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Otuel and Roland

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This romance is a combination of an Old French version of Otinel and a version of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle. The first portion of the romance that centers on Otinel is drawn from the former, while the second portion (involving Charlemagne’s campaigns in Spain and the fateful battle of Roncesvalles) is drawn from the latter; certain episodes in this later section, moreover, are clearly inspired by a version of the Chanson de Roland (Purdie 116).


On Childermas Day, Charlemagne and his twelve peers travel to St. Denis. While there, Otuel arrives as a messenger from Garcy (a Saracen). Roland promises that no harm will come to him since he is a messenger, but Otuel rejects the protection, saying that he needs only his sword. Otuel proceeds to threaten Charlemagne, saying that Garcy intends to kill him, and demands that the king convert to Islam. Charlemagne refuses to convert and asks if Garcy intends to fight him. Otuel says yes, and emphasizes that Garcy will die rather than retreat. He proceeds to mock Charlemagne's age, saying he is too old to fight. Roland grows angry, and threatens to kill Otuel. Unimpressed with Roland, Otuel calls for a duel, to which Roland gladly consents.

The two arm themselves for battle the following day and the passages describing each knight's preparation are strikingly parallel in nature. Charlemagne treats Otuel as magnanimously as he treats Roland, providing all that Otuel needs for the battle. He even has his own daughter Belisent arm the Saracen knight. Otuel thanks her for her service, and she warns him of Roland's sword, Durendale. The parallelism of the arming scenes repeats itself on the field, as the two knights prove to be each other's equals. Throughout the battle, Belisent prays for Otuel's safety while Charlemagne prays for his conversion. Roland eventually offers Otuel Belisent's hand in marriage and the comradery of the Twelve Peers if he will convert to Christianity. Otuel refuses, and the fighting (and praying) continues. The prayers of the French are answered, however, when the Holy Spirit arrives in the form of a dove that comes to rest on Otuel. Amazed by this miracle, he stops fighting, embraces Roland, and accepts Christianity.

Belisent and Otuel are happily betrothed, but Otuel asks that the marriage not be celebrated until after he kills Garcy. Preparations are made, and Charlemagne and his army depart for Lombardy where Garcy has established a capital (Utaly). Meanwhile, Roland, Oliver, and Ogier—while searching for adventures—kill three Saracen kings and capture another named Clarel. They are eventually overtaken by scores of Saracens and have to yield Clarel to them. The freed Saracen king promptly imprisons Ogier. Otuel arrives, however, and manages to rescue Roland and Oliver. Otuel kills Clarel after a long duel, and Ogier escapes. The main battle has now commenced, and by its end, Garcy is captured and baptized in Paris by Archbishop Turpin.

From this point onwards, the romance draws from the Pseudo-Turpin and, at least obliquely, from the Chanson de Roland. The Saracen Ebrahim amasses an army in Cordova and Charlemagne attacks him. The Saracens initially prevail by terrifying the Frenchmen's horses with their loud horns, but the French manage to win the battle by stopping their horses' ears with wax and by blindfolding them (similar to Richard's methods for controlling his demon horse in Richard Coer de Lion). The French army thus defeats the Saracens, allowing Charlemagne to kill Ebrahim.

Charlemagne and his army prepare to battle the Saracen King of Navarre, and he asks for a sign to show him which of his men will be killed. In answer to his prayer, a red cross appears on the shoulders of a thousand of his men who are destined to die. He refuses to allow them to fight and places them in a chapel for the duration of the battle. None of his men die on the field, but when he returns to the chapel, he finds that all of the men within it have perished. The message, as the narrator relates, is that no man can escape death. Charlemagne proceeds to divide Navarre among his men and hangs all of the Saracens. He makes Compostella the see of the archbishop over Spain and Galicia and imposes taxes on the inhabitants.

