The “Song of Roland” was the most popular epic of its time. Composed by a Frankish minstrel named Turoldus, the poem first appeared in written form around 950. Its subject matter was Charlemagne’s invasion into Muslim Spain in 778. The oral version may have been in circulation for years before it was written, but it was probably not composed close to the time of the events.
In the song, Roland is the Count of Brittany and Charlemagne’s nephew. He is guarding the rear of a triumphant departure from Spain, after a military campaign of seven years in which the Christian Franks conquered almost all of Muslim Spain. The narrow pass over the Pyrenees mountains, from Spain into France, forces the huge army to travel slowly, and the baggage train at the back is miles behind.
But Roland’s wicked stepfather Ganelon has conspired with the Saracen ruler Marsile to attack Roland when he is isolated. Roland compounds this disaster by ignoring his friend Oliver’s pleas to blow an ivory horn called the “Oliphant,” which would summon help. When he finally blows it, help cannot arrive in time, and they are all slaughtered.
While this is the most famous incident in the long epic, the story goes on to tell of Charlemagne’s vengeance against Marsile, the burial of Roland and his companions, and an enormous battle between Muslims and Christians. The Frankish Christians win, and their Muslim enemies either die or convert.
None of this is factual, except that there was a Roland (Spanish, Orlando) who died in a pass in the Pyrenees, protecting the baggage train. Tomorrow, what really happened.