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  Ganelon's Wrath

In the Song of Roland an ambassador of the Saracen king Marsilius comes to the court of Charlemagne to offer a peace treaty (without intention to keep it). Charlemagne calls his pairs and advisors. Roland, his nephew, wants to continue the war, since Marsilius had acted treacherously before. Roland's stepfather Ganelon calls Roland's advice foolish and suggests to accept Marsilius' offer, if Marsilius accepted baptizm and agreed to become Charlemagne's vassal, there would be guarantee that he stayed faithful to his oath. Naimes, Charles' favorite advisor, sides with Ganelon. Charlemagne agrees. But who is to be sent to Spain - a pretty dangerous job, nevertheless. One after the other wise Naimes, impulsive Roland, the more temperated Olivier, and finally the archbishop Turpin volunteer. But Charlemagne will accept none ot the twelve pairs of the realm. "Chose someone from the Marches(1)", he says. Roland suggests Ganelon, he is no pair and of moderate temper. Everyone agrees. The latter is upset; I am your stepfather (parastre) and, yet, you will sent me on this embassy? If I survive and come back you are going to pay for it. Roland laughs at this and offers to go in Ganelon's stead. Ganelon declines this, Roland is not his man ("Tu n'ies mes hom, ne jo ne sui tis sire") and accepts the embassy. He asks Charlemagne to protect his son Baudoin in case he will not return. The king answers that Ganelon has too tender a heart. Then Ganelon proclaims that he hates Roland, and that he will make the pairs regret all this. Ganelon receives the emperor's glove as a token, but drops it when he tries to take it from Charles.

Two points are interesting in this episode: first, it demonstrates that the king's power in the consilium is not absolute (more about this in a future post). He can refuse voluntary offers, but he cannot overrrule the decisions of the entire council. That represents more the difficult times of the late 12th century when the Song of Roland was written, rather than the times of Charlemagne.

Second, the scene shows a hartred between Roland and Ganelon that has puzzled several researchers. Jealousy has been suggested, problems of feudal heritage (2), and the underlying problem of Roland's incestual birth (3). According to his duty as a feudal lord Charlemagne ought to have had Roland reprimanded for his offensive behaviour towards Ganelon, he ought to have agreed to protect Ganelon's carnal son, since Ganelon is his vassal as is Roland. But he loves Roland too much and Ganelon too little - him being a living reproach to the king (4) and therefore he remains taciturn and lets them have their quarrel. And Ganelon knows only too well whose son Roland is, and that in the position of a stepfather he has no authority. Roland's incestual birth thus influences the story, albeit the legend of Egidius is never named in the Song of Roland. In the Song of Roland, Charlemagne has become the irreprochable king, nearly a saint. The blame had to fall upon Ganelon who is introduced as the traitor par excellence.

Those theses are not without some foundation (the psychological feelings have existed in humans before Freud invented the Tiefenpsychologie). But there is another story that has come to us in the Karlamagnús saga. According to this source Charlemagne's sister - Roland's mother - is married to Guenelun (=Ganelon) after the death of her first husband Milon d'Anglers of Brittany. It is said that

"Guenelun loved Rollant as his son, and Rollant loved Guenelun as a father, and they swore brotherhood." (brœðralag, a very important institution in Norse society) (ch. 54).

Some time later, the marriage is annulled because of consanguinity, Ganelon remarries one Geloise (=Geluviz). The next obviously happens during the siege of Saragossa. There is some minor revolt of one of the Slavic tribes, and Charlemagne sends Roland to deal with it. Ganelon asks him to give greeting to his wife on his way to Aachen. He arrives at Kastalandum

"... and he gave the lady Guenelun's greeting. Then, when Rollant and Geluviz sat together drinking, she said to him that Guenelun had ordered her to welcome him well: 'Now during the night I will send you a beautiful girl of excellent family who is with me; she cannot come until everyone is asleep, and you shall have a chance to play with her just as you please.' Rollant answered, 'I do not ask this of you, for I have sworn Adein (=Aude), Oliver's sister, that I shall have no woman but her. And if God wills that I come back from Spania safe, then I shall marry her.' But she said that she would certainly send her to him. He told her to do as she pleased. After the people went to sleep, and Roland was tired, and went to sleep at once. Then, when everyone was asleep, Geluviz arose and took her mantle and went to the bed in which Rollant was sleeping, and she touched him from his feet unto his knee, but he did not stir at all. Then she got into the bed and lay beside him, and began to embrace him and kiss him. He turend to her, and had relations with her twice. She spoke to him and said she loved him greatly, 'I shall do everything you want.' Rollant was uneasy because he had sworn to Adein; he thanked her for her good will, then asked her her name. She said it was Geluviz, Guenelun's wife 'and you may have all that you want from me'. He got up, repenting that he had been false to his comrade, and told her to go away.

