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The Song of Roland. Is Roland a True Hero?


The Song of Roland could be considered no more of a guidebook to what is known as chivalry than Homer’s Iliad. It does not demonstrate any sense of fair play or sportsmanship, there is not chivalrous treatment of one’s enemies. Roland exults about his past victims, vaunts about what he has done, brags about what he is planning to do and mocks his victims when he is done with them, just like Achilles that dragged the corpse of Hector through the dust. Roland’s love of fame reminds me of complacent dances executed by football players after they sacked a quarterback. But honor is the destiny of the wellborn. Roland calls Ganelon, who is a traitor, a “vile man of base birth”, implying that Ganelon is a coward, which could be expected from a lowborn. But given the above characteristics of Roland, he could not be considered a man of chivalrous behavior. The archbishop Turpin from the other side is a knight of good family – a gentleman. The word gentleman derives directly from Latin “gentilzhom”, where the root “genitus” means wellborn. Therefore, the gentleman is pictured as a strong, handsome, and generous individual, whereas all the ill-born are ugly, cowardly, and weak. Nevertheless, Roland was adored by the Franks, as he provided them with lots of loot. He gave them gold, silver, mules, garments.

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Definition and description of ‘honor’

Honor by its definition means fame, glory, power, riches, but these must be gained through bravery, courage, heroism. And Roland’s recklessness goes with firmness. He does not show much respect for moderation. Oliver counsels discretion, but Roland is still the hero. In the Middle Ages, just as at any other time, valor has to be proved over and over, and Roland demonstrates his lion’s shin as a major characteristic of all knights. He is one of France’s peers, nephew of Charlemagne, as well as a very dexterous and daring warrior. He has a good understanding of the Frank campaign as a crusade, allows himself to make a compromise with Saracens. All these facts create envy from the side of his stepfather. Just like Oliver, Roland is a man of marvelous bravery, but unlike Oliver, who is wise, Roland possesses the quality of boldness. This contrasts the two characters. This quality of Roland forces him to make the greatest mistake of his life at Roncescals, as his pride does not allow him to blow the Oliphant horn when he is urged to by Oliver. Pursuing the ideals of what Roland believed was chivalry, but his feeling of vainglory, all his men end up losing their lives, similar to the feeling of his vanity losing the battle to Ganelon’s treason. We can observe this fact through a phrase said by Oliver: “Those French are dead because of your caprice”, and his later remark that “The Franks were doomed to see your prowess”. By acting the way, he did, Roland did not come one step closer to achieving the ideal of a Knight than by his previous doings. The result of his foolishness was that all his men got a chance to witness his courage and bravery, at the same time facing an army of Saracens that was so overwhelming, that they had no alternative, but to get slaughtered. From this, we can see that Roland’s insolence and bad temper did not help to achieve the cause of the chivalrous ideal in any way possible. However, in the eyes of the poet, Roland’s stupidity is ranked worthier and higher than Oliver’s wisdom, as Roland receives a much more magnificent reception from the heavenly saints. This can be explained by the constant readiness of Frank knights for weeping and fading away. From the poet’s point of view, this display of emotions is part of the chivalrous ideal. “Like a noble knight, he weeps for them.” Having witnessed the casualties of the Frankish army, Ronald starts weeping for them in the middle of the battlefield. This underlines the fact that passion is greatly respected by the poet. Unlike the idea of a warrior in many cultures, in different times, that stress impersonality and toughness, the poet’s idea of the warrior concentrates on this emotional factor of the knights. This quality of Roland has a major impact and partially makes up for his bad temper and insolence. Thus, Roland’s impatience, arrogance, bad temper did not assist him in completing his goal, however, in the eyes of the author, he is most likely being justified by his emotional side, which brings him somewhat closer to the knight ideal.

Roland’s negative qualities

Although Roland possesses various negative qualities that are not common for a knight, moreover for a hero, he still has some that characterize the above. The first duty of chivalry is loyalty. And Roland obeys this duty by attempting to break Durendal so that Saracens will never be able to use it. He is doing his best to defend its might and holiness so that no infidel can defile it. By protecting the relic, he is demonstrating his obedience and loyalty towards Christianity. The second duty of a knight is good to combat skills. Roland proves his excellent combat skills by fighting the Muslims. He demonstrates this by fighting so many of them, being outnumbered and yet avoiding getting killed, as well as by crushing his enemy’s steel and bones, being himself in the state of agony when the enemy attempts to steal Roland’s sword. By refusing to give up Roland defends the last chivalrous requirement – honor on and off the battlefield. He also tries to persuade Charlemagne to deny Marsillion’s offer, as he believes that Marillion is a dishonest person. And this is true, as Marillion has villainously killed two of his men. By accepting the proposition of Ganelon to take the rear-guard Roland also acts honorably by giving respect to his enemy Ganelon, as he has previously volunteered him and now it is Roland’s turn to take the risk.


So, in a way, Roland may be considered a true hero, because of his nobility and chivalry. He proves to be a somewhat honorable warrior and a very charismatic person. He is also adored by the public for his treatment of the common people, is seen as a hero in their eyes, and in the eyes of the author.


The Song of Roland. Newly Translated and with an Introduction by Robert Harrison. N.Y.: A Mentor Book from New American Library, 1970.

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