Roland (rōˈlənd) [key], the great French hero of the medieval Charlemagne cycle of chansons de geste, immortalized in the Chanson de Roland (11th or 12th cent.). Existence of an early Roland poem is indicated by the historian Wace's statement that Taillefer sang of Roland's deeds to inflame the men before the Battle of Hastings (1066). Historically Roland was Charlemagne's commander on the Breton border; he was killed in a pass in the Pyrenees when Basques cut off the rear guard of the Frankish army returning from its invasion of Spain in 778. Legend makes Roland one of Charlemagne's 12 peers and his nephew, changes the Basques into Saracens, and locates the pass at Roncesvalles. The poem is marked by its unified conception, its vivid and direct narrative, and its predominantly warlike spirit. Through the treason of Roland's stepfather, Ganelon, count of Mayence and a vassal of Charlemagne, Roland is left in command of Charlemagne's retreating rear guard, with his friend Oliver and with Bishop Turpin. Instigated by Ganelon, the Saracens attack, but Roland is too proud to blow his horn to summon aid. In the ensuing battle the valiant Franks are greatly outnumbered and, though Roland finally blows his horn, all are killed. The last to die, Roland attempts to break his sword, Durandal; before he dies he hears too late that Charlemagne is returning. Charlemagne disperses the pagans and defeats the reinforcing hosts of the emir Baligant, and Ganelon is tried and put to death. The poem is cast in the heroic mold. The contrast of character in the two heroic friends is famous—Oliver was prudent, Roland rash. The Roland epopee was long a favorite with French, Spanish, and Italian poets, and Roland was eventually transformed beyond recognition into the Orlando of the Italian Renaissance epics of Boiardo and Ariosto. Translations of the Song of Roland include those by Merriam Sherwood (1938) and Dorothy L. Sayers (1957).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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