The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland

Anonymous, translated by Robert Harrison

Published 11th-century

Epic French poem

Challenges: The Classics Club, Unread Books Project


The Song of Roland is a folktale-like poem about the real battle at Roncevaux (or Roncesvalles) mountain pass, joining Spain and France, in 778. The battle was betwixt the Basques of Southern Europe and Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks. On return to their kingdom, the Franks' rear guard was vanquished by the Basques in revenge for an attack on their city in Spain, killing the Frankish commander Roland. It was an embarrassing loss for Charlemagne.  

By the time of the Crusades, Roland had become a legend and the story about his courage was resurrected in this epic poem. He had become the medieval superhero of the age. 

In the Song of Roland, some facts had changed. For example, instead of the Basques, the Saracens were the enemy of the Franks, and many of their names were contrived. Charlemagne and his Franks had been quite successful in their conquests in Muslim-controlled Spain. And when the Saracens sent a peace offering, Charlemagne rejected it, while Roland and Ganelon clashed over what Charlemagne should have done instead. 

Roland, the Emperor's nephew, suggested that Ganelon go to the Saracen king and accept his peace offering, and Charlemagne agreed. Ganelon was exasperated and sought to avenge this insult by informing the Saracen king where the rear guard would be and how he could defeat Charlemagne by killing Roland. The Saracen king agreed to this with pleasure.

The Franks headed back to the Frankish Kingdom with Charlemagne at the head, where Ganelon safely rode also. As expected, the rear guard was attacked, and the battle was relentless. Roland was fearless and persistent; he knew he could not escape the attack, and he was prepared to die. At some point he realized he had been betrayed by Ganelon. 

Even when he was told to blow his horn to alert Charlemagne, he knew it demonstrated weakness. However, he was convinced to blow anyway, though it was too late. By the time Charlemagne heard the call, he returned to find the his rear guard demolished and his nephew Roland dead. 

Charlemagne then took revenge on the Saracens, and won, of course. As for Ganelon, he was arrested and later tried, convicted, and gruesomely penalized. 

Anna & Elena Balbusso

Some Facts

Epic poetry is usually dramatic and emotional; therefore, it was not unusual for men to kiss each other, weep over one another, and even faint, a lot. The details about killing and death were graphic and grisly. In addition, The Song of Roland gave birth to chivalry, a moral standard or code for Christian knights during the Medieval period. 

My Opinion

My initial thoughts were that this was just ok, which was disappointing considering its historical weight. It was repetitive and humdrum, even with the graphic death scenes.  I felt guilty for giving it 2.5 stars. What did I miss? What was everyone else getting out of The Song of Roland that I was not?

Then I heard a different translation, and I regret to say that I realize NOW I probably would have enjoyed Dorothy L. Sayer's translation MUCH better than the one I had. It sounds inspirational, poetic, and beautiful. So...I would reread this, BUT only if I have Sayer's translation. 

"History became legend, legend became myth."

Also, I am sharing this informative video on the epic poem, in which the narrator used Sawyer's translation. He shared the above quote from The Lord of the Rings about how history becomes legend, and legends become myths, which is exactly what happened with The Song of Roland. 


  1. This is one of the classics I've long heard about but never read. Your experience encourages me to put it on my list, but only in the Sayers translation - even if it is not as good as Lord Peter Wimsey.

    1. Yes, definitely try out the Sayers translation first. It's a short poem, but the written style would make a world of difference.