The Song of Roland and Its Enigmatic Author

The Song of Roland and Its Enigmatic Author

The “Song of Roland” (French: “La Chanson de Roland”) is one of the most iconic works of medieval European literature, a cornerstone of the French national epic, and a paradigm of the chivalric ideal. Its echoes can be heard not only in subsequent French literature but also throughout the literature of the broader European world. Yet, for all the work’s renown, its author remains wrapped in layers of mystery.

Origins of the Epic

The poem centers around Roland, a paladin in the service of Charlemagne, and his tragic last stand at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. While the actual historical event was a skirmish with Basque forces, the “Song of Roland” transforms it into a grand battle against Saracens (Muslims). This adaptation reflects not a faithful retelling of history but the anxieties and aspirations of a later medieval era.

When Was The Song of Roland Written?

The dating of the “Song of Roland” has been a subject of much scholarly debate. While the events it describes took place in the 8th century, the poem was likely written in the 11th century.

The reason for the timing of its composition can be traced to the cultural and historical context of the period. During the time of the First Crusade (1095-1099), there was a growing interest in tales of Christian heroism and chivalry, as well as an increase in tension between Christian and Muslim forces. The “Song of Roland,” portraying valiant Christian warriors battling against Muslim foes, would have resonated with the contemporary audience.

The oldest extant manuscript of the “Song of Roland,” found in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, dates to around 1150. However, scholars believe the poem could have been composed as early as the late 11th century. This conclusion is based on linguistic analysis and the poem’s alignment with the ideological and political milieu of the time.

Therefore, while we can’t pinpoint an exact date for the composition of the “Song of Roland,” it is generally agreed that it was penned in the 11th century, a time when its themes would have been particularly poignant and inspiring for its original audience.

Song of Roland Characters

The “Song of Roland” boasts an array of characters that are central to the epic’s themes of heroism, loyalty, faith, and chivalry. 

  1. Roland: The titular character, Roland, is Charlemagne’s nephew and a renowned warrior. He’s depicted as brave, proud, and sometimes headstrong, symbolizing the ideal Christian hero.
  2. Oliver: Roland’s close friend and comrade, Oliver, is wise and prudent, often serving as the voice of reason. He’s celebrated for his loyalty and courage, complementing Roland’s impulsive bravery.
  3. Charlemagne: The King of the Franks and a historical figure, Charlemagne’s portrayal in the epic emphasizes his divine mandate to spread Christianity. He symbolizes wise and just leadership.
  4. Ganelon: Roland’s stepfather and the tragic traitor of the story. Driven by envy and personal grievances against Roland, he colludes with the Saracens, leading to the tragic Battle of Roncevaux Pass.
  5. Archbishop Turpin: A warrior cleric who exemplifies religious fervor. His presence aligns the battle with a spiritual mission, portraying it as a Holy War.
  6. Bramimonde: The Queen of the Saracens, she eventually converted to Christianity, reflecting the theme of religious conquest.
  7. Saracen Generals: Various Saracen leaders, including Marsile and Baligant, symbolize the opposition to Charlemagne and Christian Europe.

The characters in the “Song of Roland” are not just individuals but emblematic figures representing a broad spectrum of virtues, vices, and cultural values. Their interactions and conflicts illustrate the medieval world’s moral landscape, turning the poem into a rich tapestry of chivalric principles and religious ideology.

Why Is Roland a Hero in Song of Roland?

In the “Song of Roland,” the character of Roland epitomizes the ideal of the medieval hero. This construct is multifaceted and deeply intertwined with the cultural and religious values of the time.

Roland’s bravery is undeniably at the forefront of his heroism. As Charlemagne’s nephew and one of the twelve paladins, he faces danger without flinching and fights valiantly even when outnumbered. This physical courage is not just a display of strength but a manifestation of his unwavering faith and commitment to the Christian cause. He is depicted as the perfect warrior, defending Christendom with his mighty sword, Durendal.

But Roland’s heroism is more nuanced than mere bravery. He is also depicted as loyal to his king and comrades, holding the rearguard at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and refusing to call for aid even when faced with certain death. This decision, though fatal, highlights a self-sacrificing quality, an embodiment of the chivalric code.

His tragic flaw, an overabundance of pride, adds depth to his character. Roland’s refusal to blow his oliphant and summon Charlemagne’s aid until it’s too late is a humanizing trait, making his heroism more relatable and poignant.

Roland’s heroism, therefore, is a complex blend of courage, loyalty, faith, and human fallibility. It aligns with the medieval ideals of knighthood and resonates with the audience of the time, making him a timeless symbol of the heroic ideal.

Authorship Mystery

Despite the song’s prominence in the canon of medieval literature, the identity of its author is unknown. The Oxford version of the poem’s earliest extant manuscript simply attributes it to a certain “Turold” or “Turoldus.” However, whether Turold was a composer, a scribe, or even a performer remains a subject of debate.

