Although Charlemayn’s nephew Count Roland is the hero of the epic poem, Charlemayn (King of the Franks and later Roman Emperor) is by far its overshadowing figure. The Emperor Charlemayn alone can finally win the Battle of Roncevaux Pass against Spain, and after Roland’s heroic fighting and eventual death, Charlemayn moves into the center of the action as a grief-stricken, yet unfailingly composed, holy, and finally triumphant king, bringing the poem’s action to a climax. Though the poem is an obviously exaggerated portrayal of events at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, it is not a careless one—the poet intentionally highlights and exaggerates particular elements in order to depict Charlemayn as a larger-than-life, idealized ruler. By portraying Charlemayn as a universally admired and even godlike figure, the poet argues that he represents the highest aspirations of the French people, and an idealized history of chivalry and conquest that The Song of Roland’s audience should proudly emulate.
Charlemayn is admired even by his enemies, and he is portrayed as a better king than his Spanish counterpart, King Marsile. When Charlemayn’s treacherous brother-in-law, Ganelon, goes to Spain to plot with the pagans against Charlemayn, a pagan says, “I marvel in my mind / At Charlemayn whose head is old and white. / Two hundred years, I know, have passed him by. / […] When will he weary of going forth to fight?” Ganelon replies that this will never happen, because “Charles is secure, he fears no man alive.” Charlemayn is portrayed as a godlike figure who, despite his great age, will never tire of warfare because of his fearlessness. In contrast to Spain’s King Marsile, Charlemayn is portrayed as deliberative, sober, and receptive to advice: “With lifted hands to God the Emperor sues; / Then bows his head and so begins to brood. / […] He was a man not hasty in reply, / But wont to speak only when well advised.” He listens carefully to the news brought to him by Marsile’s envoys, and he holds off on acting until following day—after attending Mass, he “calls his barons to council […] / By French advice whate’er he does is done.” In other words, though fierce and undefeated in battle, Charlemayn is not reckless—he still seeks advice and deliberates before acting. Marsile, by contrast, is portrayed as rash. When Ganelon tells him that he must submit to Charlemayn, “Marsile was quite distraught; / He held a dart with golden feathers wrought, / And would have struck [Ganelon], but he was overborne” by “the wiser Paynims.” Marsile is easily stirred to violence and has to be restrained by his underlings, unlike his slower-acting counterpart, Charlemayn, who solicits his men’s advice.
In addition to being a highly competent warrior and ruler, Charlemayn models the emotion, courage, and Christian piety that the poem advocates as the proper mode of behavior. First, Charlemayn models how to express grief and honor the dead. When he finds Roland’s dead body, “King Carlon swoons, he cannot help himself,” and afterward must be held up by four of his barons. Then “he tears his hair with both hands for despite. / By hundred thousand the French for sorrow sigh.” After further words of lament, he cries, “‘Alas, fair France, how desolate are you! / I am so wretched, would I had perished too.’ / He tears his beard that is so white of hue, / […] And of the French an hundred thousand swoon.” Throughout this section of the poem, Charlemayn’s extreme emotions are never criticized. In fact, the French join their king in “sighing” and “swooning.” Charlemayn’s behavior sets the pattern for socially-acceptable grieving. And yet, in spite of his grief, Charlemayn is first into battle. “The Emperor’s first in arming for the field / […] [He] goes a-gallop for all his men to see, / Calling on God and [St. Peter].” Thus, just as Charlemayn’s grief spurred thousands to tears, his courage prompts his warriors to arms, too: “Throughout the field the French dismount straightway, / An hundred thousand and more put on their mail.”
Additionally, Charlemayn’s Christian piety is displayed in his public prayer and even in his outfitting for battle. “From off his horse the Emperor now descends; / On the green grass he kneels with bended head / […] ‘Father most true, this day my cause defend!…” Also, his lance, Joyeuse, is not just any weapon: “You know the lance—for oft we’ve heard the tale— / Which pierced Our Lord when He on cross was slain: / [Charlemayn] possesses the lancehead, God be praised!” Not only is Charlemayn’s humble reliance on God portrayed as admirable, but he supposedly fights with a weapon that was used during the redemptive death of Christ, suggesting that he’s a redemptive figure himself.
Written some three centuries after the historical Charlemayn, the poet’s portrayal is clearly meant to be wildly exaggerated, and his French audience would have interpreted it as such. Yet the audience was meant to enjoy this portrait of the Emperor as one who is both eminently human (his emotions are unrestrained) and superhuman, even godlike (he’s ancient, unfailingly brave, and associated with Christ). Such a portrayal would have bolstered later medieval French self-identity and pride, and it also offered a picture of the idealized French ruler.
The Ideal King ThemeTracker
The Ideal King Quotes in The Song of Roland
Fair was the ev’ning and clearly the sun shone;
The ten white mules Charles sends to stall anon;
In the great orchard he bids men spread aloft
For the ten envoys a tent where they may lodge,
With sergeants twelve to wait on all their wants.
They pass the night there till the bright day draws on.
Early from bed the Emperor now is got;
At mass and matins he makes his orison.
Beneath a pine straightway the King is gone,
And calls his barons to council thereupon;
By French advice whate’er he does is done.
The Paynim said: “I marvel in my mind
At Charlemayn whose head is old and white.
Two hundred years, I know, have passed him by.
In lands so many he’s conquered far and wide,
Lance-thrusts so many he’s taken in the strife,
Rich kings so many brought to a beggar’s plight—
When will he weary of going forth to fight?”
“Never”, said Guènes, “while Roland sees the light;
’Twixt east and west his valour has no like,
Oliver too, his friend, is a brave knight;
And the twelve Peers, in whom the King delights,
With twenty thousand Frenchmen to vanward ride:
Charles is secure, he fears no man alive.”
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.
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.