Roland was the bravest and most loyal of the 12 legendary paladins, or knights, who served Charlemagne, king of the Franks*. Although Charlemagne was a historical figure, many fanciful tales about the king and his knights appeared during the Middle Ages. It was said that Roland stood 8 feet tall and carried a magical sword called Durindana (or Durendal) that had once belonged to the Trojan hero Hector.
According to medieval stories, Roland (or Orlando) was the son of Charlemagne's sister. Living as a poor peasant in Italy, he was welcomed to the court of the king after his true identity was revealed. Although a powerful warrior, Roland's concern with winning honor and fame eventually cost him his life.
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A.D. 500 to 1500
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
The story of Roland's death is told in the famous epic the Song of Roland. The poem concerns Charlemagne's defeat by the Muslims in Spain in 778. Charlemagne had sent a paladin named
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
Ganelon to negotiate with the Muslim leader. Instead, jealous of Roland, Ganelon plotted with the enemy and revealed the route Roland's army planned to take. The Muslims waited for Roland and ambushed him at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains.
The paladins had told Roland to blow his ivory horn to summon reinforcements from Charlemagne, but Roland refused to call for help until the battle was almost lost. By then it was too late. When Charlemagne's troops arrived, Roland and many of the bravest paladins were dead. At the end of the story, Charlemagne had Ganelon killed for his treachery