The Chanson de Roland: Echoes of Beowulf and an Age of Heroes


This painting depicts the main events in the Chanson de Roland, an epic lyric poem about the courage and calamity of the central hero, Roland, and his relationships with his feudal overlord, Charlemagne, his peers and the wars to re-conquer the Iberian peninsula from Moorish occupation during the C8th around 4000 lines long.

The main themes concern loyalty, service and betrayal, courage and friendship and the importance of renown. What Roland characterises in terms of his courage he balances with his lack of foresight. Like the Iliad, the Chanson de Roland explores where fate will lead good men and like the Iliad, it is not Achilles but Hector in the shape of Roland’s wise friend Olivier who advises caution and is taken down with the rest in violence and betrayal.

”Kar vasselage par sens nen est folie,
Mielz valt mesure que ne fait estultie.”

  • For courage mixed with prudence is not foolish,
    And moderation betters recklessness.
  • Stanza CXXXI, line 1724

The Chanson is the best known example of the ‘chansons de geste’, or songs of deeds which were popular forms of entertainment, propaganda and artistic expression through song or recitation during the C11th – C15th in what is now called France and reached their peak between 1150-1250 AD.

We do not know who composed the Chanson de Roland though it has been linked to a man called Turold who is mentioned in the closing lines of the poem and thought to have lived sometime between 1040-1115 AD.

‘Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.”
Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.

  • Stanza CCXCVIII, line 4000

Turold may have been the original composer or a jongleur who adapted the piece or the person who finally committed it to a written form.

The wandering jongleurs and minstrels who recited the chansons pre-dated their more aristocratic troubadour relations but like them, composed, adapted and recalled their work for the courts of great lords and ladies. Their stories passed into popular culture and inspired other artistic forms.

troubadors two



There is an argument that the basic form of the Chanson de Roland could date to the period of Charlemagne’s ascendency over Francia and was passed down orally through several generations, being adapted as it went until it was recorded in written form. At some point during this transmission, the Basque attackers changed into Moors and the story of the ambush was slewed to become a straight fight between Christian and Muslim forces at the pass of Roncevaux in 778AD. There may be several reasons for this – clarity of plotlines, anti-Muslim propaganda or later historical events which cast their shadow back into the C8th.

Others argue that it could have been inspired by the Castilian campaign in the 1030’s and harks back to a glorious former era in order to encourage knights to emulate the achievements of their ancestors in their fight to re-claim Spain or that it was a propaganda piece that fired up Christian crusading zeal before the First Crusade was preached in 1095.


First page of the Chanson de Roland


According to William of Malmesbury’s later account, the Norman soldiers at Hastings began to recite the story of Roland to psyche themselves up before battle commenced and it had the desired effect. This suggests that it had become a part of popular culture by 1066 even if not in exactly the same form as the written versions which have survived and was commonly known by Norman soldiers and used to incite patriotic fervour and inspire courage.

”Tunc cantilena Rollandi inchoata, ut martium viri exemplum pugnaturos accenderet, inclamatoque Dei auxilio prelium consertum bellatumque acriter, neutris in multam diei horam cedentibus.”

  • Then the soldiers began the song of Roland so that the martial example of this man should excite them, and calling upon God’s help, they began the fight and most bitter battle, with neither side yielding until late in the day.
  • William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk. 3, section 242; translation from John Haines Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères (Cambridge, 2004) p. 58.

There was a historical Roland, who held the Breton Marches for Charlemagne but through the Chanson he becomes a ‘paladin’, one of the twelve peers who were the foremost knights of Charlemagne’s court. Legends grew around him and his exploits, the most famous being that he wielded a magical sword called Durandal which was given to him by the Holy Roman Emperor and contained sacred relics from the saints ( not unlike the mighty Ulfberht Viking swords which were forged with bones which gave them superior strength and durability in battle) and a swift horse called Veillantif which enabled him to fight and ride with added skill.


Charlemagne presents Roland with Durandal


These mythic or legendary qualities echo the sentiments of earlier, Anglo-Saxon and Norse plotlines with their magical swords and hero cults and also in terms of the relationships between the male characters which are bound up with brotherhood, friendship and the bonds of ‘comitatus’ which was morphing into the feudal bonds and chivalric ethics of the later medieval period.

The father/ son relationship in Beowulf between Hrothgar and Beowulf is mirrored in the Chanson de Roland in the bond between Charlemagne and his nephew. Hrothgar claims that Beowulf has become his son after his defeat of the monstrous Grendal:

”Beowulf, I now take you to my bosom as a son, O best of men, and cherish
you in my heart. Hold yourself well in this new relation!”

