The Song of Roland Summary

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📖 Short Summary of The Song of Roland

The epic poem Song of Roland is based on a real historical event – a battle at Roncevaux. It was created in the eleventh century and portrayed the Christians’ victory over the Saracens. Roland is one of the main characters. He leads a part of Charlemagne’s army and gets betrayed by his stepfather.

📊 The Song of Roland Plot Timeline

Below you’ll find an illustrated summary of The Song of Roland. It contains all the key events on the poem’s plot.

The picture lists the key events of The Song of Roland.

🔍 Detailed Summary of The Song of Roland

Below you’ll find a detailed summary of The Song of Roland. The quotes were taken from a translation made by Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, a Scottish writer and translator.

Song of Roland, Laisses 1-52

Emperor Charlemayn has almost conquered the whole country of Spain. Only one bit is left in Saragossa, where Marsilion asks the advisers to help come up with the plan.

That Emperour, Charles of France the Douce,
Into this land is come, us to confuse.
I have no host in battle him to prove,
Nor have I strength his forces to undo.
Counsel me then, ye that are wise and true;
Can ye ward off this present death and dule?

The Song of Roland, laisse II

Since there are not enough recourses to win, Blancandrin, one of the wise, says that they should offer their loyalty to the emperor. Therefore, he takes a few men and goes to meet Charlemayn. In Cordova, the emperor listens to the messengers but takes some time to reply. With the help of some barons in council, Charlemayn hopes to decide what to do. Everyone there agrees that the Marsilion’s true motifs are unknown. However, Roland is the only one who claims Charlemayn cannot trust that man.

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Traitor in all his ways was Marsilies;
Of his pagans he sent you then fifteen,
Bearing in hand their olive-branches green:
Who, ev’n as now, these very words did speak.

The Song of Roland, laisse XIV

The council decides to send someone to Saragossa as a representative, but Charlemayn refuses to give up one of the wisest barons. Roland suggests that his stepfather, Ganelon, should go. However, this offer is met by furious speeches describing how Ganelon feels about this idea. He prepares for the journey and catches up with the pagan envoys. Blancandrin and Ganelon start talking about Roland and even decide to plan his murder together. The love for the count is based on the many gifts he brings to the Franks.

At first, Marsilion is furious to hear that he has no choice but to surrender. However, Ganelon suggests that when the king proves his loyalty to Charlemayn, they will have a chance to kill Roland. Left without his right hand and support, the emperor will not be able to go on with his hunger for battles.

Could one achieve that Rollant’s life was lost,
Charle’s right arm were from his body torn;
Though there remained his marvellous great host,
He’ld not again assemble in such force;
Terra Major would languish in repose.

The Song of Roland, laisse XLV

Marsilion and Ganelon create a union, and Charlemayn’s representative goes back to France with gifts and hostages.

Song of Roland, Laisses 53-102

This part of La Chanson de Roland summary begins with Emperor Charlemayn already waiting for the news with Roland, Oliver, and others. Ganelon states that Marsilion will soon come to France and promise his loyalty.

He’ll follow you to France, to your Empire,
He will accept the laws you hold and fear;
Joining his hands, will do you homage there,
Kingdom of Spain will hold as you declare.

The Song of Roland, laisse LIV

Therefore, the whole army gets ready and starts its journey home. In the mountain range, Charlemayn is forced to leave Roland behind to protect the Roncevaux pass. It appears to be extremely upsetting and worrisome for him, especially after the nightmares he had the night before.

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This night I saw, by an angel’s vision plain,
Between my hands he brake my spear in twain;
Great fear I have, since Rollant must remain:
I’ve left him there, upon a border strange.
God! If he’s lost, I’ll not outlive that shame.

The Song of Roland, laisse LXVII

Meanwhile, in Saragossa, Marsilion and almost half a million of his barons are getting ready for their raid. The king promises to leave the first blow at Roland for his nephew.

When Roland and Oliver can hear the Saracen army, they tell their men to be brave and ready. However, it is hard for Roland to believe that his stepfather betrayed him.

Olivier, cease.
That man is my good-father; hold thy peace.

