|The Story of Roland|
|by James Baldwin|
|Here are related the daring feats and great exploits of Roland, worthiest of the barons of France in the time of Charlemagne, and those of Oliver and Reinold and Ogier the Dane, all heroes who were his companions in arms and who rivalled him in the number and greatness of their exploits. The story is culled from the works of song-writers and poets of five centuries and in as many languages. Ages 11-14 |
A ROLAND FOR AN OLIVER
 CHARLEMAGNE held high festival at Paris. It was in
thanksgiving for the victories with which his arms had
everywhere been blessed. Once more the foes of
Christendom had been driven from Christian soil; once
more did peace and prosperity seem to smile upon
France. And the king had summoned the worthiest barons
and warriors of his realm to award to each some fitting
recompense for his services and good faith.
knights who had come to Paris was old Count Gerard, the
grandfather of Oliver, and one of the most powerful
barons of France. He had come to renew his homage for
his ancient fief of Viana; and he hoped that the king,
as a reward for his lifelong services, would grant him
now the vacant fief of Burgundy. But, from some reason
best known to himself, Charlemagne failed to invest
him with the wished-for dukedom. Some say that it was
all the result of an awkward accident. The count, they
say, after doing homage for Viana, stooped, as was the
custom in those times, to kiss the king's foot. But,
greatly to his chagrin, he
 stumbled, and his lips
touched the foot of the queen, who was sitting by the
side of Charlemagne. The knights who stood around were
much amused, and could not forbear laughing at the
unlucky count; but the king, in anger, told him that
the fief of Burgundy had already been granted to a
younger and more courteous knight, and that he must
content himself with Viana until he had learned better
manners. Count Gerard, boiling over with rage, turned
upon his heel, and strode out of the palace. He called
his men together, mounted his horse, and set out with
all speed for Viana.
It matters not whether this story be true or not, we
know that Count Gerard rebelled against the king, and
declared, that, for the affront which Charlemagne had
offered him, he would no longer be his man, nor pay him
tribute. He shut himself up in the stronghold of Viana,
which he victualled and strengthened with great care,
and made ready for a long and a close siege. He sent
also to his brother Miles of Apulia and to his son
Rainier of Genoa, craving their help. Miles came with a
thousand men bearing shields; and Rainier, with two
thousand crossbow-men. With Rainier came also his son
Oliver, boldest of warriors, and his daughter Alda,
beautiful as a Persian peri, brave as a Saxon valkyrie.
Great indeed was the siege which Charlemagne placed
around Viana: none ever saw the like before. And he
vowed that he would never leave it, nor give up
contest, until the proud Gerard should be humbled in
the dust before him. For nine weeks he besieged the
stronghold, and allowed no one to come in or to go out;
and yet so well supplied was the garrison with all
things needful for life and comfort that they cared but
little for the blockade. Neither besiegers nor
besieged spared any pains to annoy one another. If
Charlemagne's warriors dared approach too near the
walls, they were driven back by a shower of arrows from
the crossbows of the sharp-sighted Genoans. If the men
of Viana ventured outside of the gates, or beyond the
moat, a troop of fleet horsemen drove them back at the
point of the lance. Sometimes the besieged would make a
bold sally, and attack their foes in the open plain;
sometimes the besiegers would try to take the
stronghold by storm. But day after day went by, the
summer passed, and autumn came, and the war seemed no
nearer at an end.
Sometimes the Lady Alda stood upon the ramparts, and
cheered the besieged, or helped to throw down stones
and other missiles upon the heads of those who were
trying to scale the walls. And once, dressed in full
armor, she ventured out at the head of the Vianese, and
boldly charged upon the besiegers. One day, Roland,
seeing the fair lady standing upon the wall, rode up
within call, and asked her her name.
"My name is Alda," she answered, "and my grandfather is
the Count Gerard."