Similarly the Chanson relates the depths of Charlemagne’s grief at the loss of Roland and his feelings of failure that he couldn’t prevent his death which leads to the revenge attack and victory over the Moors at the end of the poem.

”Pur sun seignur deit hom susfrir granz mals
E endurer e forz freiz e granz chalz,
Si·n deit hom perdre del sanc e de la char.”

  • A man should suffer greatly for his lord,
    Endure both biting cold and sweltering heat
    And sacrifice for him both flesh and blood.
  • Stanza LXXXVIII, line 1117

The gift-giving and presentation of rings in Beowulf are balanced by the exchange of Durandal and Veillantif in Roland with the same unspoken promises of reciprocal service for reward, honour and mutual respect despite the differences in time and society. The Franks of Charlemagne’s court were not so far removed from their Germanic ancestry and the bonds of tribal loyalty.


Charlemagne arrives to find Roland dead, C14th manuscript


The Chanson builds to the climatic death of Roland and the final sounding of his legendary Oliphant horn which alerts Charlemagne to the attack on his rear-guard at the pass through the mountains. There certainly is a feeling of doomed grandeur and heroic defiance in these passages which again echo the sentiment and language of Beowulf, particularly with regard to his final confrontation with the hoard-dwelling dragon who will be his doom. Like Beowulf, the hero stands with a trusted friend at the last moment. Wiglaf will not desert his lord anymore than Olivier despite Roland’s refusal to heed his advice. Both are fated to meet their destiny at this moment of truth. Beowulf dies defending his people, as does Roland. They die with honour and the high regard of their companions and become mythologised through their ordeals.

”Rollant ad mis l’olifan a sa buche,
Empeint le ben, par grant vertut le sunet.
Halt sunt li pui e la voiz est mult lunge,
Granz ·xxx· liwes l’oïrent il respundre.
Karles l’oït e ses cumpaignes tutes.
Ço dit li reis: “Bataille funt nostre hume.”

  • Count Roland lifts the horn up to his mouth,
    Then sets his lips and blows it with great force.
    The hills are high; the horn’s voice loud and long;
    They hear it echoing full thirty leagues.
    King Charles and his companions hear it sound.
    The king declares, “Our men are in a battle.”
  • Stanza CXXXIII, line 1753
death of roland

The Death of Roland, C15th manuscript

it is, perhaps, harder to empathise with Roland than Beowulf, as he seems more concerned with personal glory, even at the expense of those his commands, than the older and wiser leader of his people who faces his ‘wyrd’ with fortitude as a necessary sacrifice for the good of his community. Roland’s speech sums this up nicely:

”Respunt Rollant: “Jo fereie que fols,
En dulce France en perdreie mun los”.

Roland replies, “That would be mad, insane!
For I would lose renown throughout sweet France.”

  • Stanza LXXXIII, line 1049
He’s definitely an Achilles, not a Hector!
The final section of the Chanson carries a heavy moral lesson for those listening to the recitation. Charlemagne seeks revenge and justice for the betrayal of his rear-guard and death of his knights. Ganelon, the treacherous Frank is picked out by divine will, after his challenger loses the ordeal by combat and sentenced to a grisly end, thus restoring the cosmic order and re-establishing Charlemagne’s control and authority over his people. I wonder how the Norman soldiers before Hastings read that particular moral outcome in relation to William of Normandy’s claims that Harold had perjured himself when he took the throne of England after swearing fealty to William and allegedly recognizing his claim? Perhaps he was lucky to die in combat rather than being captured after the battle though they certainly treated his body with little respect.
There is also an element of shaming in Beowulf as Wiglaf verbally attacks the thanes who failed to stay with their lord in his last challenge though there doesn’t seem to be any punishment meted out to them, unlike the hapless Ganelon. Beowulf ends in a spirit of loss and grief as does the chanson, focussing on those left behind when a hero dies.
“Deus,” dist li reis, “si penuse est ma vie!”
Pluret des oilz, sa barbe blanche tiret.
Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet.
  • “God,” says the king, “how wearisome my life!”
    He weeps and pulls at his white beard.
    Thus ends the poem that Turoldus declines.
  • Stanza CCXCVIII, line 4000

3 Responses to “The Chanson de Roland: Echoes of Beowulf and an Age of Heroes”

  1. simonjkyte Says:

    The thing is it might well have been part of a purely oral tradition for a while.


  2. giaconda Says:

    Yes, I think that is very possible. It could have been composed closer to the actual events and transmitted for generations before it was committed to a written form and changed over this period of time too.


  3. he said Says:

    he said

    The Chanson de Roland: Echoes of Beowulf and an Age of Heroes | Giaconda's Blog


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