Swift to oppose springs up upon his feet
He tells the King: “nevermore trust Marsile!...
He sent his Paynims by number fifteen,
All of them bearing boughs of the olive tree,
And with like words he sued to you for peace…
You sent the Paynim two counts of your own meinie:
Basan was one, the other was Basile.
He smote their heads off in hills beneath Haltile…
Revenge the men this villain made to bleed!
But Roland’s advice is disregarded as warmongering, instead, the advice of Ganelon and the rest of the council to accept the fealty of the Paynim King is followed. So Ganelon is sent to
Ganelon tells them that if they give Charlemagne a small surety as pledge, he will agree to withdraw his army in the belief that later, according to the terms, Marsile will convert to Christianity and be vassal to the French King. But cunning Ganelon knows that Charlemagne will leave
…behind a rearguard to protect him.
With them, I warrant, will be Roland his nephew,
Oliver too, the valorous and gentle.
Dead are these Counts, if you will give me credit.
[Charles] will see his great pride fallen and ended;
He’ll have no heart to fight with you from henceforth.
And so the treachery is conceived and sworn upon the book “of Termagant’s and Mahomet’s law."
All goes as planned. Ganelon returns and tells Charlemagne that all is settled; they can return to
At their post, Roland and Oliver suddenly hear a thousand trumpets shatter the air. Oliver climbs a nearby hill and sees the Saracen army marching against them.
Never on earth has such a hosting been:
A hundred thousand in van ride under shield
Their helmets laced, their hauberks all agleam
Their spears upright, their heads of shining steel.
He calls to Roland, bidding him blow his horn Olifant so Charlemagne can return and succor them. Roland, however, refuses in his pride to call for help, even when Oliver urges him again and again saying:
Great is the might these foreigners display,
And ours appears a very small array.
Still Roland refuses to alert the King, thinking it shameful to not carry out alone what the king had commanded.
Soon the forces draw together and the wisdom of Oliver cannot help reproach Roland one more time.
You would not sound your Olifant for pride;
Had we the Emperor we should have been alright.
To gate of
See for yourself the rearguard’s woeful plight.
Who fights this day will never more see fight.
How many spears are bloodied there and broke!
What gonfalons, what banners rent and strewn!
How many French in flower of youth laid low.
And so Roland dies upon the plain of Roncevaux, but the story does not end as might be expected when the story’s hero has met his end. Charlemagne finds the silent fields of death and weeps with all his army. But Duke Naimon, councilor of the King, will not let him grieve for long. He points ahead to the dust of the retreating Paynims and urges Charlemagne to start in pursuit.
For Charlemagne God wrought a wondrous token:
The sun stood still in the mid heaven holden.
So Charlemagne is able to continue the chase till they reach a river. Here the Paynims are faced with turning about and fighting or attempting to swim the river. Those who choose the water are dragged down by their heavy armor. Those who choose to fight are defeated along with a wounded Marsile who drags himself back to
From forty realms he’s called his people in…
And sev’nteen Kings follow at the heel.
He sends challenge to Charlemagne who is mourning yet for Roland and the other Peers. In reply, the French and their allies march to meet this new enemy arrayed by companies. Both sides boast huge armies.
By hundred thousand the swords flash into view.
Grim is the battle and terrible and rude;
He learns what war is who fights that battle through.
Finally the two kings charge each other and are thrown from their horses. After picking themselves up, Baligant lays a mighty sword stroke on Charlemagne’s helm. He reels back; blood wetting his scalp. But instead of falling, he rallies his strength and with his sword cleaves the Paynim’s skull.
All’s done, all’s won; the French have gained the day.All quotations taken from: The Song of Roland. Translated by Dorothy Sayers. Penguin Books 1957. 1960