"And my name is Roland," said the hero, "and my uncle
is King Charlemagne. Never have I seen a
fairer or nobler than thou. Never will I cease to love
and to woo thee, though it should be at the cost of my
The next morning Roland fully armed, with his hawk
perched on his wrist, rode down toward the Rhone. In
the garden, beneath the walls of the fortress, he saw
a mallard sitting. Thinking to have some sport, he
loosed the hawk from his arm. High into the air the
creature sprang; round and round above his head it
circled, looking down in search of prey. It saw the
mallard in the garden, and, quick as an arrow, darted
down upon it. But, after it had struck the unoffending
bird to the ground, it seemed not at all anxious to
come back to its master. In vain did Roland whistle and
call: as if knowing that it was beyond his reach, it
sat on the branch of an apple tree, and quietly plumed
its feathers. A knight in the castle, seeing the hawk,
and wishing to have it for his own, came out into the
garden to call it. He was armed from head to foot, and
his visor was closed, and a long red plume waved from
his helmet's crest. The bird heard his call, and flew
to him, and alighted upon his wrist. A noble bird it
was,—the falcon which Roland petted and prized more
than any other.
Roland spurred his steed, and rode as near to the walls
as a prudent fear of the crossbow-men would allow. "Sir
knight," cried he very courteously, "give me back my
bird, and you shall have fifteen pounds of gold!"
 "Nay," answered the Knight of the Red Plume. "Not for a
hundred pounds would I give him to you. I have taken
him fairly, as the spoils of war, and I mean to keep
him. No usurer shall buy me with gold."
Then Roland again put spurs to his horse, and, heeding
not the threats of the crossbow-men upon the
battlements, he rode boldly across the field, and
paused not until he stood within ten paces of the
strange knight, and close to the castle wall. But the
visors of both warriors were closed, and neither could
see the other's face.
Very courteously, as became a well-taught knight,
Roland asked the other his name.
"Vassal," answered he,
"my name is my own, and I give it not to strangers or
to foes. You may call me the Knight of the Red Plume."
"Friend," said Roland, "I seek no quarrel with you.
Give me my bird—carry it no farther,—and we shall part
in peace, to meet, perhaps, as foes another time."
"Ah, indeed!" answered the stranger-knight with a
sneer. "Truly, you should be my henchman. A brave man
you seem to be! If you will serve me a year and a day,
you shall be knighted, and shall have either land, or
fee, or burgh, or castle, as your valor shall deserve."
Roland was deeply angered by these taunting words, and
he drew his sword half out of its scabbard. But then he
remembered that he had vowed not to cross weapons that
day with any foe.
 "Vassal!" cried he, rising in his stirrups, "I pray you
that for love you give me the bird; and I promise you
that if, after to-day, you ask aught of satisfaction
from me, it shall be as you wish."
"The hawk is yours," answered the knight, loosing the
bird, and handing it to Roland. "Willingly I give it
you. But remember your promise."
"Truly it shall not be forgotten," answered Roland.
And the two knights parted.
Week after week passed by, and still the wearisome
siege continued. Some say that Charlemagne was encamped
around Viana for seven years, but I think it could not
have been more than seven months. Nevertheless, the
whole country, for leagues on every side, was laid
waste; and what had once been a blooming garden was now
in a fair way to become a desert. The vineyards had
been destroyed; the orchards had been cut down; the
houses of the country-folk had been burned and
destroyed. Great, indeed, was the distress caused by
this quarrel between the king and the count; but the
distress fell upon neither king nor count, but upon the
innocent and the helpless. Ah, how cruel is war!