Possible Candidates

  • Turold the Scribe: The most straightforward interpretation of the name Turold in the manuscript is that it refers to the scribe. Yet, scribes in the medieval period rarely appended their names to the ends of texts. It would be unusual for Turold to do so, leading some scholars to believe he had a more intimate connection with the poem.
  • Turold the Jongleur: Another theory is that Turold was a jongleur or a performer responsible for the popularization of the song. Jongleurs played a pivotal role in disseminating vernacular literature during the medieval period. The song’s rhythmic and formulaic structure is well-suited to memorization and performance, suggesting that it was designed to be sung or recited to an audience.
  • Turold the Poet: There is also a possibility that Turold was the actual composer of the poem. If this was the case, he might have been a cleric or a member of a noble household. This theory gains weight when one considers the poem’s thematic depth and intricate structure, which suggest a learned author.

Stylistic Analysis and Dating

Language and style can provide crucial clues about the identity of the author and the era in which he wrote. The “Song of Roland” is composed in Old French, utilizing a series of “laisses” or irregular stanzas. Each “laisse” is linked by assonance or, in later versions, rhyme. This structure points to a period of linguistic and literary transition.

Most scholars agree that the poem was composed in its current form sometime in the 11th century, though it could have been based on earlier oral traditions. This places its creation in the context of the First Crusade, explaining the poem’s militant Christian ethos.

Literary Techniques and Poetic Style

The literary techniques and poetic style employed in the “Song of Roland” reflect the oral tradition of its time and contribute to its lasting impact as an epic poem.

Written in Old French, the poem is divided into “laisses,” or a series of verses linked by assonance or, in some cases, rhyme. This structure provides a rhythmic quality to the verses, facilitating memorization and recitation, reflecting its origin in the oral tradition.

Metaphors and similes are abundant in the text, painting vivid images of the battlefield, the characters, and the landscapes. This use of descriptive imagery helps bring the poem’s world to life, making it more accessible to its audience.

Repetition is another key feature of the “Song of Roland,” serving both as a mnemonic device and as a way to emphasize particular themes or moral lessons. Phrases and motifs are often repeated, creating a resonant echo that reinforces the narrative’s emotional impact.

The choice of diction in the poem is also notable. The author often employs grandiose and noble language to characterize the heroes while using contrasting terms to describe their foes. This serves to heighten the moral dichotomy within the epic.

In essence, the literary techniques and poetic style of the “Song of Roland” are integral to its effectiveness as an epic. The carefully crafted structure, imagery, repetition, and diction not only make the poem appealing and memorable but also serve to underscore its thematic richness and cultural significance.

Cultural and Historical Context

Understanding the historical backdrop is crucial in deciphering the motivations of the anonymous poet. The 11th century, a time when the First Crusade was launched, was marked by heightened Christian-Muslim conflict. Europe was awash with tales of heroism, faith, and the clash of civilizations. Our mysterious author would pen his epic in this crucible of religious fervor and militarism.

The Song was a tale of historical valor and a reflection of contemporary beliefs. By painting the Saracens as the antagonists, the author reimagined a past event to align with the ethos of his own time, perhaps to inspire and galvanize his contemporaries.

Legacy of the Song and Its Author

The “Song of Roland” influence on European literature is profound. It set the stage for other chivalric romances and inspired countless retellings and adaptations. Its values of bravery, loyalty, and faith have left an indelible mark on Western cultural ideals.

And while the poem’s author remains enigmatic, his legacy is palpable. The mystery surrounding the authorship adds intrigue to the epic, making it even more tantalizing for scholars and readers alike.

The Modern Reception of the Author

The modern reception of the author of the “Song of Roland” is characterized by a blend of admiration, intrigue, and scholarly debate. Despite the unknown identity of the author, or perhaps because of it, contemporary scholars and readers have approached this literary masterpiece with a sense of fascination and reverence.

The anonymous nature of the authorship has given rise to various theories and extensive academic research. The figure of “Turold” mentioned in the manuscript has become the subject of many inquiries, spawning numerous interpretations regarding his role as a possible composer, scribe, or performer. This air of mystery adds a layer of complexity to the text and continues to engage scholars in a never-ending quest for discovery.

Literary critics today also laud the author for the enduring qualities of the poem. The intricate poetic structure, the depiction of timeless human emotions, the rich characterization, and the thematic depth of the “Song of Roland” are seen as markers of a highly skilled and sophisticated writer. Modern readers find resonance in its themes of loyalty, honor, and heroism, which transcend the cultural boundaries of medieval Europe.

Furthermore, the “Song of Roland” has sparked reinterpretations and adaptations in various artistic mediums, from literature to opera, testifying to the author’s enduring influence. The original author’s intent and the historical context have become subjects for modern creative exploration.

In educational contexts, the “Song of Roland” is often used as a primary source for teaching medieval literature, history, and cultural studies. The author’s ability to encapsulate the zeitgeist of the era offers a window into the medieval mindset and societal values.

In the end, the modern reception of the author of the “Song of Roland” is multifaceted and continues to evolve. The mystery surrounding the authorship feeds intellectual curiosity, while the artistry and universal themes of the poem ensure its continued relevance and admiration. The author, though nameless, has left an indelible mark on the literary landscape and continues to inspire contemporary readers, scholars, and artists alike.


The “Song of Roland” stands as a testament to the enduring power of literature to capture the spirit of an age. Its author, be he Turold or another, tapped into the zeitgeist of his time, producing a work that resonates even today. And as we delve deeper into the poem’s origins and the shadowy figure of its composer, we are reminded of the age-old adage: sometimes, the journey is more enlightening than the destination.