Discrepancies in ‘The Song of Roland’

The Song of Roland was an epic poem written between the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It told the story of king Charlemagne’s campaigns in Muslim-controlled Spain which took place in 778. It was a very dramatized account, which frequently departed from historical accuracy. It was written around the time of the first crusade (1096), and portrayed Charlemagne’s Spanish campaign as a holy war against the Muslims, when in fact it was fueled primarily by political ambition. In the poem there were several alleged discrepancies which really did not have an enormous effect on the poem overall.

In the beginning of the poem, Marsilie, the king of the Muslims, asked the counsel of his barons on what should be done with Charlemagne, who had been in Spain for seven years. He said that he did not have enough troops to defeat Charlemagne, so one of his advisors, Blancandrin, suggested treachery. Blancandrin said that Marsilie should offer great gifts to Charlemagne, and even express a desire to convert to Christianity. With the help of Ganelon, one of Charlemagne’s treacherous counts, Marsilie made a plot to attack the rearguard, where Charlemagne’s beloved nephew, Roland, was stationed. Ganelon said this would cripple Charlemagne’s morale, and end his desire to persist in military conflict.

Here is the alleged discrepancy: while Marsilie was consulting with his barons, it was said that he was surrounded by 20,000 of his troops. However, when Marsilie was meeting with Ganelon 30 stanzas later, he said that he would attack the rearguard with 400,000 of his troops. The alleged discrepancy is that if Marsilie had only 20,000 troops which were not enough to defeat Charlemagne, where did the 400,000 come from? Why didn’t Marsilie use these 400,000 to defeat Charlemagne’s army of 120,000? Actually, it was never explicitly mentioned that Marsilie had a total amount of 20,000 troops, it was only mentioned that he had not enough to defeat Charlemagne. Even though he outnumbered Charlemagne, it is still possible that Marsilie’s army was so less skilled than Charlemagne’s that he needed more than 400,000 troops to defeat him. In any case, this is a piece of fictional literature, not an accurate historical account.

Another discrepancy would be the issue of the trumpets’ audibility. The Muslims announced their first wave of attack on the rearguard with 1000 trumpets, and their second wave of attack with 7000 trumpets. Neither of these trumpet blasts were heard by Charlemagne or his army, which were several miles away in Pyrenees on their way home. After it was certain that defeat was eminent, Roland sounded his single trumpet, which was heard through the Pyrenees by Charlemagne. Some may be puzzled at this discrepancy, wondering how 7000 trumpets could not be heard by Charlemagne, but one trumpet could. It must be remembered that this is fiction, not fact.

Some may say that the discrepancies in this piece of literature are confusing and unacceptable. However, if modern audiences listed all the discrepancies in films, they would not be so overwhelmingly popular. If The Song of Roland was a historical treatise on Charlemagne’s military campaigns, then these various statements would be confusing and unacceptable. However, this is a poem, and should be read as such.


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