It is important to realize that the Franks of the eleventh century had quite lost touch with their pagan origins. The age of Bede, Paul the Deacon and Charlemagne suffered from no such disability: Bede's picture of paganism was fairly exact, Paul relates some important and surely original legends of the pagan Longobards (including one about "Godan" - Odhinn), and Charles, according to Einhard, had the traditional epic poetry of his people transcribed. But in the dark age between Louis the Pious and the Saxon emperors, this knowledge seems to have been lost. The writers of the Chansons de geste had a vague idea that their ancestors up to Clovis were pagans, but had amalgamated that with their notion of Saracen religion into one dimly-perceived and, above all, uninteresting soup of paganism, that can involve, from poem to poem, Germans, Russians, ancient Romans and so on. In one Chanson de geste, Clovis' Franks are called "Saracens" before they are converted.
Along with this somewhat unscientific nomenclature went a complete lack of interest in things pagan; while Bede, Paul and Charlemagne were interested in the heritage of their pagan ancestors interesting, later authors did not. Their wild ideas came not only from ignorance but also from a complete lack of desire to know what those societies might actually have been; "Saracens" were for getting their heads cracked, not for reading about.
It must be stressed that this arrogance to non-Christians came from a society whose Christanity was tenuous at best. The world of the Chanson de geste is pagan. A story is always constructed about an explicit or implicit view of the world; this one is built around honour, loyalty to suzerain and comrades, the overriding weight of the patrilineal family (that leads the innocent Pinabel to ruin himself for the sake of his guilty kinsman Ganelon), the complete coincidence of religious and temporal leadership under a supernaturally appointed and guided emperor (the Pope, in this poem, is barely mentioned), the notion that the best thing to do with a member of another faith is to break his skull in two and that "salvation" (in the spectacularly blasphemous line 1509 in the Penguin translation) means victory in war, that priests may fight and kill enemies, and that nothing is more honourable than fighting death. The Christian colouring of the Chanson de Roland is so fugitive, so superficial, as to resemble the quick nod of nervous agnostic towards a Crucifix.
The values of the Chanson de Roland were those of the nobles who listened to the adventures of Roland and Charlemagne, many of whom claimed descent from the Emperor. It was not irrelevant to the claim to the crown of Jerusalem that Geoffrey and Baldwin de Bouillon claimed Carolingian descent1. The massive weight of family tradition, real or imagined, is a pre-Christian element, surviving in an environment - the family line - over which Christian teaching was marginal and Christian control very imperfect (the marriage practices of the West European aristocracy in this period make interesting reading).
But what is most telling and does not so far seem to have been noticed is that the Chanson de Roland has quite an extraordinary amount of features in common with the greatest of Germanic myths, the legend of Oðinn, Baldr and Ragnarøkr.
1) Charlemagne is white-bearded and fabulously old - 200 years old. He is the universal emperor, sharing the world only with demonic or demon-worshipping enemies; in the camp of the good, there is nobody of his rank. He is laden with many cares, especially after the death of Roland ("God, how weary is my life!").
Oðinn is older than any of the other gods; he belongs to an earlier generation. He is hoar-bearded (Harbarðr, one of his names). He is the universal lord, and the universe is divided between him and his demonic enemies. He is laden with many cares, especially after the death of Baldr: "But it was Oðinn who took this death the hardest, because he had a better idea what great deprivation and loss the death of Baldr would cause the Gods."2
2) Charlemagne is surrounded by 12 paladins.
Oðinn is surrounded by 12 gods.
3) Though Charlemagne is old, Baligant, demonic lord of his enemies, is even older; he has outlived Homer and Virgil3 and seems as old as the earth
The giants are older than Odhinn and the gods; they are in effect older than the world, that is made of the bones of the oldest of them.
4) Ganelon is an important yet anomalous personage at the court, not a Paladin, but often present at their council. He is related to Roland as foster-father, that is not by blood but by law. He is sent on an embassy to the evil court of Marsile, demon-worshipping enemy of Charlemagne, under humiliating conditions.
Loki is an important yet anomalous personage in Asgarðr, not one of the Twelve Gods, but often present at their coucils. He is Oðinn's sworn brother, related to Baldr (Oðinn's son) not by blood but by law, and in the same degree as Ganelon with Roland. He is often sent on missions among the demonic giants, many times under humiliating conditions and violent threats.
5) Marsile, already the enemy of the French for excellent reasons, is given the way and means to slay Roland thanks to Ganelon's treachery, and Roland dies with many companions and enemies in a great battle.
Baldr, whose name means "lordly, heroic", is betrayed by Loki and slain by his cunning but not by his hand. In Saxo Grammaticus' version of his death, we are told that Hotherus (Hœðr) was the enemy of all the gods and especially his, and that he sought long a way to kill him, with the help of one Gevar and of a group of mysterious women, in both of whom it is possible to see aspects of Loki. In the Vøluspa there is a suggestion that a good number of men died with him, as if in a battle.
6) Roland's wife Aude dies of heartbreak.
Baldr's wife Nanna dies of heartbreak on his bier.
7) Marsile dies as a direct result of the battle, while Ganelon lives on to be punished by the emperor.
Hœðr (in Snorri's version) dies within three days of the killing, by the hand of Vali, who has some characteristics of a god of war, whereas Loki lives on to insult the gods, reveal his guilt, and be punished by Oðinn and the assembled gods.
8) Ganelon's treachery is punished not only on his person (bound and torn apart, a very unusual form of capital punishment), but on his entire family, though medieval ideas usually rejected such wholesale slaughter (cf. Dante's outrage at the destruction of Count Ugolino's innocent children).
Loki's treachery is avenged not only on his person, but on his children: one of them is made to tear the other apart, and then the latter's tendons are used to bind Loki for all time.
9) Roland dies after a peace has been agreed, when he shouldn't have been attacked.
In Snorri's version, Baldr dies in a place of peace, where blood should not have been shed, and under conditions that should make him invulnerable.
10) The battle and death of Roland leads directly to the apocalyptic clash between Charlemagne and the most ancient and terrible earthly power of evil.
The death, possibly after a battle, of Baldr, is the prelude to the final battle of gods and giants.
11) Paul Bancourt's truly encyclopedic thesis on "les mussulmans dans les chansons de geste du cycle des rois" asks why Charlemagne, having slaughtered the whole male part of her family, shuld trouble to convert the heathen queen Bramimonde with amur - in other words, by wooing her.
If M.Bancourt had seen the parallel between Charlemagne and Oðinn, he would have realized that this is exactly Oðinn's attitude to giants: the male half, however aged, wise and venerable, is only fit for slaughter by any means; the female half is made to be wooed and taken to bed, and is a steady provider of children who will become gods. Charlemagne's operations are rmearkably chaste when compared with Oðinn's.
The text, in fact, has several well-known troublesome cruces, every one of which can be explained in the light of the parallel with Pagan mythology. The butchery of Ganelon's family would have been unacceptable to contemporary opinion; comparison with the pagan myth explains it. The embassy to Marsile is given to Ganelon, a courtier of comparatively minor rank, and in terms so insulting he decides to betray the French out of sheer anger; this is, in terms of contemporary politics, senseless, but makes more sense if see in it a reflex of Loki's curious rank among the gods - he is a danger by nature, and the gods, while availing themselves of his services, also have to tame and control him by threats; his opinionated nature, his restless mischief, and his fits of aggression at the wrong time have, if left to themselves, a destructive result. (In Northern folklore, Loki's name is used for the elements that refuse to fit into work as it is being done, especially threads that will not let themselves be woven neatly.)