The Song of Roland opens with treachery, as Spain’s King Marsile debates with his barons about entrapping Charlemayn by pretending to convert to Christianity and outwardly submitting to the Emperor’s rule (“They’ll trap [Charlemayn] somehow, for it is fated so”). But Marsile and his Muslim subjects are regarded as treacherous by virtue of their pagan status as non-Christians; their plot is not the key betrayal of the story. Of greater interest to the poet is the surprising treachery of Ganelon, who is married to Charlemayn’s sister and is Charlemayn’s nephew Roland’s stepfather. Ganelon, so closely bound to the Emperor, is assumed to be trustworthy. The poem is not straightforward about Ganelon’s motivations, which are merely hinted at over the course of the poem. However, by emphasizing the corrupt aspects of Ganelon’s temperament, the poet argues that treachery, as an expression of a self-serving, disloyal character, is the opposite of chivalry and must be punished accordingly.
Throughout the poem, treachery is linked to a jealous, disloyal, and self-serving character—the opposite of those chivalrous characteristics displayed by others, like Roland. When Ganelon arrives in pagan Saragossa, Spain—dispatched there by Charlemayn on an errand he resents—he wastes no time in beginning to plot with Blancandrin, King Marsile’s wise counselor, to persuade Marsile to join with Ganelon in committing treachery against the French. He does so by spinning a story about Roland, claiming that Roland once returned from battle with a choice prize for his uncle Charlemayn: “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, / […] If one should slay him some peace might be preserved.” It’s not clear whether the story about the apple is based in reality—yet, either way, it appears that Ganelon is prompted to seek revenge out of envy of his stepson’s bond with and loyalty to Charlemayn. Ganelon doesn’t hesitate to use this excuse to incite others to attack his stepson. Ganelon also has no qualms about plotting with a foreign army to undo Roland, even at cost to Ganelon’s own people. Drawing on his knowledge of Charlemayn’s military strategy, he tells King Marsile that Roland will be placed in the rear guard of Charlemayn’s retreating army, giving the Spanish army a clear opportunity to attack and kill Roland (and inevitably other Frenchmen, too). Ganelon even goes this far: “Upon the relics of his good sword Murgleys / He sware the treason and sware his faith away.” Swords were sometimes embossed with religious relics during the medieval period when the poem takes place, so Ganelon’s oath upon his sword neatly symbolizes a twofold betrayal: of his emperor and his faith (which, after all, would be seen as a single strand of loyalty, in the medieval context).
Even if the poet does not clearly state the grievances that led Ganelon to commit treason, he finally makes it unambiguously clear that Ganelon is not to be trusted—that his character is corrupt in comparison with the noble Charlemayn and Roland. When, beset by the Spanish army, Roland finally blows his horn for assistance, Ganelon actively tries to dissuade the alarmed Charlemayn from action: “‘There is no battle […] / You’re growing old, your hair is sere and white, / When you speak thus, you’re talking like a child. / Full well you know Roland’s o’erweening pride.’” He assures Charlemayn that Roland is frightened by no more than “one small hare” and is merely making a dramatic scene in order to show off before other knights. This is a shocking response, not only because it’s a bald lie that further endangers Roland, but because it’s a blatant insult of Emperor Charlemayn—not praising his age and wisdom as everyone else in the poem does, but implying that he’s becoming senile. This suggests that treachery isn’t just an isolated act, according to the poet—it is itself an indication of a rotten character that even rejects the loyalties of a chivalric culture.
At the end of the poem, after Roland has died and Spain has conclusively submitted to Charlemayn, the Emperor finally takes the time to deal with Ganelon (whose treachery was revealed when Roland’s peril came to light). Though Charlemayn is once again portrayed as noble in his willingness to hear arguments for and against Ganelon, he ultimately sentences not only Ganelon himself, but his supporters and descendants, to a traitor’s death. This order shows what an offense treachery was thought to be during this time: as a disruptor of the chivalric order, the one who commits it deserves to have his name and posterity erased. As an officer remarks before the executions take place, “Treason destroys itself and others too.”
Treachery vs. Chivalry ThemeTracker
Treachery vs. Chivalry 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.
“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.”
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.”
Quoth Charles: “I hear the horn of Roland cry!
He’d never sound it but in the thick of fight.”
“There is no battle”, Count Ganelon replies;
“You’re growing old, your hair is sere and white,
When you speak thus, you’re talking like a child.
Full well you know Roland’s o’erweening pride […]
Now to the Peers he’s showing-off in style. […]
Ride on, ride on! Why loiter here the while?”