The king allowed neither wind nor rain to turn him
aside from his purpose, or to make him forget his vow;
and all winter long his men sat by their camp fires,
and surlily guarded the approaches to Viana. At length,
however, Eastertide drew on apace; and the woods
to grow green again, and the flowers sprang up in the
meadows, and the birds sang soft and sweet. And many
knights bethought them then how idly and vainly their
time was being spent in this fruitless war against one
of their own number; and they longed to ride away in
quest of other and more worthy adventures. The king
tried hard to press the siege and to bring it to a
speedy close, but in vain. The watchful and valiant
crossbow-men held the besiegers at bay, and obliged
them to keep their accustomed goodly distance from the
One day a party of strange knights rode into the camp,
and asked to see the king without delay. They came from
the mountain land which borders France on the south;
and they brought stirring news,—news which aroused the
zeal of every loyal Christian warrior. Marsilius, the
Pagan king of Spain, they said, had crossed the
Pyrenees with a great host of Saracens, and was
carrying fire and sword and dire distress into the
fairest provinces of Southern France. Unless
Charlemagne should come quickly to the help of his
people, all Aquitaine and Gascony would be lost, and
the Pagans would possess the richest portion of his
The king was much troubled when he heard these tidings,
and he called his peers together to ask their advice.
All declared at once in favor of raising the siege of
Viana, of making some sort of peace with Gerard, and
marching without delay against the invaders. But
Charlemagne remembered, that, before
under-  taking the siege of Viana, he had vowed not to desist until Count
Gerard was humbled in the dust at his feet.
"I have an oath in heaven," said he, "and I must not
break it. This traitor Gerard shall not be spared."
"Which were better," asked Duke Ganelon mildly,—"to
forget a vow which was made too hastily, or to sit here
helpless, and see all Christendom trodden under the
feet of accursed Saracens?"
"It seems to me," said sage Duke Namon, "that the
present business might be speedily ended by leaving it
to the judgment of God. Count Gerard knows nothing of
the straits that you are in: he cannot have heard of
this invasion by the Saracens; and he will gladly agree
to any arrangement that will bring your quarrel with
him to an honorable end. Let two knights be chosen by
lot, one from each party, and let the combat between
them decide the question between you and Count
Charlemagne and his peers were much pleased with this
plan; and a messenger with a truce-flag was sent into
the fortress to propose the same to Count Gerard. The
men of Viana were not only heartily tired of fighting
against the king, but they foresaw that, if the siege
were kept up much longer, they would be obliged to
surrender for want of food; for their provisions were
already beginning to run low. So they very gladly
agreed to leave the whole matter to the decision of
Heaven; and, as they numbered among them some of
bravest and most skilful swordsmen in Christendom, they
had little doubt but that the judgment would be in
When the messenger came back to Charlemagne with Count
Gerard's answer, the king and his peers at once drew
lots in order to determine which one of their number
should be their champion. The lot fell upon Roland; and
to him was assigned the danger and the honor of
maintaining the dignity and authority of the king, and
of deciding a question which many months of warfare and
siege had failed to settle.
Early the following morning Roland was ferried over to
an island meadow in the Rhone, where the knight who had
been chosen by the Vianese folk to oppose him was
already waiting. He was surprised to see that it was
the Knight of the Red Plume,—the same with whom he had
talked in the garden beneath the castle walls. Roland
was well armed; but instead of his own shield he
carried another, which the king had given him—one wide
and thick, but new and untried; yet his good sword,
Durandal the terror, slept in its sheath by his side,
and with it alone he would have felt sure of victory.
The Knight of the Red Plume had armed himself with the
greatest care. His war coat had been wrought by the
famed smith, the good Jew Joachim, and was said to be
proof against the stroke of the best-tempered sword.
The hauberk which he wore was the one which King
Æneas, ages before, had won from the Greeks on the
plains of Troy. His buckler was of
fish-  skin from the
great salt sea, stretched on a frame of iron, and hard
enough to turn the edge of any common sword.