The Song of Roland, laisse LXXX

Oliver’s advice to call Charlemayn for help is declined. There is a huge shame for Roland in doing that, so he refuses to get any aid at all. Trying to be wise, Oliver says they will die if Roland does not change his mind.

Meanwhile, Archbishop gives a blessing to the French soldiers on the hill. When Roland admits that Oliver is right, he decides that his lying stepfather needs to be punished by Charlemayn in person. The French now have to face the Saracen army.

They go to strike, – what other thing could they? –
But Sarrazins are not at all afraid.
Pagans and Franks, you’ld see them now engaged.

The Song of Roland, laisse XCII

Marsilion’s nephew, who is in the first row as promised, falls the first victim to Roland’s weapon. Then, many of the Saracens’ Twelve Peers fall dead one by one.

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Song of Roland, Laisses 103-167

Even though the French have lost many of their men, they seem to be winning. Roland and Oliver are covered in blood and do not stop to kill more enemies for a minute. The author here says that it was pathetic of Ganelon to betray Charlemayn, but he had to pay with his life for such a mistake. Meanwhile, the whole country can hear the roars and feel the earthquakes caused by the battle. People are afraid it might be the end of the world, but instead, those are the signs of Roland’s impending fall.

Beheld these things with terror every man,
And many said: “We in the Judgement stand;
The end of time is presently at hand.”
They spake no truth; they did not understand;
‘Twas the great day of mourning for Rollant.

The Song of Roland, laisse CX

The Saracens step back as they see how Roland and his army kill the bravest of their men.

However, when only 60 French knights are left, Roland finally decides to blow his horn for help. This time, Oliver says it is already too late and it would only be cowardly.

Great shame would come of that
And a reproach on every one, your clan,
That shall endure while each lives in the land,
When I implored, you would not do this act

The Song of Roland, laisse CXXIX

Archbishop notes that there is no reason for men to argue now and that it is still better to call for help. Roland blows his horn, and Charlemayn immediately knows that something is wrong. Ganelon tries to convince him not to return, but the emperor listens to Naimon’s words and captures the traitor.

Meanwhile, Roland mourns for so many fallen French soldiers. He blames himself for such a tragedy. However, when Marsilion arrives in person, Roland refuses to give up. The count calls for help hoping that when Charlemayn’s army comes, they can see his men’s bravery.

The Count Rollanz, with sorrow and with pangs,
And with great pain sounded his olifant:
Out of his mouth the clear blood leaped and ran,
About his brain the very temples cracked.

The Song of Roland, laisse CXXIV

Oliver gets wounded and dies in Roland’s arms. There are thousands of Saracens against Roland and the Archbishop. Finally, they are the only ones left and decide to take care of their fallen brothers’ bodies. When Archbishop Turpin passes away, too, Roland prays for him.

Song of Roland, Laisses 168-202

In this part, the story of Roland comes to an end. There is not much energy left in his body, and he can feel it. After he kills one last Saracen soldier, he lies down beneath the tree. There, Roland reflects on his whole life and thinks about how his sword allowed him to conquer so many lands across Europe for the emperor. Finally, when Roland’s death is near, he starts praying.

Mea Culpa! God, by Thy Virtues clean
Me from my sins, the mortal and the mean,
Which from the hour that I was born have been
Until this day, when life is ended here!

The Song of Roland, laisse CLXXV

God sends his angels to take the warrior’s soul to Paradise. Meanwhile, Charlemayn has reached the battlefield and tries to look for his loyal friends. However, he cannot find any surviving Twelve Peers. The emperor decides to revenge on the Saracens and goes after them. Since it is about to get darker, he asks God to hold the sun.

For Charlemagne a great marvel God planned:
Making the sun still in his course to stand.
So pagans fled, and chased them well the Franks
Through the Valley of Shadows, close in hand;

The Song of Roland, laisse CLXXX

When the French defeat the rest of the enemies, the sun begins its journey again and hides behind the horizon soon. The French stay in the camp overnight, and Charlemayn has two dreams about beasts attacking him again.

Meanwhile, everybody mourns their loss. Years ago, when Charlemayn started occupying territories, Marsilion asked for help from the Baligant of Babylon. However, since the news travel so slowly, Baligant sends his envoy only now.

