Much of the action of the 11th century
Song of Roland happens at Rencesvals, with a battle of epic proportions
taking place between the French under Charlemagne and the pagan Saracens
of Spain. The rearguard of the French army, led by the hero Roland, is
attacked by the Saracen troops from behind. It is at this point that
Roland's olifant plays a critical role in the tale.
An olifant is a natural trumpet constructed of an elephant's tusk, and probably came to the West from Byzantium. It could probably make a very loud sound, and might be capable of playing harmonics, but would be unable to play melodies as modern trumpets can. At best, it would have a range much like bugle, its cultural descendent. As signaling trumpets went, it was quite expensive and likely to be used only by nobility (Reese 329). Roland's olifant is an expensive and unusual instrument, and plays a critical role in the telling of the tale, as well as in the outcome of battle of Rencesvals. Roland's olifant is crucial to the tale in two instances. Attention is first focussed upon the olifant when Roland, the hero, and his best friend Oliver argue over whether or not to sound the olifant once they see that battle with the Saracens is inevitable. Sounding the horn will summon the main body of the French troops under Charlemagne. Roland refuses to sound the horn before battle is entered. Against Oliver's advice, Count Roland chooses to sound the olifant after the French rear-guard has been destroyed. The results of that sounding create the second focus upon the olifant: Roland is mortally wounded by sounding the horn. The climax of the story, as well as the battle, depends upon the sounding of the olifant. Roland's olifant has a long heritage in the Christian tradition. There are three Biblical trumpet episodes that particularly inform The Song of Roland, and foreshadow the centrality of the olifant in that tale. In the Book of Numbers, as the Israelites wander in the wilderness of Sinai, God mandates that a set of silver trumpets be made. He gives further instructions regarding their use:
Make thee two trumpets of silver; of a whole piece shalt thou make them: that thou mayest use them for the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps. And when they shall blow with them, all the assembly shall assemble themselves to thee at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And if they blow but with one trumpet, then the princes, which are heads of the thousands of Israel, shall gather themselves unto thee. When ye blow the alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts shall go forward. When ye blow the alarm the second time, then the camps that lie on the south side shall take their journey: they shall blow an alarm for their journeys. But when the congregation is to be gathered together, ye shall blow, but ye shall not sound an alarm. And the sons of Aaron, the priests, shall blow with the trumpets; and they shall be to you for an ordinance forever throughout your generations. And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies. Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; that they may be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the Lord your God.
(Numbers 10: 2-10)
King James Version
There are many similarities between these two silver trumpets and the
olifant. The first is that the two silver trumpets have a unique ability
to communicate. I will argue later that the olifant has a similar unique
ability. The trumpet is a logical and useful tool for coordinating the
movements of a large number of people, both in the wilderness at Sinai and
at the battlefield of Rencesvals. Another similarity between the two is
the limitation on who can sound the horns. In Numbers, the right to sound
the trumpets is strictly limited to the priestly tribe. This limitation
gives both greater authority to the priestly tribe and a spiritual
inflection to the trumpets. In the same way, Roland is great in part
because of his olifant, but to a greater degree, the olifant is great
because it is Roland's.
The most striking similarity involves the last few verses of the Numbers chapter. The Israelites are told that "if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets." The first part of this statement seems to show the Israelites how they can use the trumpets in the case of battle. The second part of the clause indicates that by blowing the alarm before battle, not only will the people of Israel be alerted, but God himself will hear and prepare for battle, "and ye shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies." The alarm blown on the trumpet actually recalls the Israelites to God's remembrance and to victory, through God's intercession on their behalf. It is as though God can hear and respond to the trumpets just as the people and princes of Israel can. Taken further, it seems as though God needs to be informed about the condition of the Israelites, and has equipped his people with the correct tools, the trumpets, to be able to do just that. There is a similarity between the people of Israel sounding the trumpets to call to God for aid and victory in battle, and Roland at Rencesvals deciding whether to sound the olifant and summon the aid of the Holy Roman Emperor and his armies. The olifant plays a role similar to that of the trumpets of the Israelites. Trumpets did not only coordinate movement. They also had an emotional impact on the soldiers, as Boethius argued in his Fundamentals of Music: "Is it not equally evident that the passions of those fighting in battle are roused by the call of trumpets?" (Fundamentals 8). The olifant comes in this tradition of trumpets, which places them on the battlefield and assigns them not only a practical application, but also an emotional charge.