On one bank of the river stood the friends of Roland,
anxious to see how the young hero would acquit himself,
and yet not at all fearful of the result. On the other
side were Count Gerard and Miles and Rainier, and the
bravest knights and the fairest ladies of Viana. And
among these last, the fairest of all was Alda, the
daughter of Rainier, and the sister of Oliver. Very
beautiful was she to look upon. A coronet of pearls
encircled her brows; golden was her hair, which fell in
rich ringlets on her shoulders; blue were her eyes as
the eyes of moulted falcon; fresh was her face, and
rosy as dawn of a summer's day; white were her hands,
her fingers long and slender; her feet were well shaped
and small. The red blood had risen to her face. Eagerly
she waited the beginning of the fray. Roland, when he
saw her, trembled as he had never trembled before an
The signal for the onset is given. The two knights put
spurs to their steeds, and dash toward each other with
the fury of tigers and the speed of the wind. The
lances of both are shivered in pieces against the
opposing shields, but neither is moved from his place
in his saddle. Quickly, then, they dismount, and draw
their swords. How Durandal flashes in the light of the
morning sun! Now does the helmet which the good Jew
Joachim made do good service for the
red-  plumed knight.
The fair Alda is overcome with fear. She hastens back
to the castle. She goes to the chapel to pray, and
falls fainting at the foot of the altar.
Never before has there been so equal a fight. For more
than two hours the two knights thrust and parry, ward
and strike; but neither gains the better of the other.
At last, however, the sword of the red-plumed knight
is broken by a too lusty blow upon Roland's helmet: his
shield, too, is split from top to bottom. He has
neither wherewith to fight, nor to defend himself, yet
he has made up his mind to die rather than to be
vanquished, and he stands ready to fight with his
fists. Roland is pleased to see such pluck, and he
scorns to take advantage of his foe's ill plight.
"Friend," said he right courteously, "full great is
your pride, and I love you for it. You have lost your
sword and your shield, while my good Durandal has
neither notch nor blemish. Nephew am I to the king of
France, and his champion I am to-day. Great shame
would be upon me, were I to slay an unarmed man when he
is in my power. Choose you now another sword—one to
your own liking—and a more trusty shield, and meet me
again as my equal."
Roland sat down upon the grass and rested himself,
while the red-plumed knight bade his squires bring him
another sword from the castle. Three swords were sent
over to him,—that of Count Gerard, that of Rainier the
Genoese, and Haultclear, a blade which the Jew Joachim
had made, and which in old times had been the sword of
Closamont the emperor.
 The knight chose Haultclear. Roland rose from the
grass, and the fierce fight began again. Never were
weapons wielded with greater skill; never was there a
nobler combat. The sun rose high in the heavens, and
the noontide hour came; and still each knight stood
firmly in his place, thrusting and parrying, striking
and warding, and gaining no vantage over his foe. After
a time, however, the patience of the red-plumed knight
gave out. He grew furious. He was anxious to bring the
combat to an end. He struck savagely at Roland; but the
stroke was skillfully warded, and Haultclear snapped
short off near the handle. At the same time Durandal,
coming down with the force of a thunderbolt, buried
itself so deeply in the shield of the red-plumed
knight, that Roland could not withdraw it.
Both knights were thus made weaponless; but neither was
vanquished. Wrathfully they rushed together to seize
each other, to throw each other down. Moved by the same
thought, each snatched the other's helmet, and lifted
it from his head. Some say that a bright cloud and an
angel came down between them, and bade them cease their
strife; but I know not whether this be true, for, as
they stood there, bareheaded, and face to face,
memories of their boyhood came back to them. Both were
struck dumb with astonishment for a moment. Roland saw
before him his loved brother-in-arms, Oliver. Oliver,
now no longer the red-plumed knight, recognized his old
friend Roland. Then they rushed into each other's
 "I yield me!" cried Roland.
"I yield me!" cried
"A ROLAND FOR AN OLIVER."
Great was the wonder of Charlemagne and his peers when
they saw their champion thus giving up the fight when
victory seemed assured. Equally great was the
astonishment of the Vianese and of Oliver's kinsmen.
Knights and warriors from both sides of the river
hastened to cross to the island. They were eager to
know the meaning of conduct seemingly so unknightly.
