Though Charlemayn’s nephew Roland is the unambiguous hero of The Song of Roland, Roland is not a one-dimensional character—unlike Charlemayn, he is flawed. For example, Roland is characterized as hotheaded from the beginning. When, early in the poem, Charlemayn and the French are cautious about the intentions of King Marsile (who has recently killed some Frenchmen and now makes peaceful overtures to Charlemayn), Roland “fiercely disagrees” and jumps to his feet, declaring that “Foolish advice [the French] gave to you indeed […] Spend all your life, if need be, in the siege.” Through pride, Roland also makes a fateful mistake during battle against King Marsile’s troops, endangering his comrades’ lives. On the other hand, Roland is unendingly loyal to his friends, protective of his honor, and finally sacrifices his own life for his cause (defending himself and his men against an ambush by the Spanish Muslims) during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. By portraying Roland as a flawed yet unfailingly loyal and beloved figure, the poet suggests that although a chivalrous knight may be susceptible to rashness and pride, his character is most truly revealed by his loyalty unto death.
Although Roland is brave, as a chivalrous man should be, his bravery crosses the line into rashness at times. When Roland and his best friend, Oliver, find themselves beset by the enemy at the rear of Charlemayn’s army, Oliver urges Roland to blow the “Olifant” (his ivory horn) in order to summon help from those at the front. Roland refuses: “‘Now God forbid’, Roland makes answer wroth, / That living man should say he saw me go / Blowing of horns for any Paynim foe!” In other words, Roland won’t concede that he needs help against mere pagans—such a concession cuts against his sense of honor. A little later, when Oliver rebukes his friend’s pride, Roland repeats, “Speak no such foul despite! / Curst be the breast whose heart knows cowardice!” This situation ends up setting the scene for Roland’s death (and Oliver’s, too). Roland, then, is far from a perfect figure, and his prideful actions have consequences. When Roland decides to finally sound the Olifant—at which point many French comrades lie dead around him—Oliver reproaches his friend even more harshly: “Companion, you got us in this mess. / There is wise valour, and there is recklessness: / Prudence is worth more than foolhardiness.” In other words, Roland’s bravery would have been more admirable if it had been tempered by greater wisdom and restraint—or at least the humility to heed Oliver’s.
Despite Roland’s stubbornness and recklessness, the poet still upholds him as the epitome of knightly loyalty and honor. For example, after Marsile’s army is driven back toward Spain, Roland faithfully gathers the fallen corpses of beloved comrades, searching the field to locate them by name: “These friends of ours, we loved so well in life, / We must not leave them lying where they died. / I will go seek them, find, and identify.” Roland is a faithful companion in arms, even beyond death. This scene also suggests that he takes responsibility for not doing more to ensure his comrades’ survival earlier—even if this humility is displayed too late, it’s another aspect of knightly honor. Roland’s faithfulness to his lord and uncle, Charlemayn, is also illustrated by his faithfulness to his sword, Durendal. When, later in the battle, Roland realizes he is on the verge of death, he mourns over his sword, lest it fall into the pagans’ hands and its honor be stained in use against the French. This is because Charlemayn gave Durendal to Roland, and with Durendal, Roland won many victories on Charlemayn’s behalf: “What lands and countries I’ve conquered by its aid, / For Charles to keep whose beard is white as may! / Now am I grieved and troubled for my blade; / Should Paynims get it, ‘twere worse than all death’s pains.” Durendal is a symbolic extension of Roland’s own honor, and as a true knight, Roland is concerned with leaving an honorable legacy after his death by keeping his sword untainted by his enemies.
The treatment of Roland’s death further reinforces the poet’s opinion of him as a champion. When Roland finally lays down to die, the very arrangement of his body indicates that he is a conquering, Christian warrior: “He’s turned his head to where the Paynims are, / And this he doth for the French and for Charles, / […] His right-hand glove he unto God extends; / Angels from Heaven now to his side descend.” Roland is simultaneously a war hero and an exemplar of piety—a combination that epitomized medieval chivalry. Finally, when Charlemayn comes upon Roland’s body and emotionally mourns him—leading the entire army in a shared outpouring of grief—the scene reinforces Roland’s status not merely as the Emperor’s beloved nephew, but as a warrior whose like will not be seen again. Charlemayn exclaims, “‘God show thee mercy, Count Roland, my dear friend! / So great a knight as thou was ne’er seen yet, / To undertake great wars and win them well. / Alas! My glory is sinking to its end!’” Roland, then, was not just the greatest of knights, but one whose loss detracts from the glory of the most noble figure in the poem: Charlemayn.
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry ThemeTracker
Loyalty, Honor, and Chivalry Quotes in The Song of Roland
“There’s none,” quoth Guènes, “who merits such ill words,
Save only Roland, for whom ’twill be the worse.
But now, the Emperor in the cool shade conversed;
Up came his nephew all in his byrny girt,
Fresh with his booty from Carcassone returned.
Roland in hand a golden apple nursed
And showed his uncle, saying, ‘Take it, fair sir;
The crowns I give you of all the kings on earth.’