The olifant is not only expensive and pretty, it is also unique. That individuality comes to play an important role in the tale. Only the olifant is able to summon Charlemagne and his troops to join the battle, in the same way that only the silver trumpets could summon God's attention. Other trumpets are blown throughout the battle, without the fear that they might accidentally alert the king to what is happening in the valley below. Indeed, the Saracen preparation for battle involves making lots of noise: "The day was fair, the sun was shining bright,/ all their armor was aflame with the light;/ a thousand trumpets blow: that was to make it finer./ That made a great noise, and the men of France heard" (Roland 80). It seems as though the sound of a thousand trumpets might alert not only the rear-guard, but Charlemagne as well, to the impending battle. By comparison, the sounding of one horn, no matter how special, seems less likely to warn Charles of the impending battle than the thousand Saracen trumpets. The narrator is clear that the thousand trumpets made a huge sound. Nor is that one volley of trumpets the only time in the course of the battle that horns are sounded. It could be argued that the Saracens were too far from the battlefield for Charlemagne to hear. But the trumpets in the thick of battle, such as the one Margariz sounds to summon his men (Roland 90), ought to be audible to the emperor and the main body of French troops. This discrepancy is especially apparent since, when Roland finally does blow the olifant, he is on the battlefield. Charles could only have moved further up the passes during the duration of the battle, and yet he hears the olifant and not the myriad other trumpets sounded in the course of the battle. Of all the trumpets, and all the possible methods of communication, only the olifant has the power to summon the king to his rearguard. The other trumpets present, whether Christian or pagan, can only function on the battlefield. Their scope does not reach to the mountain passes. Not only does the olifant have the only chance of communicating with the Emperor, only Roland has access to the olifant. Oliver, for example, can only try to convince Roland to sound the olifant. That is why the conflict over whether or not to sound the olifant is such a critical and divisive one. Only Roland, as the leader and possessor of the olifant, has the ability to inform the rest of the French army of the battle. Against the thrice-repeated advice of his best friend, Roland refuses to do so. Even if Oliver had a horn at his belt as well, his horn would not have the same power to transcend location that Roland's does.
[Oliver probably did have a trumpet on him. When Charles commands all the trumpets of the French to sound: "Sixty thousand, on these words, sound" (Roland 112). That means that practically every French soldier had a trumpet, and there is no reason to believe that Oliver was an exception.]
The conflict between Roland and Oliver about when to sound the olifant is one of the most intriguing and difficult aspects of the tale to understand. To a modern sensibility, Roland's choice to fight the battle without the aid of the main body of French troops is at worst foolhardy and at best suicidal. We value life deeply, and go to great lengths to save it. Oliver claims that if Roland were to sound the olifant before the Saracen hordes, the French would "come out without losses" (Roland 83). Oliver's plan seems more sensible to a modern perspective. The Saracens' defeat would be ensured. The French would retain most of their army to fight another day. Most importantly, Marisilion's plan to attack the rearguard and kill Roland, and thus damage Charlemagne, would fail.
On the contrary, when Roland fails to sound the horn before the beginning of the battle, Ganelon is proved right in his dealings with the Saracens, and has delivered to them that which they desired: Roland's death. With Roland's decision not to sound the horn, Ganelon's promises to the Saracens turn out to be entirely accurate:
The King will be at Cize, in the great passes,
he will have placed his rear-guard at his back:
there'll be his nephew, Count Roland, that great man,
and Oliver, in whom he puts such faith,
and twenty thousand Franks in their company.
Now send one hundred thousand of your pagans
against the French - let them give the first battle.
The French army will be hit hard and shaken.
I must tell you: your men will be martyred.
Give them a second battle, then, like the first.
One will get him, Roland will not escape.
Since Marsilion agrees to this plan, acknowledging this outcome as the
desired one, the battle could be interpreted as a bittersweet victory for
the pagans. The possibility that the pagans got that which they desired
is problematic. The black and white distinctions between good guys and
bad, between Christians and pagans, does not allow for any redemption for
the pagans, or for any failure on the part of the Christians. Roland does
indeed die, as do Oliver, Archbishop Turpin, and the twelve peers of
France. The pagans are slaughtered by the armies of Charlemagne, but do
manage to kill the "right arm of his [Charles'] body" (Roland 68), namely
Count Roland. The only way for Roland to skew and disprove Ganelon's plan
is to blow the olifant when he is encouraged to do so by Oliver. Such a
monumental decision, between life and death, victory and loss, hinges upon
the sounding of a trumpet.
