Roland refuses to keep more than 20,000 men with him. Among these are Oliver, Archbishop Turpin, Count Walter Hum, and their knights.
Ganelon’s nomination of Roland pointedly echoes Roland’s recommendation of Ganelon for the mission to Saragossa, and it builds dramatic tension, since Ganelon’s plot has already been revealed to the audience. Roland’s bold chivalry compels him to accept the role, even if he suspects that his stepfather is being unfair—but he can’t resist adding a dig about the dropped glove, suggesting that he really doesn’t respect Ganelon. Recklessly, and fatefully, Roland accepts little support.
The rest of the French army passes through grim heights and deep valleys, grieving. Charlemayn especially feels foreboding and weeps over his nephew, Roland, left behind at the pass. When Naimon asks why his lord weeps, Charlemayn explains his dream of Ganelon the night before, and dreads the thought of losing Roland.
Charlemayn is an emotional king—this is the first of several times in the poem that he will weep openly, suggesting that this is a trait the poet considers to be especially kingly. His nightmares carry over into a prophetic sense of what’s likely to happen.
Meanwhile, in Saragossa, King Marsilion has gathered his barons—400,000 of them. “Mahound, their idol” is raised on a tower, and the pagans worship him before riding north in pursuit of the Franks. Marsilion’s nephew, Adelroth, asks for the privilege of striking the first blow at Roland, and Marsilion grants this, giving his glove as a pledge. He also gathers twelve Champions to join him in opposing Charlemayn’s Twelve Peers.
Again, Islam is associated with idol worship, further aligning the religion with paganism. The preparations in Marsilion’s court somewhat parallel those in Charlemayn’s, as they both involve the granting of a token and the assembling of favored warriors. All of these preparations suggest that the military encounter will not be a quick or easy one.
One of the men who hurries to join the march to Roncevaux is an unnamed emir, noble and courageous, who, “were he but Christian, right knightly he’d appear.” Another, Turgis, holds “a right ill will to Christian men” and tells Marsile, “Mahound’s worth more than St. Peter the Roman.” Each of these men, and others, vow to kill Roland and leave Charlemayn bereft and powerless—France, they swear, will soon be theirs.
In the poet’s mind, knightly chivalry goes hand in hand with Christianity—that is, one can’t be a true knight without being Christian. These knights are markedly anti-Christian, with Turgis provocatively claiming that “Mahound,” the idol, can beat St. Peter.