One day his pride will undo him for sure,
Danger of death day by day he incurs,
If one should slay him some peace might be preserved.”
High are the hills, the valleys dark and deep,
Grisly the rocks, and wondrous grim the steeps.
The French pass through that day with pain and grief;
The bruit of them was heard full fifteen leagues.
But when at length their fathers’ land they see,
Their own lord’s land, the land of Gascony,
Then they remember their honours and their fiefs,
Sweethearts and wives whom they are fain to greet,
Not one there is for pity doth not weep.
Charles most of all a boding sorrow feels,
His nephew’s left the Spanish gates to keep;
For very ruth he cannot choose but weep.
“Companion Roland, your Olifant now blow;
Charles in the passes will hear it as he goes,
Trust me, the French will all return right so.”
“Now God forbid”, Roland makes answer wroth,
“That living man should say he saw me go
Blowing of horns for any Paynim foe!
Ne’er shall my kindred be put to such reproach.
When I shall stand in this great clash of hosts
I’ll strike a thousand and then sev’n hundred strokes,
Blood-red the steel of Durendal shall flow.
Stout are the French, they will do battle bold,
These men of Spain shall die and have no hope.”
Roland is fierce and Oliver is wise
And both for valour may bear away the prize.
Once horsed and armed the quarrel to decide,
For dread of death the field they’ll never fly.
The counts are brave, their words are stern and high.
Now the false Paynims with wondrous fury ride.
Quoth Oliver: “Look, Roland, they’re in sight.
Charles is far off, and these are very nigh;
You would not sound your Olifant for pride;
Had we the Emperor we should have been all right.
To Gate of Spain turn now and lift your eyes,
See for yourself the rear-guard’s woeful plight.
Who fights this day will never more see fight.”
Roland replies: “Speak no such foul despite!
Curst be the breast whose heart knows cowardise!
Here in our place we’ll stand and here abide:
Buffets and blows be ours to take and strike!”
Then to their side comes the Archbishop Turpin,
Riding his horse and up the hillside spurring.
He calls the French and preaches them a sermon:
“Barons, my lords, Charles picked us for this purpose;
We must be ready to die in our King’s service.
Christendom needs you, so help us to preserve it.
Battle you’ll have, of that you may be certain,
Here comes the Paynims—your own eyes have observed them.
Now beat your breasts and ask God for His mercy:
I will absolve you and set your souls in surety.
If you should die, blest martyrdom’s your guerdon;
You’ll sit on high in Paradise eternal.”
The French alight and all kneel down in worship;
God’s shrift and blessing the Archbishop conferreth,
And for their penance he bids them all strike firmly.
Quoth Roland: “Why so angry with me, friend?”
And he: “Companion, you got us in this mess.
There is wise valour, and there is recklessness:
Prudence is worth more than foolhardiness.
Through your o’erweening you have destroyed the French;
Ne’er shall we do service to Charles again. […]
Your prowess, Roland, is a curse on our heads.
No more from us will Charlemayn have help,
Whose like till Doomsday shall not be seen of men.
Now you will die, and fair France will be shent;
Our loyal friendship is here brought to an end;
A bitter parting we’ll have ere this sun set.”
Then Roland, stricken, lifts his eyes to his face,
Asking him low and mildly as he may:
“Sir, my companion, did you mean it that way?
Look, I am Roland, that loved you all my days;
You never sent me challenge or battle-gage.”
Quoth Oliver: “I cannot see you plain;
I know your voice; may God see you and save.
And I have struck you; pardon it me, I pray.”
Roland replies: “I have taken no scathe;
I pardon you, myself and in God’s name.”
Then each to other bows courteous in his place.
With such great love thus is their parting made.”
Beyond his comrades, upon the grass-green plain,
There he beholds the noble baron laid,
The great Archbishop, vice-gerent of God’s name.
He beats his breast with eyes devoutly raised,
With folded hands lifted to Heaven he prays
That God will give him in Paradise a place.
Turpin is dead that fought for Charlemayn;
In mighty battles, and in preaching right brave,
Still against Paynims a champion of the Faith;
Blest mote he be, the Lord God give him grace!
“Ah, Durendal, fair, hallowed, and devote,
What store of relics lie in thy hilt of gold!
St Peter’s tooth, St Basil’s blood, it holds,
Hair of my lord St Denis, there enclosed,
Likewise a piece of Blessed Mary’s robe;
To Paynim hands ’twere sin to let you go;
You should be served by Christian men alone,
Ne’er may you fall to any coward soul!
Many wide lands I conquered by your strokes
For Charles to keep whose beard is white as snow
Whereby right rich and mighty is his throne.”
Carlon the King out of his swoon revives.
Four barons hold him between their hands upright.
He looks to earth and sees his nephew lie. […]
“Roland, my friend, God have thy soul on high
With the bright Hallows in flowers of Paradise!
They wretched lord sent thee to Spain to die!
Never shall day bring comfort to my eyes.
How fast must dwindle my joy now and my might!
None shall I have to keep my honour bright!” […]
He tears his hair with both hands for despite.
By hundred thousand the French for sorrow sigh;
There’s none of them but utters grievous cries.