The differences between the military goals of Roland and Oliver in The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland was a poem which was probably written after 1095, when Pope Urban II called the inhabitants of Christendom to fight the Muslims in the first crusade. The earliest copies we have are from the mid 1100s. It is based on a true event: Charlemagne’s invasion of France in 778. He invaded to help one Muslim ruler defeat a rival Muslim ruler. He also conquered a Christian Basque city. When Charlemagne left the city, the Basques attacked the rearguard, led by a man named Roland.

The poem deviates significantly from what really happened, saying that Charlemagne and his troops were betrayed by a knight named Ganalon, Roland’s stepfather. When the Muslims tried to make a treacherous deal with Charlemagne, Roland told the him to keep fighting and to refuse the deal. Ganalon, however, advised him to accept it. There were various noblemen supporting both sides. Charlemagne accepted the deal, but needed a messenger to bring the letter to the Muslim king to Spain. There is much deliberation about it, and several noblemen volunteer. In the midst of the discussion, Roland suggests that Ganalon go, and Ganalon becomes very angry at him. Ganalon vowed revenge on Roland, but he is not afraid of him. Ganalon goes to deliver the message, but he teams up with with the Muslims to destroy Roland, and as a result, the entire rearguard.

Muslims to attack the rearguard, which was led by Oliver and Roland to protect Charlemagne’s back as he went back to France. As they advanced towards them, Oliver saw that their army with 20,000 men was going to have a tough time facing the 100,000 men on the Muslim side. So, he advised Roland to blow his horn to get help from Charlemagne and his 100,000 troops. Roland refused to do this, saying that it would be a disgrace to him and to his family. Oliver was not as concerned about this, thinking more about winning the victory against the Muslims rather than keeping his personal honor.

The Muslims charge, sounding 1,000 trumpets. The rearguard defeated the Muslims, but then a second wave of 300,000 Muslims came at the Franks. The rearguard fights hard, but is soon reduced to 60 knights. Then, Roland and Oliver switch sides in regard to calling for help. Roland then decides that it would be best to sound the horn to alert Charlemagne, changing his original position. Oliver, angry at Roland, says that it is now too late because they will all be dead when Charlemagne comes, and that it is better to preserve their honor. Archbishop Turpin, one of the leaders in the rearguard, resolves the argument by saying that although it is too late to get help from Charlemagne, he can still avenge their deaths by destroying the Muslim army. The two agree, and Roland sounds the horn for help. Charlemagne and his army hear the horn and go to rescue the rearguard. Charlemagne gives Ganalon to his cooks, who torture him and bring him to be executed at Aix.

Oliver believed that personal honor was subordinate to winning the victory, but when the battle was practically over, he decided that it would be best to keep their honor. Roland believed that personal honor was more important than victory, but changed his mind when he began to regret his decision.


2 thoughts on “The differences between the military goals of Roland and Oliver in The Song of Roland

    • I was simply analyzing certain characters in the poem The Song of Roland. Roland’s aim was the preservation of personal pride while Oliver’s goal was military victory at any cost. It is a good literary example of the adage “Pride comes before a fall”. It is important to be wise in all circumstances. As the BIble says in Proverbs 4:5 “Get wisdom, get understanding”.


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