Places: The Song of Roland

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Chanson de Roland, twelfth century

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Chivalric romance

Time of work: c. 778

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Roncesvalles

*Roncesvalles Song of Roland, The (rahn-SEHS-val-yay). Pass in northern Spain’s Pyrenees mountain range where Roland, King Charlemagne’s nephew, is believed to have been ambushed and massacred by Basques while Charlemagne was leading his army back to France after his campaigns in Spain. According to The Song of Roland–which was written during the time of the First Crusades, approximately three hundred years after the events it describes took place–Roland’s forces fought the Muslims (Moors or Saracens), rather than the Basques (or Gascons). The unnamed author may have wished to elevate the battle at “Roncevaux” into a struggle between Christians and pagans as a result of the contemporary views of the struggles between the two groups at that time. In addition, Roland is presented as a Frank from France, not the Breton from Brittany that he actually was. Roncesvalles may also symbolize the border between destruction and death and honor and everlasting life.


*Saragossa. City in northeastern Spain located on the south bank of the Ebro River (now the capital of Aragon). One of its towns, Salduba, which is of Celtic and Iberian origin, was made a colony by the Romans during the first century b.c.e., and called “Caesaraugusta,” from which “Saragossa” is adapted. In this epic, Saragossa is the only Spanish city that is not yet under King Charlemagne’s control. Its pagan king Marsile is persuaded by Ganelon to kill Roland (Charlemagne’s nephew and Ganelon’s own stepson), because of the strength that the young man represents for Charlemagne. This locale signifies that which is foreign, pagan, or other; it is also symbolic of treachery and betrayal, especially in the case of Ganelon, one of Charlemagne’s own kinsmen.


*Aix-la-Chapelle (aks-lah-shah-pel). Now Aachen, Germany, a well-known town of historic importance, known especially as having become the permanent residence and burial place of King Charlemagne, In this poem, certain details are altered, such as the origin of those with whom Charlemagne and Roland do battle. For example, Aix-la-Chapelle is described as a place in France, when in fact it is a region in Germany. What is consistent with factual information, however, is that the king is described as living and supporting a chapel there. This setting represents the domain of Charlemagne: that which is Christian, and according to the text, that which is just, right, proper, and honorable.

BibliographyDuggan, Joseph J. A Guide to Studies on the “Chanson de Roland.” London: Grant and Cutler, 1976. A useful bibliographic source.Haidu, Peter. The Subject of Violence: The “Song of Roland” and the Birth of the State. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. Analyzes The Song of Roland as a “beginning moment” in the genealogy of Western culture, a time when Western subjectivity arose alongside a new image of the social body. Haidu combines narrative semiotics and sociocultural history to explain how this change is reflected in the Roland text.Reed, J. “The Passage of Time in La Chanson de Roland.” The Modern Language Review 87, no. 3 (July, 1992): 555-567. Analyzes the obvious and submerged references to the passage of time in The Story of Roland and concludes that the poem spans a period of thirteen days.Short, Ian. “La Chanson de Roland.” In the New Oxford Companion to Literature in French, edited by Peter France. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. A thorough discussion and interpretation of the epic. Discusses the historical context for the work, as well as describing variations among the extant sources.Vance, Eugene. Reading the “Song of Roland.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Analyzes Roland as a legendary character and discusses the work in the context of French epic poetry. Includes bibliography.
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