Roland, and the origin of Paladins

In D&D, Paladins are a lawful good fighter dedicated to God in the 1st edition or to their God(s) in 2nd edition. There were originally twelve Paladins, the Twelve Peers, the best of King Charlemagne’s warriors. The Paladins were the precursors of the Knights of the Round Table. The greatest of the Paladins was Roland. La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland) is a heroic poem from about 1100 AD that was based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 AD. Let’s set history aside for a moment and concentrate on the romance. Roland was the commander of the rearguard of King Charlemagne’s forces. He was betrayed by his stepfather Ganelon, who told the Saracens where they could ambush Roland’s forces. During the battle, Roland refuses to summon help on his olifant (a hunting horn made from elephant tusk) but insteads fights with his sword Durandal to the last man. In the end, he sounds his horn only so Charlemagne’s forces will be able to find their bodies, give them a Christian burial, and avenge their deaths. There’s a great modern song about all this, the Rolandskavedet as sung by Harald Foss.


About a hundred years earlier, the Persian poet Ferdowsi produced the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), which among other tales tells the story of Rostam, the bravest of the brave, the greatest of the Iranian warriors. Rostam was a pahlevan. A Pahlevan was a Persian champion, a great warrior who also served as an exemplar of good behavior to all men. For my money, the Pahlevan of Persia were more like the D&D Paladins than were the Paladins of Roland. Now here’s the interesting connection that is never made in Wikipedia — the Shahnameh preceded La Chanson de Roland by about a hundred years. Anyone else seeing the possibility that the Paladins were based on the Pahlevans? There’s actually a book about this, how the Persian cataphracti posted to Hadrian’s Wall were the origin of the legend of Arthur, but that’s for another time. For now, here’s a painting of Rostam slaying the dragon.


About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Dungeons and Dragons, Heroic Fantasy, Medieval life. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Roland, and the origin of Paladins

  1. John Foster says:

    The tiger isn’t a codpiece, is it? I read Three Hearts and Three Lions many times over the years which led me to Bullfinch’s Mythology. I love the imagery and would love to incorporate the 12, but along with Pendragon, I can never seem to find anyone interested.

    • lostdelights says:

      No, not a codpiece thank goodness! He just seems to be wearing a whole tiger skin rug. Bit weird that! Three Hearts and Three Lions is one of my favorite books (still have the first edition somewhere at home). Pendragon was a wonderful game and I bought all that material, but like you, never found anyone interested in playing it. I was inspired by the personality trait system and use my own version for my NPCs now. The players scream when their meat shields fail their Courage roles and run away on them in the middle of battle. 🙂

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