After the French have lost the battle, Oliver and Roland switch positions on the advisability of blowing the olifant and summoning Charlemagne. Oliver had encouraged Roland to do so when, by summoning Charles' troops, the Franks could be assured of an unconditional victory. Roland, on the other hand, had felt that the sounding of the trumpet could be honorable only when there was no chance that the ill-fated rearguard could be saved. In this last instance, Archbishop Turpin mediates between the two: "To sound the horn could not help us now, true,/ but still it is far better that you do it:/ let the King come, he can avenge us then-- / these men of Spain will not go home exulting" (Roland 102).
Although Charles heard none of the previous trumpets blown in the heat of battle, he does hear the olifant. The unique power of the olifant is revealed, not only because Charles heard it, but also by what the French king is able to discern from the sound. When Charlemagne hears the voice of the olifant, he immediately recognizes it, as though it was a human voice. Ganelon, in his treachery, tries to convince Charles both that it is not Roland's horn and that Roland was probably blowing it because he saw a rabbit. Despite Ganelon's attempts at deception, both Charlemagne and Naimon are able to recognize Roland's horn, as well as the urgency behind the sounding:
King Charles heard it, and his French listen hard.
And the King said: "That horn has a long breath!"
Naimon answers: "It is a baron's breath.
There is battle there, I know there is.
He betrayed him! and now asks you to fail him!
Put on your armor! Lord, shout your battle cry,
and save the noble barons of your house!
You hear Roland's call. He is in trouble."
Charles and Naimon are able to read significant information from the
blowing of the horn by the way it sounds. First, they are able to tell
that it is indeed Roland's olifant and no other. Even Ganelon cannot
dispute that fact for long. They are also able to discern what manner of
man is blowing the olifant - namely a baron. Finally, they are able to
tell from the sound of the horn that it is being blown in battle, not
simply for a hunt or to hear the echoes throughout the tenebrous hills.
This recognition and response reveals the truth behind what I claimed
earlier - only Roland's olifant has the power to communicate with the
French army regarding the battle taking place below. Were it some other
horn, or were Oliver to have taken the olifant from Roland and blown it,
Ganelon might have prevailed in his assertions. Only the olifant, of all
the trumpets on the battlefield, can be heard. Moreover, only the
olifant, blown by Roland himself in the heat of battle, will be listened
to. The olifant has a nearly supernatural ability to transmit
This initial sounding is not the only example of the power of the olifant to communicate specific information. Roland and the Emperor manage a sort of dialogue with their trumpets. Roland, weak from injuries sustained from the first blowing of the trumpet, sounds the olifant a second time. From this second sounding, Charlemagne is again able to understand not only who is blowing the trumpet, but also what that sounding reveals about Roland's state:
But he [Roland] must know whether King Charles will come;
draws out the olifant, sounds it, so feebly.
The Emperor drew to a halt, listened.
"Seignuers," he said, "it goes badly for us -
My nephew Roland falls for our ranks today.
I hear it in the horn's voice: he hasn't long.
Let every man who wants to be with Roland
ride fast! Sound trumpets! Every trumpet in the host!"
Sixty thousand, on these words, sound, so high
the mountains sound, and the valleys resound.
The pagans hear: it is no joke to them:
cry to each other: "We're getting Charles on us!"
The pagans say: "The Emperor is coming, AOI
listen to their trumpets - it is the French!
If Charles comes back, it's all over for us"
(Roland 112 - 113)
First, Roland's olifant conveyed critical information to the King and the
French in the passes regarding the battle taking place below. Now, the
olifant reveals that the Count is near death. Charlemagne can "hear it"
in the sound of the olifant. Indeed, it seems as though Charles can hear
Roland's question, his need to know whether or not the Emperor is coming
or not. In response to the weak call of the olifant, Charles orders that
every trumpet in the host be sounded. This great sounding of trumpets
(which also makes the pagans' sounding of a mere thousand trumpets pale in
comparison) conveys a message comprehensible not only to Roland, but to
the Saracens as well. Of course, this sort of interpretation seems more
logical than Charles' interpretation of Roland's olifant. Obviously, if
tens of thousands of trumpets sound from the area where the enemy is known
to be, and every trumpet requires at least one person to sound, it is
quickly apparent that the large host up the hill is going to enter the
battle. The Song of Roland begins with the pagans' awareness of
their inability to fight the full force of French troops. There is no
reason to believe that the already battle-weary Saracens will fare any
better now than they would have in the beginning of the tale, despite the
loss of the twelve peers. These soundings on the part of both Roland and
Charlemagne are not bugle calls of a set type. There is no evidence to
suggest that Roland is conveying his meaning by a certain pattern of
music, or that the French are bugling Charge. The intelligibility of the
trumpets is entirely independent of any preset code, and is somehow
inherent in the sound itself. The sound of the trumpets instead is as
unique and individual as the sounders.