That was in May, first summer of the year,
All of his hosts he launched upon the sea.

The Song of Roland, laisse CLXXXIX

His representatives arrive at Saragossa for negotiation, and Baligant, with his huge army, starts moving toward Spain. Marsilion left with no heirs, leaves Baligant his blessing to rule Saragossa and asks to defeat Charlemayn. The army moves out immediately to catch the French in their camp before returning to their homeland.

Song of Roland, Laisses 203-240

The next morning, Charlemayn rushes to the field to find his fallen best fellows. When he finds Roland’s body, he cannot hold the tears, and all his men weep together with him.

Dismounted then, and went–his heart was full,
In his two hands the count’s body he took;
With anguish keen he fell on him and swooned.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCV

As the emperor thinks about his new life without his loyal right hand, he says that now a lot of his enemies will rise. Moreover, his sorrow is so deep that Charlemayn wishes to be dead as well. Then, they bury the fallen soldiers, but Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop are wrapped to be taken back to France. They receive a message about the incoming army of Baligant.

Tis not yet time, proud King, that thou de-part.
Lo, Baligant comes cantering afterward,
Great are the hosts he leads from Arab parts;
This day we’ll see if thou hast vassalage.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCXIV

The emperor commands them to get ready for battle and asks God to protect them and give them a chance to revenge Roland that day. All French soldiers are still mourning but inspired to go into a new battle under the command of Charlemayn.

Baligant puts his armor on as well and encourages his army not to fear the French. The Paynims are sure that Charlemayn will regret his decision to take the fight. Baligant’s son is there in the field as well, as a great knight. He asks his father permission to strike the first blow. The emir agrees and promises him some land if the outcome of the battle is successful.

I grant it you, as you have asked me this;
Against the Franks go now, and smite them quick.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCXXXI

Both armies pray to their gods and face each other on the plain field where there is no place to hide. Charlemayn tries to encourage his men not to be afraid, even though the Paymins army is way larger. The French believe that the “false gods” of their enemies will not help them. The battle is about to start.

Clear is the day, and the sun radiant;
The hosts are fair, the companies are grand.
The first columns are come now hand to hand.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCXL

Song of Roland, Laisses 241-291

On the battlefield, both commanders give inspirational speeches to their men, encouraging them to fight. Baligant’s son and Charlemayn’s duke fall dead. The fierce armies continue the battle. Meanwhile, Baligant hears the news about his son and grieves.

Sir Baliganz, this day in shame you’re steeped;
For you have lost your son, even Malprime;
And Canabeus, your brother, slain is he.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCLIII

He asks his advisers if they can win. Even though the Pagans are not sure, they are ready to go on with the fight. Both Charlemayn and Baligant are showing themselves as brave warriors, and finally, they meet face to face. They get unhorsed and draw their weapons on the ground. After exchanging a few words, Baligant wounds the emperor seriously, but the angel Gabriel rushes to help.

Charles, hearing how that holy Angel spake,
Had fear of death no longer, nor dismay;
Remembrance and a fresh vigour he’s gained.

The Song of Roland, laisse CCLXII

Charlemayn rises and strikes the emir with all his force, leaving the deadly wound. The Paynims give up and flee, but the French chase them all the way to Saragossa. After finding out that Baligant is dead, Marsilion dies.

All the Paynims surrender and are forced to convert to Christianity. The army goes back to France after that to bury Roland and others. Alda, Oliver’s sister, asks Charlemayn where Roland, her fiancé, is. Upon learning that he was killed, she falls dead.

Never, please God, His Angels and His Saints,
When Rollant’s dead shall I alive remain!

The Song of Roland, laisse CCLXVIII

Charlemayn decides that it is time for Ganelon’s trial. The traitor tries to defeat himself by blaming Roland. His loyal friend promises to fight anyone who dares to accuse Ganelon. Only one Frenchman is ready to take the call, and he ends up winning. Therefore, the vassals take it as a sign from God and prepare Ganelon and his kinsmen for death. Ganelon himself is sentenced to a harsh death by torture. However, Song of Roland summary ends only when Charlemayn receives a message that some Paynim tribes threaten King Vivien’s lands.

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