In this episode of Literary Tales, we explore and analyze the great medieval French poem “The Song of Roland.” In it we tease out the themes of tribal fealty, love, theology, and sacrifice, which culminate in the poet’s synthesis of Frankish tribal fealty and sacrifice with the theology of love and martyrdom in Christianity.

The Siege of Damascus, ca. 1148. The “late date” thesis of the Song of Roland asserts the poem was influenced by the First and Second Crusades, principally led by Frankish nobles and knights. The “early date” thesis maintains the poem was composed prior to the Crusades.
The Life of Roland in eight phases, by Simon Marmion. The illustrated piece by Marmion details eight moments from the poem, including Roland’s battle and death. Roland’s body, discovered by Emperor Charlemagne, can be seen on the right hand side of the picture behind a tree. Note the horn attached to his hip.
The Battle of Roncevaux Pass, 778, is considered to be the historical backdrop of the story.
Roland blowing his warhorn in battle against the Saracens at Roncevaux.
Hand-colored woodcut of a 19th-century illustration.
The death of Roland, blowing his horn to alert Charlemagne of his plight. Roland was influential for later literature. JRR Tolkien’s character of Boromir from the Lord of Rings is widely believed to be party modeled off of Roland.

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