But when they came nearer, and saw the men, who had
fought each other so long and so valiantly, now
standing hand in hand, and pledging anew their faith as
brothers-in-arms, every thing was made clear. And with
one voice all joined in declaring that both were
equally deserving of the victory. And Ogier the Dane
stood up, and said, that, although the question between
Charlemagne and Gerard was still unsettled, yet Roland
and Oliver had acquitted themselves in all things as
became true knights.
"Let him who would gainsay it speak now, or forever
hold his tongue!" he cried.
But in all the host there
was not one who wished to break lances with Ogier, or
to risk his displeasure by disputing his word.
folk of Viana went back to their castle prison, and
their foes returned to their tents; and each party
began anew to plan means by which this tiresome and
unprofitable war might be brought to an end.
Another week, and a fortnight, passed by, and every
messengers came to Charlemagne, telling of the ravages
of Marsilius the Moor, and begging him to hasten to the
aid of his people. Very willingly would he have gone,
and left Viana in peace, had it not been for the
remembrance of his vow.
"I cannot go," said he, "until this rebel Gerard is
humbled upon his knees before me."
One by one his knights, tired of inaction, and
preferring to wage war against unbelievers rather than
against men of their own faith and nation, stole
quietly from the camp, and rode away toward the
Pyrenees. It seemed as if the king would be left, after
a while, to carryon the siege of Viana alone; yet he
never faltered in his determination to perform his vow
to the very letter.
One day some huntsmen brought word to Charlemagne that
a fierce wild boar had been seen in Claremont wood, and
that he was now hiding in a thicket not far from Viana.
Ever eager for the chase, the king at once mounted his
horse, and, followed by his men and his hounds, he
hastened to the wood. It was not long until the grim
beast was driven from his lair; and the king, as was
his wont, gave chase. Duke Gerard and his knights,
watching from the towers of Viana that morning, had
seen the kingly hunting party ride out into the wood.
"Let us have a hand in this hunt," said Rainier of
Genoa. "We might hunt for royal game; and, could we but
take the king, we might end this war on our own terms."
 Count Gerard and the other nobles were pleased.
a secret underground passage," said the count, "which
leads directly from the castle to the wood. Once there,
we might lie in wait in the thickets, and waylay the
king as he passes by."
The knights at once girded on their armor, hung their
shields to their necks, and took their bows and arrows
in hand. Then, led by two trusty squires, who lighted
the way with torches, they filed through the long, dark
tunnel, and came out in the midst of a briery thicket
in the wood of Claremont. The sound of the baying
hounds told them that the game was not far away; and
soon, as good fortune would have it, the hunted beast,
furious with rage, rushed past them. Very close behind
him came Charlemagne, riding upon his favorite
hunting-steed and so intent upon spearing the boar that
he neither saw nor thought of any thing else. The
huntsmen and most of the hounds had been left far
"Now is our time!" cried Rainier. And, quick as
thought, five well-armed knights rushed out of the
thicket, and seized the king's charger by the reins,
and called upon him to surrender. Having only the
weapons of the chase, and being set upon so
unexpectedly, Charlemagne was no match for his stout
assailants. Quickly he was seized, and dragged from the
saddIe: firmly but gently was he held by his captors.
Then Aymery of Narbonne, bloodthirsty, and at heart a
traitor, whispered to Count Gerard, and advised him to
kill the king.
 "With him out of our way," said he, "we shall be free;
our fiefs shall be our own; and no man shall claim
homage or tribute from us."
But the count pushed him aside with scorn.
"Shame on thee!" he answered. "May it not please God
that ever king of France be killed by me: of him I will
hold my castle and my lands!" And he knelt humbly
before the captive king.
Charlemagne's heart was touched by the words of loyalty
and good faith which fell from the lips of the count.
"Gerard of Viana," he cried, "all this trouble between
thee and me is ended and forgotten. If thou hast harmed
me, I freely forgive thee. No penny of tribute shalt
thou pay for land, or fief, or castle. Only for the
sake of my vow, renew thy homage."
