Song of Roland: Military Views

In Song of Roland, Roland and his friend Oliver are commanders in one of Charlemagne’s military divisions. Roland commanded 20,000 soldiers, who were facing against 100,000 Muslims (yes, I know what you’re thinking). Marsilie, king of the Muslims, had 300,000 more soldiers in reserve for a second wave, in case the first wave of 100,000 didn’t succeed. The purpose of this essay is to gain an insight on the military views of Roland and Oliver.

The wave of 100k Muslim troops blew 1,000 trumpets. Charlemagne happened to be 30 leagues away, or, just over 100 miles, past mountains where the battle was fought. Charlemagne, waiting with 100k troops, doesn’t hear the blasts, and reasonably so. Oliver, back on the field of battle, urges Roland to blow his horn, thinking Charlemagne would hear it. Oliver knew that he and the rest of the Frankish troops were severely outnumbered, thus advising Roland to signal the king to bring reinforcements. Roland refuses to blow his horn, saying that he didn’t want to be known as a coward (yes, I know what you’re thinking).

So a fierce battle ensues. The Franks beat back the Muslims, Roland estimating a 15-to-1 kill ratio. After the first wave, there are 60 Franks left. These 60 Franks then rush at another 4000 Muslims and destroy them (yes, I know what you’re thinking). Oliver urges Roland three more times to blow his horn, but he refuses yet again. From this, we can now see a little more clearly what exactly these two men are getting at: Oliver wants to win the battle, and tries to persuade Roland to signal Charlemagne that they are in need of reinforcements; Roland wants to keep his honor and valor by fighting without aid of more Franks (because 60 soldiers are sufficient to beat back hundreds of thousands of enemies).

7,000 more trumpets are sounded as the next wave of Muslims march. The 60 Franks start an attack on 100,000 more Muslim troops. The Muslims flee, the poem says. One hundred-thousand Muslims flee. Roland then decides to blow the trumpet, finally. Oliver objects, saying that the act will be seen as a reproach to his family. The two men now have switched positions on the blowing of the horn. Oliver thinks it’s no use. Roland doesn’t, and gives the trumpet all he can. A blast sounded that Charlemagne (after removing the wax from his ears) heard from 100 miles away. One trumpet was louder than 7,000 trumpets previous. The poem tells that Charlemagne prepared to go to battle.

Roland and the remaining Franks are tired and bleeding. The next wave of Muslims are marching towards them. Oliver then renounced his friendship with Roland, and dies of his wounds. Other important knights also died of their wounds shortly before. Roland laments deeply for his comrades. As he is bleeding out, a stray Muslim soldier attacked him, eventually getting his eyes smashed out by a horn-brandishing Roland. He then propped himself under a tree and dies.

We can draw some interesting conclusions from this story. Roland and Oliver, comrades, maintained varied views on the battle. Roland didn’t want to call for reinforcements, somehow thinking that his 20,000 troops could defeat the hundreds of thousands of Muslims (400,000, to be exact). Oliver wanted to win the battle, and thus urged his comrade to sound the horn, reasoning with him that they were immensely outnumbered and would eventually die if no help came. The two switched positions as their numbers fell to only 60 men. Roland sounded the horn, but Oliver disagreed with the decision.


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