Based on the massacre in 778 of Charlemagne's rearguard at Roncesvalles in northern Spain, The Song of Roland transforms a legendary defeat into an epic clash between Christianity and paganism. At the heart of the poem is the account of the warrior Roland, Charlemagne's nephew and captain of his rearguard, who valiantly leads his men into battle against a vast pagan host and dies, defiant and triumphant, on a hill facing the enemy. The scene that recounts his death is one of the greatest in world literature.The oldest extant epic poem in French, The Song of Roland is a celebration of the crusading and feudal values of the twelfth century; its skillful structure and poetic intensity make it the most famous of the chansons de geste.
On 15 August 778, Charlemagne’s army was returning from a successful expedition against Saracen Spain when its rearguard was ambushed in a remote Pyrenean pass. Out of this skirmish arose a stirring tale of war, which was recorded in the oldest extant epic poem in French. The Song of Roland, written by an unknown poet, tells of Charlemagne’s warrior nephew, Lord of the Breton Marches, who valiantly leads his men into battle against the Saracens, but dies in the massacre, defiant to the end. In majestic verses, the battle becomes a symbolic struggle between Christianity and paganism, while Roland’s last stand is the ultimate expression of honour and feudal values of twelfth-century France.
Glyn Burgess teaches at the University of Liverpool. He is an expert on early medieval French literature, and has translated and written widely on this area.
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