Then Gerard ungirt his sword from his side, and
uncovered his head, and knelt again before the king;
and he placed both his hands between those of the king,
"From this day forward I become your man of life and
limb, and of all worldly worship; and unto you I will
be loyal and true, and I will bear you faith for the
lands and the castles and the houses that I claim of
you. And to no other lord will I grant obedience, save
at your behest."
Then the king raised him gently from the ground and
kissed him, and answered,—
"Count of Viana, my man shalt thou be in life and
 limb and worldly worship; and to thee do I grant the lands,
the fiefs, and the castles of Viana, to have and to
hold without any payment of tribute, or any other
service save that which is given in honorable war."
Then the other knights, in the order of their rank,
came and knelt likewise before the king; and each in
his turn promised to be his man,—first Rainier of
Genoa, then Miles of Apulia, then Oliver, and lastly
the headstrong Aymery of Narbonne. And the king forgave
each one all the wrong that he had ever done him, and
gave back to each all the lands and fiefs and
tenements and all the honors that he had held before.
"And now," said Charlemagne to Count Gerard, "I will go
with you, and sup with you to-night in your lordly
castle of Viana."
Great was the wonder of the Vianese when they saw the
king enter their halls, not as the prisoner, but as the
friend and guest, of the count. And great, indeed, was
the joy when it was known that peace had been made, and
that the wearisome siege was at an end. In the broad
feast hall, a rich banquet was spread, and the night
was given up to feasting and music and merrymaking. And
among the knights who sat at the table there was none
more noble or more handsome than Oliver. And among the
ladies who added grace and beauty to the glad occasion
not one was so fair as Oliver's sister, the matchless
But in the tents of the besiegers that night there was
much disquietude and bewilderment. The
hunts-  men had sought in vain for Charlemagne in the wood; and, when
they could not find him, they came back to the camp,
thinking that he had become wearied of the chase and
had returned. On their way they had found his horse
grazing among the herbage, with the reins lying loose
on his neck. Great now was their uneasiness. Roland put
himself at the head of fifty horsemen, and scoured the
country for miles around. But as the darkness of night
began to settle over the earth, they were forced to
return, sadder and more perplexed than ever, to the
camp. Many were the guesses which were hazarded
regarding this strange disappearance of the king. Some
thought that the wild boar, which was known to be very
large and fierce, might have turned upon him, and torn
him in pieces in the wood. Others suggested that mayhap
he had followed the example of his barons, and ridden
away from this dull siege to the more active war
against the Saracens; but this did not seem at all
probable. The greater number were agreed in believing
that he had been waylaid and taken prisoner by the men
of Viana. And all were for placing themselves under the
leadership of Roland, resolved, that on the morrow they
would make one grand assault on the castle, and carry
it, if possible, by storm.
The next morning, what was the astonishment of the
besiegers to see the gates of Viana thrown wide open,
and the men, to the number of two thousand, march out
with music playing, and banners flying, as if it were a
gay holiday! But greater still was their wonder when
 they saw that the knight who rode so grandly in the van
by the side of Count Gerard was their own loved king.
Roland, who at first was fearful that the Vianese were
plotting some treachery, had hastily drawn up his
warriors in line of battle, ready to defend the camp.
But Charlemagne, as soon as he had come near enough to
be heard, explained that peace had been made, and that
Count Gerard and the barons who were with him in Viana
had renewed their homage, and that all past differences
had been forgotten.
After this the king held his court for seven days in
the castle of Viana; and the men who had so lately been
foes stood together in the halls as sworn friends,
loyal and true. And the days were given over to
merrymaking. And Roland and Oliver, the long separated
brothers-in-arms, sat together in the hall and at the
feast table, and talked of what had befallen them since
the day when they plighted their faith to each other
among the hills of Sutri. And, before the week had
passed, Roland and Alda, the sister of Oliver, were
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