The idea that the olifant carries with it a unique fingerprint or identification of the sounder is continued even after Roland's death. When Charlemagne finds Roland and Oliver dead on the battlefield, he takes Roland's olifant and Oliver's sword and gives them to others of his party. By giving them these tokens, he seems to be making the knights into a new Roland and Oliver: "King Charles summons Rabel and Guineman./ And the King said: 'Seignuers, I command you:/ Lords, take the places of Oliver and Roland:/ you bear the sword, and you the olifant,/ and both of you ride at the very head" (Roland 136). The named swords of the Song of Roland obviously have both an individual identity and an identification with their wielder. Frequently the soldiers address or refer to their swords by name. Indeed, there is almost an opposition between the trumpet and the sword. During the three stanzas in which Roland refuses Oliver's request to blow the olifant before the battle, the olifant and Roland's sword Durendal seem to be equal and opposite responses to the pagan threat:
"Roland, Companion, now sound the olifant,
Charles will hear it, he will bring the army back,
the King will come with all his barons to help us."
Roland replies: "May it never please God
that my kin should be shamed because of me,
or that sweet France should fall into disgrace.
Never! Never! I'll strike with Durendal,
I'll strike with this good sword strapped to my side,
you'll see this blade running its whole length with blood."
Durendal is an appropriate response to Oliver's request to blow the
olifant. Nor is this the only place where Roland equates the olifant and
his precious sword. When Roland is dying, he takes equal care of both the
olifant and his sword, and arranges them both as he prepares to die. When
he is apparently dead, he feels a pagan taking his sword and wakes up from
the death swoon. Roland's response to the attempted theft of Durendal is
to attack the pagan with the olifant. Roland "grasps that olifant that he
will never lose,/ strikes on the helm beset with gems in gold/ . Ah! the
bell-mouth of the olifant is smashed,/ the crystal and the gold fallen
away" (Roland 117). He then attempts to shatter Durendal. The damage to
the olifant is problematic since, as I mentioned earlier, the olifant is
later given to Guineman, and sounds numerous times throughout the
remainder of the poem. Perhaps the damage is only cosmetic. It is
important, however, that as Roland dies he acts towards the destruction of
both sword and horn, and fails in both attempts. Roland lies upon his
faithful Durendal and his olifant as he dies.
It is important to prove that the olifant is as important and as unique as a warrior's sword because it makes possible the argument that Marsilion and Ganelon's plot actually failed. While they were able to kill the true Roland and the twelve peers, they were not able to destroy the essence of the knights. Roland and Oliver can be recreated in a new generation by passing on their identities, as carried in their sword and trumpet, to a new generation. The ability of the artifacts to transmit the essence of their owners also explains why the pagans were eager to take Roland's sword. Had they succeeded in doing so, perhaps they would have been able to succeed in their goal in eliminating Roland from Charles' service. This recreation of Roland and Oliver might also help to explain the lack of mourning for the dead in the end of the story. The last stanzas of The Song of Roland deal not, as we might expect, with mourning and elaborate funerals, but rather with the judgement of the traitor Ganelon. Indeed, the only person who really seems to notice or care that Roland is dead, after that initial expression of grief, is his betrothed, Aude.
The success of giving the olifant to Guineman, in effect making him a new Roland, can be seen by the continued importance of the olifant's sound as the troops of the emperor battle the troops of the Amiral. At first, the transfer of identity is incomplete. The sounding of the olifant reminds the French forces of Roland: "The trumpets sound, to the rear, to the front:/the olifant's voice leaps beyond all the others;/ and the French weep with all they feel for Roland" (Roland 138). Immediately prior to this passage is Charlemagne's Commendatio Animae, a prayer for the dead, which is said over the recumbent figure of Roland. With the grieving process yet incomplete and in the circumstance of mourning Count Roland, it makes sense for the olifant to remind the French of the dead knight. As the battle with the Saracens progresses, however, the olifant's identification with the dead Roland decreases. It still retains a role in the forefront of the battle that it might have had with Roland, inspiring the troops to further acts of valor, as Boethius said trumpets might. Four stanzas after the sound of Roland's olifant brought tears to the Frankish troops, the horn is already assuming a new identity: "Hear the olifant now: a brave man there --/ that high-pitched horn is his companion in answering" (Roland 141). The trumpet now identifies not Roland, but Guineman. Already, so quickly after Roland's death, the French hear the olifant and speak of the bravery of the living man who is now sounding it. Again and again the olifant heartens the French army, with no indication that it does so because it was allied with Roland, whom that army is now avenging: "The Emperor commands them sound their horns,/ that olifant! it sets their hearts on fire! . . . these high-pitched trumpets sound, their voices clear,/ that olifant, thundering the pursuit!" (Roland 144). The olifant, devoid of the commanding warrior whose breath once made it sound, still has a significant ability to hearten and support the Christian warriors. Rabel and Guineman, heirs to Oliver and Roland, are treated with the same sort of language and individual significance as the two dead knights had been. Both are given stanzas in which to charge the enemy and inspire praising commentary by onlookers -- as Roland and Oliver did before their deaths. Because the Emperor was able to recover the two relics of the two knights he is able to recreate Roland and Oliver by passing on those powerful relics. Had Roland not sounded the olifant, as Oliver argued, Charlemagne would have been unable to recover the knights' relics and recreate them.
