In the French rear-guard, Roland and Oliver hear the Saracen trumpets blaring. Roland urges his men to be courageous, reminding them, “Paynims are wrong, Christians are in the right!” When Oliver, spying the Saracen army from a distance, decries Ganelon’s treachery, Roland won’t let him speak ill of his stepfather. Oliver warns the French that the “Paynim hordes” vastly outnumber them, and he advises Roland to sound his horn so that Charlemayn will hear and help. Roland, however, refuses.
The Saracen ambush approaches. The poet’s view of the conflict, as expressed by Roland, is simplistic, yet it shows that Frankish identity was understood to be irreducibly religious. Oliver shows himself to be wiser than his companion, sizing up the Franks’ difficult position, but Roland thinks in terms of an exaggerated chivalry and declines even a reasonable call for support.
Oliver presses Roland to sound his Olifant, but Roland swears again that he won’t bring shame on France by calling for help against pagans, and that his sword, Durendal, will soon be red with his enemies’ blood. Oliver urges him a third time, but Roland again refuses. Oliver sees no shame in calling for aid, describing again the Saracens’ vaster army, but Roland would “rather die than thus be put to shame.”
The term Olifant is a form of “elephant”—Roland’s horn is made from an elephant’s tusk. Roland puts full faith in his sword, however (and thus in his abilities as a knight), and feels that conceding to Oliver would tarnish his sense of chivalry. Again, the repetition of these events is the poet’s way of highlighting their significance.
Roland and Oliver are both brave, but “Roland is fierce and Oliver is wise.” Oliver tells Roland that if only he had summoned Charlemayn for help against the onrushing pagans, things would have been all right, but they’re going to die. Roland decries such “cowardice.” He adds that men must be willing to serve their liege in such dire circumstances, even unto death.
Archbishop Turpin rides up the hill and addresses the Franks with a “sermon,” telling them, “Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.” He promises to absolve them of their sins, and that if they die in battle, they’ll be martyrs bound for Paradise. The French kneel in prayer, and Turpin grants them absolution; their penance is to fight fiercely.
The battle is described as not only in defense of Charlemayn or even France, but of Christendom altogether. This suggests that the poet sees this event as symbolic of conflict between Christians and Muslims in general—a major issue at the time of writing (the early Crusades).
As the French prepare for battle, Roland admits that Oliver was right—Ganelon has betrayed them and must be avenged by Charlemayn. Roland rides through the Roncevaux Pass on Veillantif, his swift horse, laughing as he goes and looking haughtily at the Saracens. With trepidation, Oliver urges the rest to be brave. All the Franks give a war-cry, “Mountjoy,” and charge into battle. Soon they’re face-to-face with the Saracens.
The origin of the old French war-cry, “Mountjoy,” is uncertain. According to Sayers, some scholars believe it comes from the term for a mound of stones set up to mark a victory. Meanwhile, the contrast between Roland and Oliver is again made apparent—Roland goes laughing into battle, while Oliver, more perceptive and cautious, hangs back.
Adelroth, Marsile’s nephew, is at the forefront of the pagan army, just as he hoped. He taunts the French that Charlemayn lacked the wisdom to protect them and that his power will be broken. Roland, enraged, thrusts his lance through Adelroth, who immediately falls dead from his horse. Roland celebrates that France has drawn the first blood and that “Right’s on our side.”
Roland, easily provoked as usual, is characteristically rash—a pattern of behavior that potentially suggests trouble during battle. He also doesn’t venture beyond a surface level in his interpretation of events, further highlighting his rashness in contrast to the careful Oliver.
Roland likewise kills Marsilion’s brother, Falsaron, and Turpin slays Corsablis, a king from Barbary. They deliver mocking insults over each corpse. Franks Gerin and Gerier slay pagans as well, prompting Oliver to boast, “We’re doing well with this!” Other knights, like Engelier and Berenger, also kill pagan soldiers violently, garnering praise from Roland and Turpin for their knightly valor. Before long, only two of the Saracens’ Twelve Peers remain alive.
At this point, it looks as if circumstances are decidedly in the Franks’ favor, and the knights’ boastful jests seem to be justified for now. It’s clear from Roland and Turpin’s reactions that such domination in battle is synonymous with heroic knighthood.