The next episode begins with a portrait of Charlemagne before proceeding to the episode clearly drawn from the Song of Roland tradition. He is described as an excellent and imposing knight of great strength, with black hair and a red face. He wears the crown of thorns relic four times a year and is guarded by a hundred knights when he sleeps. The action begins in Pamplona, where Charlemagne and his court are approached by two Saracens from Mansure, the Sultan of Babylon. Charles sends Ganelon to treat with them, not realizing that Mansure is an enemy. Mansure bribes Ganelon into betraying his people, and Ganelon returns to his king with news that Mansure will submit. Meanwhile, Mansure and his men make plans to destroy Charlemagne and his army. Charlemagne begins his journey back to France, and Roland is placed in command of the rearguard. Mansure allows the main body of Charlemagne's army to pass, but attacks the rearguard with an army of sixty thousand Saracens. A series of battles between French knights and Saracens ensues, and many Frenchmen are lost. Constantine, Ogier, and Renaut all perish, and Oliver is blinded. Roland arrives to help Oliver, but the blinded knight hits him with his sword. Roland asks him if he has turned pagan, and Oliver tells him he has merely lost his sight. The two work together and kill scores of Saracens. Many Frenchmen are killed as well, but Roland manages to escape and blows his horn. A hundred Christians come to his aid as a result, and Roland returns to the Saracens and demands to know where Mansure can be found. They betray their leader, and Roland promptly finds and kills the sultan. Roland is badly wounded, however, and blows the horn so loudly that his temples burst. He also attempts to break Durendale on a rock so that no pagan knight will wield it, but it cleaves the rock instead. Charles hears the horn, but Ganelon convinces him not to send aid. Meanwhile, the wounded Roland is tended to by Baldwin, who leaves him momentarily to find water. While gone, a Saracen arrives and tries to take Durendale, but Roland kills him with the sword. Baldwin moves Roland to a safer location and Roland says a prayer in which he asks that he be received in heaven because of the many heathens he has slain. He dies shortly afterwards, and Baldwin sees angels carry his soul to heaven.

At this point the romance shifts to Archbishop Turpin, who hears devils carrying Mansure's soul to hell as he says mass. He converses with these demons and learns of Roland's death. Shortly after telling Charlemagne what he has heard, Baldwin arrives with Roland's body and the news that the entire rearguard has been slain. Charlemagne grieves and weeps over Roland's corpse, and his barons have to calm him. He and his men journey to Roncesvalles where they find the slain rearguard and Oliver. Charlemagne prays to Christ, asking for enough daylight to kill his enemies. His prayer is answered and an angel arrives to tell him that the sun will not move until he has enacted vengeance.

Charles and Turpin war against the offending Saracens. Otuel assists in this battle and kills the Sultan of Persia. Charles kills the Sultan of Babylon, and Turpin kills many Saracens. Ganelon is eventually captured and convicted of treason. He admits his guilt, and in punishment is drawn through the town, tied to four horses, and torn apart. The bodies of Roland and Oliver (and other members of the Twelve Peers) are embalmed and given all honors, and Charles builds a church in Roncesvalles in their memory.



This romance bears certain thematic and episodic similarities to the narrative arc of the Ferumbras tradition, particularly in its focus on Otuel's conversion and battles against his fellow Saracens. This particular story, however, is a more starkly masculine one, with the majority of attention going to the knights who fight for Charlemagne. The only woman of note, in fact, is Belisent, and she exists mainly to emphasize Otuel's capacity for redemption.

Otuel's process of conversion can in many respects be seen as a crusade-in-miniature. Martial action, after all, initially brings Roland and Otuel together. But it is not Roland, interestingly, who convinces Otuel to convert. Rather, the prayers of Belisent and especially Charlemagne help to inspire the appearance of the Holy Spirit, and it is this miracle that convinces Otuel to become a Christian. War, in this episode, is thus configured as an access point to conversion, a construction that lies at the heart of many crusades fantasies.

The undertones of religious war and crusade become especially clear in Charlemagne's battle with Ebrahim. The red crosses that appear on the shoulders of the soldiers gestures directly to the symbol typically worn by crusaders, and eventually adopted by the Knights Templar specifically. The fact that it signifies death furthers the connection between this battle and the crusade, because the rhetoric and ideology of crusades, especially those to the Levant, emphasized the importance of self-sacrifice and the glory found in dying on such a journey.

Finally, Roland—in his final prayer—argues that the numerous Saracens he has killed stand as a testament to his faith and to his worthiness as a Christian. This statement could easily extend to all of the Frenchmen in the romance. This paradigm reaffirms the virtuousness of holy war affirmed throughout Otuel and Roland, and reflects the crusader vows themselves, ones that implicitly required the deaths of heathens in order to be successfully completed.



British Library, Additional MS 37492 (The Fillingham Manuscript). Late 15th century.


O'Sullivan, Mary Isabelle. Firumbras and Otuel and Roland. Oxford: Early English Text Society, no. 198. 1967.

Purdie, Rhiannon. Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008.