The correlation between the trumpet and sword in The Song of Roland shows the importance of the trumpet. For Roland, Durendal -- with all its fabulous relics -- and the olifant are equal in value. Indeed, Roland's olifant stands beside Oliver's sword in importance, and carries on Roland's identity past the heroes' death. The olifant is portrayed as equal to the sword in power and importance. For a medieval bard telling a tale of an epic battle to set a non-religious element equal to the emblem of valor on the battlefield is a strong statement on the power that the olifant has in the epic.
The greatest power I have so far attributed to trumpets in The Song of Roland is to be able to communicate complex information - no mean feat, as the outcome of major conflicts rests upon that communication. I have discussed the individuality of the olifant, and the critical role it plays in the outcome of the battle at Rencesvals, and the olifant's ability to carry on the heroic identity of its sounder. But the olifant has a much more important role than simply as a signaling instrument or relic. I mentioned earlier that in most details Ganelon was accurate in his prediction of the outcome of the ambush. The Saracens indeed did become "martyrs," as great numbers died on the field, and Roland did die as a result. But Roland, the Emperor's nephew, dies on the battlefield along with the twelve peers of France and 20,000 French troops. The hero's death creates a difficulty for the Song of Roland author or teller; if Roland is the greatest knight in Christendom, and Christians must always prevail over Saracens because in the tale "Pagans are wrong and Christians are right!" (Roland 80), then how does Roland die? He cannot be killed by a pagan. If the Christian hero is killed by a Saracen knight, no matter how outnumbered or tired he might be, then the Saracens might be seen as greater than the Christians. That possibility is unacceptable in the world of the poem. Indeed, when Charles comes upon Roland's body on the battlefield he exclaims: "What man killed you? Killing you he shamed sweet France" (Roland 134).
Sweet France is not shamed, because no man kills Roland. Saracen warriors do not overcome him. He is not accidentally killed by a nearly blind and dying Oliver, as might happen and still preserve the ethic of the poem. Roland is killed, quite literally, by blowing the olifant:
And now the mighty effort of Roland the Count:
he sounds his olifant; his pain is great,
and from his mouth the bright blood comes leaping out,
and the temple bursts in his forehead.
. . .
The blood leaping from Count Roland's mouth,
the temple broken with effort in his forehead,
he sounds his horn in great travail and pain.
The mortal wound delivered by the olifant is, in some ways, a commentary
on Roland's strength. He is so mighty that in sounding the olifant he is
capable of killing himself. Death by trumpet neatly solves the problem of
how to kill Roland without the help of the pagans. Roland was killed by
neither foe nor friend, but instead by his own power - and in many ways an
expression of his own will since he argued so vehemently with Oliver about
sounding the olifant. I think, however, that only at this moment at the
end of the battle does the olifant have the power to kill the Count. Had
it been sounded when Oliver encouraged, I do no think it would have killed
The olifant's power must be used in the correct manner, a manner which is in doubt as evidenced by Roland and Oliver's long discussion over when to blow it. Had Roland blown his olifant when it was not entirely necessary - blowing at rabbits as Ganelon suggested - then the olifant might not have been able to convey the critical messages it did after the battle at Rencesvals. Perhaps the olifant dealt its sounder a lethal wound because it was sounded when it should not have been. It is possible that the mortal injury delivered to Roland is a sign that he should have sounded the horn before the battle was joined. The olifant has a great deal of power, but with that power comes danger. If Roland's use of the olifant was correct, it came with a great price.
It is moments such as this one that the power of the trumpet is most apparent. The trumpet can kill the mightiest hero where swords and lances cannot. Where the trumpets of the Israelites blown at Jericho brought God's wrath upon the city, here the olifant summons the mighty forces of the Emperor. But in the process, the Emperor's favorite is killed. The moral danger of the singing of lascivious songs expressed by Chrysostom half a millennium before has changed to become a real danger of a real death.