I am going to take a step back from the first part of my paladin review and hit on some of the literary history. I probably should have started with this entry and then move over to The Song of Roland. In any event, I will be following up this section with the Arthur mythos and contrast it with the Roland/Charlemagne mythos. I think it is interesting to compare and contrast the Matters of France with the Matters of Britain, and I will take this one step further to apply it to the D&D character class.
The paladins, sometimes known as the Twelve Peers, were the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court, according to the literary cycle known as the Matter of France. They first appear in the early chansons de geste such as The Song of Roland, where they represent Christian martial valor against the Saracen hordes. The paladins and their associated exploits are largely later fictional inventions, with some basis on historical Frankish retainers of the 8th century and events such as the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and the confrontation of the Frankish Empire with Umayyad Al-Andalus in the Marca Hispanica.
The Twelve Peers
The Twelve Peers were Charlemagne's elite paladins or knights - the corps d'elite. The Twelve Peers were sort of like Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. According to all tales, Roland was the leader of the Twelve Peers. Roland was the Charlemagne's best paladin, as well as the king's nephew. Each paladin was a formidable warrior. And each peer has a companion to fight alongside him. Roland had Oliver as his companion. So in the time of battle they fought in pair. It is not so much to defend each back, as to kill as many of their enemies, matching the prowess of their companion. For a knight or paladin, courage and glory are paramount to them. The Twelve Peers commanded Charlemagne's first division in the army. They were the crack troop and advance-guard, meant to spearhead in any attack of a battle. This division is numbered twenty-thousand strongs. However, in the Chanson de Roland, through the ill-advice treachery of Roland's stepfather, Ganelon, the division of the Twelve Peers were to serve as the rearguard of Charlemagne's army at Rencesvals, where they were destroyed by numerically superior Saracen army.
The earliest recorded instance of the word paladin in the English language dates to 1592, in a poem by Samuel Daniel. It entered English through the Middle French word palladin or paladin, which itself derived from the Italian paladino. All these words for Charlemagne's Twelve Peers likely descend ultimately from the Latin palatinus through the Old French palatin. The Latin palatinus referred to an official of the Roman Emperor connected to the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill; over time this word came to refer to other high-level officials in the imperial and royal courts. The word palatine, appearing in various European countries in the medieval and modern eras, has the same derivation.
By the 13th century words referring specifically to Charlemagne's peers began appearing in European languages; the earliest is the Italian paladino. Modern French has paladin, Spanish has paladín or paladino (reflecting alternate derivations from the French and Italian), while German has paladin. By extension "paladin" has come to refer to any chivalrous hero such as King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.
In their earliest appearances the paladins were not the companions of Charlemagne, but of his vassal Roland. This Roland is based on the historical figure Hroudland, who is mentioned by Charlemagne's biographer Einhard as a Lord of the Breton March who died in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass; nothing else of him is known. By the end of the 12th century the paladins were increasingly thought of as an association reporting to the king after the fashion of the Round Table; the earliest romance to portray them in this way is Fierabras, dating to around 1170. The names of the twelve paladins vary from romance to romance, and often more than twelve are named. The number is popular because it resembles the Twelve Apostles – giving the king the position of Jesus not out of arrogance, but as a reminder of his holy mission as ruler. All Carolingian paladin stories feature paladins by the names of Roland and Oliver; other recurring characters are Archbishop Turpin, Ogier the Dane, Huon of Bordeaux, Fierabras, Renaud de Montauban, and Ganelon. Tales of the paladins once rivaled the stories of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table in popularity.
The paladins figure into many chansons de geste and other tales associated with Charlemagne. In the above-mentioned Fierabras, they retrieve holy relics stolen from Rome by the Saracen giant Fierabras and convert him to Christianity and recruit him to their ranks. In Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne they accompany their king on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Constantinople in order to outdo the Byzantine Emperor Hugo. However, their greatest moments come in The Song of Roland, which depicts their defense of Charlemagne's army against the Saracens of Al-Andalus, and their deaths at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass due to the treachery of Ganelon. The Song of Roland lists the twelve paladins as Roland, Charlemagne's nephew and the chief hero among the paladins; Oliver, Roland's friend and strongest ally; and Gérin, Gérier, Bérengier, Otton, Samson, Engelier, Ivon, Ivoire, Anséis, Girard. Other characters elsewhere considered one of the twelve appear in the Song, such as Archbishop Turpin and Ogier the Dane.
The Italian Renaissance authors Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto, whose works were once as widely read and respected as William Shakespeare's, contributed prominently to the literary and poetical reworking of the tales of the epic deeds of the paladins. Their works, Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso, send the paladins on even more fantastic adventures than their predecessors. They list the paladins quite differently, but keep the number at twelve. Boiardo and Ariosto's paladins are Orlando, Charlemagne's nephew and the chief hero among the paladins; Oliver, the rival to Roland; Ferumbras (Fierabras), the Saracen who became a Christian; Astolpho, descended from Charles Martel and cousin to Orlando; Ogier the Dane; Ganelon the betrayer, who appears in Canto XXXII of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri; Rinaldo (Renaud de Montauban); Malagigi (Maugris), a sorcerer; Florismart, a friend to Orlando; Guy de Bourgogne; Namo (Naimon or Namus), Duke of Bavaria, Charlemagne's trusted adviser; and Otuel, another converted Saracen.
The Celtic revival of the 1880s benefited the Arthurian material and encouraged its reworking and recirculation. No such aura of latter-day romance could assist the Charlemagne material, which remained strongly Christian and triumphant in its presentation in contrast to the melancholy of the ultimate failure of the Arthurian heroes, and their ambiguous position at the transition from Celtic paganism to Christianity. As a result, contemporary readers know Arthur and his Camelot well while hearing little of the paladins of Charlemagne, who once enjoyed similar renown.