Song of Roland doesn't appear to have a known author - it apparently became a nationwide song. According to the introduction by the translator (old French), it's not even very historically accurate (Charlemagne was 36, not 200, and the attackers were a different group altogether). It's still an interesting window into the past, though.
Count Roland is the nephew of Charlemagne, as well as being his favorite. The poem is the story of Ganelon's betrayal of his step-son, Roland, to the Spanish armies. His reasoning is more revenge than anything else, but it's still treason nonetheless. Roland is made to stay behind and guard the king's back while the armies return to France under a false treaty. Set up by Ganelon and the Spanish king, the Spaniards have a huge army, three of them if I read it right, waiting to kill Roland specifically, since Ganelon has told them that until Roland is dead, Charlemagne won't stop fighting. Roland's army, 20,000, beats back one of 100,000, but starts to suffer losses in the second wave. Still, he refuses to sound the horn that will bring the king's army around to help him fight. By the end, he's cut off the Spanish king's hand, killed all of the enemy's nobles, and pretty much won the battle. Of course, his army dies down to the last man. Roland himself never appears to be wounded, but sounding his horn at the very end he somehow bursts his temple and his brains start dripping out of his ears. (Did I mention this was bloody?)
Charlemagne's army gets there too late and wipes out the remnants of the Spanish army, which is fleeing by this point. He sacks the city, kills the king, captures the queen, and makes everyone convert to Christianity. After burying the dead, they return to France with the bodies of three of the nobles (Roland, Olivier, and one other) and the queen where they try Ganelon. Ganelon's got a smooth-talking cousin who manages to turn the judges against the king, except for one (who's brother, I believe, was killed in the battle). Thierry challenges the ruling, tells the king he thinks Ganelon deserves a traitor's death, and Ganelon's cousin, Pinabel, challenges that and thus we come to a joust, complete with lances, knocking each other off horses, epic mid-battle banter, and
I mentioned this was incredibly gorey, right? Cause it really was. I'm still trying to work out the physics of a fairly blunt hunk of steel managing to slice from a helmet, through the armor and the skull, ribs, pelvis, etc., down through the saddle and into the horse's spine. I can attribute that to 1) being done by the hero's blade and 2) said blade being embued with divine power. But then I come to the problem of Roland's death. He continues to fight a good while after he's popped his brains. Granted, he passes out off and on, which also gives me problems because he's surrounded by enemies and there are only two people left fighting with him. I'm being too literal, I know, but I can't help it.
There's a big theme I noticed with divine power. Roland and Charlemagne both have weapons built out of holy relics; the tip of the spear thrust in Christ's side, a scrap of Mary's veil, someone's hair (I don't remember whose). Before he dies, Roland tries to break his sword on a stone instead of let it fall into "heathen" hands (they've fled by this point, but I guess he was worried about them coming back before Charlemagne's army made it to him). The thing won't even dent. It bends and twists and when he holds it up, pop, right back to being straight again. I also have to point out, in those medieval battles, they hacked at each other till someone died or their weapons broke. Those swords were not sharp or solid. The good ones were, yes, and they'd last a lot longer, but even in this it mentions how the lances broke quickly and the swords gave out.
There is also a lot of divine guidance. The Christian king is visited by God's messengers with prophecies and even, in the end, direct battle orders. Battles are done, kingdoms are expanded in the name of bringing Christianity to the heathen world, interesting if you turn the tables around and look at it from, say, a modern perspective. Not that a Christian king claiming divine right, power, guidance, what-have-you is anything new or surprising, just interesting.
A couple of things I didn't understand that came up a lot was all the fainting. Yes, it happens, though it seems like, at least if you go by what's written down, it used to happen with far more frequency. Some people see blood and faint, though that really wouldn't work well for a seasoned soldier in those days... or in any days. Roland and Charlemagne both faint repeatedly. Roland's got his brains coming out of his ears, so I kind of understand that, though how he manages to survive while he's fainted is beyond me. Charlemagne seems to be fainting out of grief, which is legitimate, but I don't understand why the poets felt it necessary to include, and not just once. He faints and his nobles rouse him. He says a few words, faints again, and more nobles help rouse him. It seems odd to me, and even the same with Roland, to take an idealized warrior/hero and give him that kind of weakness. You're completely vulnerable when you're unconscious!
Charlemagne also did one other thing that I don't understand. They buried their dead on the field, but for the three that they took back to France with them, he also removed their hearts and put them in containers. My immediate thought was what the Egyptians used to do before they mummified their dead, but it seems to go against a proper Christian burial of the time, which was intended to preserve the whole body for the rising of the dead in the second coming.
Which reminds me, the arch-bishop was one of the last two fighters standing. That he was fighting actually surprised me. I knew armies kept clergy around, for obvious reasons, but I wasn't at all aware that they were participants in the battle.
For a poem, (and I hate poetry) it was a good read! It was light on the obscure imagery and pretty much lacking in the need to interpret meaning, and thus made sense. The rhythm and rhyme of it were a bit mind-numbing at 7AM when I was trying to stay awake on the train, but by the end I was pretty well caught up in the "Holy crap the French are getting slaughtered, but holy crap they're taking them down with 'em!!" that I mostly stopped noticing any of it. It's a good read if you're at all interested in medieval anything. Word of warning though, if you can't understand the language (vocabulary-wise) in Shakespeare, you're going to have trouble. Verb conjugations are weird, and words like troth, wot, and sooth abound. Still, there was an epic usage of the word "smite," and that wins my heart, right there.