Count Roland’s Oliphant of Woe

From the Wikipedia Commons

Recently I was reminded of a historic medieval French poem, The Song of Roland. Key in this poem – which is one of the oldest French manuscripts surviving today – is Roland’s horn.

It is an olifant – a medieval-era horn carved from ivory. In Roland’s case it is a horn from a mythical unicorn.

This epic poem captures a historic event – a battle between the forces of Charlemagne and the Saracens. Roland’s horn in this story is a direct signaling device to Charlemagne himself.


Through politics and treachery, Roland and several other Paladins are lead into an enemy trap – an army of 400,000 troops. In the midst of battle, Roland’s troops beg him to blow his horn for backup.

from Stanza LXXXVIII

Roland, Roland, yet wind one blast!
Karl will hear ere the gorge be passed,
And the Franks return on their path full fast.”
“I will not sound on mine ivory horn:
It shall never be spoken of me in scorn,
That for heathen felons one blast I blew;
I may not dishonor my Lineage true.
But I will strike, ere this fight be o’er,
A thousand strokes and seven hundred more,
And my Durindana shall drip with gore.
Our Franks will bear them like vassals brave
The Saracens flock but to find a grave.”


As defeat becomes imminent, Roland decides that he should destroy his sword and olifant, lest they fall into enemy hands. Slowly he begins to change his mind.


As Roland gazed on his slaughtered men,
He bespake his gentle compeer agen:
“Ah, dear companion, may God thee shield!
Behold, our bravest lie dead on field!
Well may we weep for France the fair,
Of her noble barons despoiled and bare.
Had he been with us, our king and friend!
Speak, my brother, thy counsel lend,
How unto Karl shall we tidings send?”
Olivier answered, “I wist not how.
Liefer death than be recreant now.”

The horn

Apparently the topic of calling for backup is a weighty issue of knightly chivalry. Finally Roland succumbs and blows his horn.

Then to his lips the horn he drew,
And full and lustily he blew.
The mountain peaks soared high around;
Thirty leagues was borne the sound.
Karl hath heard it, and all his band.
“Our men have battle,” he said, “on hand.”
Ganelon rose in front and cried,
“If another spake, I would say he lied.”

Karl (Charlemagne) hears the signal. Roland’s horn-blowing though has deadly consequences.

With deadly travail, in stress and pain,
Count Roland sounded the mighty strain.
Forth from his mouth the bright blood sprang,
And his temples burst for the very pang.
On and onward was borne the blast,
Till Karl hath heard as the gorge he passed,

That’s right. His head explodes.

On Roland’s mouth is the bloody stain,
Burst asunder his temple’s vein;
His horn he soundeth in anguish drear;
King Karl and the Franks around him hear.
Said Karl, “That horn is long of breath.”
Said Naimes, “‘Tis Roland who travaileth.

A true horn player’s death I must say.


University of Horn Matters