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Close Reading for the Song of Roland

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The Song of Roland

An epic poem estimated

to have been written

between 1130 and 1170, The Song of Roland relates the latter part of Charlemagne's conquest of Spain from a Christianized point of view reminicent of the Crusades. The author's (or copyist's, as some argue) name is given at the end of the epic as Turoldus, most likely a monk or member of the clergy, though no one knows for sure (Roland, pg 14).

Translated by Glenn Burgess, this verion of the poem contains 298 stanzas. It gives a detailed, though not necessarily historically accurate account of the betrayal of Roland, a knight of King Charles, by his stepfather Ganelon as the Frankish campaign in Islamic Spain came to a close. King Marsile of Saragossa, the only city yet to be conquered by King Charles, strikes a deal with Ganelon to save his land from Frankish control by eliminating Ganelon's rival, Roland. As Charles and his army return to France, Marsile attacks the rearguard, captained by Roland at Ganelon's insistance, and kills all twenty thousand of Roland's knights. Roland, the last Frank on the battlefield, dies most spectacularly in a scene beset with religious symbolism and clear exemlification of the values of knighthood.

In stanza 171, Roland has been injured in the battle. He has climbed to the top of a hill with four marble blocks and a tree, and there prepares for his impending death. Pale from blood loss due to numerous battle wounds, he uses the last of his strength to attempt to destroy his sword, Durendal. He strikes ten blows with it on a stone, fearing that it will be taken for spoils and given to a less worthy man. However, the sword will neither notch nor break, and the knight's anxiety mounts. He appeals to Saint Mary, saying "May you never be owned by a man who flees in battle!" (Roland, line 2,309) He is justified in his anxiety, as just two stanzas prior the sword was

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