"In the morning he got up early and went off, taking no leave; he went to Orliens, and from there into Spania, and came to Namlun (=Naimes) and told him all the news, and how the woman had deceived him. Namlun told him to conceal it well and to go to confession, saying that they must keep it from Guenelun. Rollant said that he would tell him himself, 'for I promised to tell him all the misdeeds done at his home, and there was none as great as this which I have committed.' Namlun thought ill of this. Later, Rollant told Guenelun all the matter, when they were alone. Guenelun asekd him to keep it secret, saying that he could not be angry with him about it since she had caused it herself. But thenceforth he bore ill will towards Rollant, it seemed to him that he would never be happy while he lived because of the disgrace he had brought upon him." (ch. 56) (5)

Why could Roland not keep his big mouth shut?

There is, of course, no proof that the author of the Song of Roland knew the story about Roland and Geloise, but I consider it probable because of the way those traditions are linked by several motives, fe. Roland's education in Brittany mentioned in the Norse version, and his title as margrave of Brittany named by Eginhard, moreover the title of margrave or duc de marche goes with both Ganelon and Roland in the tradition of the chansons de geste. I think that we here have another example of epic traditions which survived only in the still underestimated Old Norse translations.

(1) The outskirts of the empire of the Franks, governed by French nobles and intended as a buffer zones towards countries not conquered.
(2) Erich Köhler. Conseil des barons et jugement des barons: Epische Fatalität und Feudalrecht im altfranzösischen Rolandslied, in: H. Krauß (ed.) Altfranzösische Epik, Darmstadt 1978, S. 368-412
(3) Rita Lejeune. Le péché de Charlemagne et la Chanson de Roland. in: Studia Philologica, Homenaje ofrecido a Dámaso Alonso por sus amigos y discípulos con ocasión de su 60° aniversario, vol. II, Madrid 1961, pp 339-371 - more about this later
(4) In the Song of Roland a first marriage of Charlemagne's sister to Milon is not mentioned, that makes the relation between her and her royal brother more shady because a first husband who could have sired Roland is omitted.
(5) Translation by Constance B. Hieatt: Karlamagnús saga - The saga of Charlemagne and his Heroes, translated by C. B. Hieatt. The Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, vol. 1, Toronto 1975 (quoted here under Fair Use).
Comments copied from the main blog:

Bernita said...
Very comprehensive, Gabriele.

Also, thank you for your good wishes and support.
Means much to us both.
January 06, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
Thanks, everyone. I wasn't sure if I didn't start too high on the ladder - after all, I work about the subject for years and tend to forget much of it isn't common knowledge.

Would info like a summary of the Song of Roland and some explantaion what the Karlamagnús saga actually is be useful?
January 06, 2007

hank_F_M said...
Would info like a summary of the Song of Roland and some explantaion what the Karlamagnús saga actually is be useful?


They are things one keeps hearing about in snatches, a good summary would be very helpful.
January 07, 2007

Carla said...
Hank's comment seconded.

January 07, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
Hi Hank,
thanks for stopping by. Hope you like the place.

but I only post 2-3 times a week? ;)

OK, I'll edit that Song of Roland summary I wrote for a bulletin board ages ago and post it here.
January 08, 2007

Rick said...
Belated comment, but yes - I'd like to hear more.

The Carolingian era has long interested me, in part because I don't know how to "see" it - as a kid I naturally imagined it as like a later medieval court, but that's anachronistic by at least 300 years.

Roland's existence is doubtful? I thought there really was a Count Hrolandt (sp?) who died in a skirmish at Roncesvalles - even if it was against Christian Basques, and almost everything else about him was made up.
January 11, 2007

Gabriele C. said...
Since Roland is only mentioned in one manuscript family of Einhardt's Vita, and the Annals seem to be a bit messed up about the whole Roncesvals episode, we can't really be sure whether Roland existed. It's not impossible he was sneaked into the manuscripts later because of some legend about him, or that several historical persons were merged somehow like it seems to have been the case with Arthur.

This is Ardyth from nanowrimo, the idiot who decided to write a book about Olivier... I just wanted to leave you a note to say thinks for linking these, they're really helpful. The more I learn the more I see that history and myth don't match at all... which leaves me to pick on or the other in some sort of strang mix.

On the other hand, the whole business has turned out much more facinating than King Arthur.

So thanks.

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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)