The Song of Roland

Excerpt from the eleventh-century poem "The Song of Roland" which was composed almost three hundred years after the events accounted in the epic.

"The pagans arm themselves with Saracen coats of triple-layered chain mail. Their shields are handsome and their lances crafted in Valencia. The day is fair and the sun bright, and all their gear glistens in the light. To add splendor, they sound a thousand trumpets. So great is the clamor, the sound carries to the Franks.

Upon hearing it, Oliver says to Count Roland: 'Sir, comrade, I think we are now going to battle the Saracens.' Roland answers: 'May God so grant it. If we make a stand here for out monarch, we are only doing what is expected of good men. A man ought to be willing to suffer pains and loss for his lord. He should endure extremes of heat and cold and should be ever ready to lose hide and hair in his lord's service. Let each of us now be sure to strike hard blows, so that no bard may sing ill of us in his songs. pagans are wrong, and Christians are right. On my part, I will not set a bad example.' Oliver says: 'The heathen army is massive, and our numbers are few. Roland, my good friend, sound your horn. Charles [the King] will hear it and return with his whole army.' Roland replies: 'That would be a foolish act, for by so doing I would lose all fame in sweet France. I prefer to strike hard blows with Durendal [the name of his sword], so that its blade is bloodied right up to the hilt. These foul pagans made a mistake in coming to this mountain pass. I pledge that they have not long to live.'

Again Oliver says: 'Roland, my comrade, blow your horn, Charles will hear it, and return with his army, and the king and his barons will aid us.' Roland answers: 'God forbid that my family be shamed by actions or my dishonor fall on fair France. No, I will fight with Durendal, the good sword girded here at my side, and you will see its blade fully reddened. The pagans asked for trouble when they gathered their army. I pledge that all of them will die.' Oliver says: "I see no shame here. I have seen the Saracens of Spain, they cover the hills and valleys, the scrubland and the plains. Numerous are the ranks of this hostile people, and we are but a small band of comrades.' Roland answers: 'This only inflames my desire. May God and His angels forbid that France should suffer any loss because of me. I would rather die than dishonor myself. The more we act like warriors, the more the emperor loves us.'

Roland is valiant, Oliver is wise and both are courageous. Once armed and on their horses, they would rather die than flee the battlefield. Close at hand is Archbishop Turpin. He now spurs his horse to the crest of a knoll and delivers a sermon to the Franks: 'Lord barons, Charles placed us here, and it is a man's duty to die for his monarch. Now help defend Christianity. It is certain you will have to fight, for here are the Saracens. Confess your sins and beg God's mercy. For the salvation of your souls, I will absolve your sins. Should you die, you will die as holy martyrs, and you will have exalted seats in Paradise.' The Franks dismount and kneel, and the archbishop blesses them. As their penance, he commands them to use their swords.

[The Franks are overwhelmed and defeated.]

Roland knows his time is over..... He has laid down beneath a pine tree, his face turned toward Spain. He begins to remember many things; all the lands he had conquered, sweet France, the noble lineage from which he is descended, and Charlemagne, his lord, who raised him in his own household. He cannot keep back his tears and sighs. But not forgetting himself, he confesses his sins and begs God's mercy: 'Father, You who are truth itself, who raised Lazarus from the dead and saved Daniel from the loins, preserve my soul from all the dangers that beset it because of the sins I have committed throughout my life.' He holds out his right glove to God, and Saint Gabriel takes it from his hand. His head sinks down to rest on his arm. With clasped hands he meets his end. God sends down His cherubim and Saint Michael, who saves us from the perils of the sea, and with them comes Saint Gabriel, and they carry the soul of the count to paradise."


Click here for the full text.

Source: A.J. Andrea, trans., The Song of Roland