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The Story of Roland by  James Baldwin

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THE WAR WITH THE SAXONS

[34] A STORMY winter had set in. It was unlike any thing that Roland had ever seen in his sunny southern home; and he was scarcely more astonished by the grandeur of Charlemagne's court than by this wonderful war of the elements. The bleak north winds, like so many giants let loose, came roaring through the forests, and shrieking among the house-tops and the castle towers, carrying blinding tempests of sleet and snow in their arms, and hurling them angrily to the ground. The rivers were frozen over; the roads were blockaded; there was little communication between Aix and other parts of Charlemagne's dominions. The main part of the army was still in southern France, and there it was ordered to stay until the opening of spring should make it possible to advance against the Saxons.

Very pleasant to Roland was his first winter at Charlemagne's court. Within the palace halls, there were comfort and good cheer; the fires blazed high and warm in the great chimney-places; there was much music and merry-making; and for Roland there were [35] many agreeable duties. Much of his time was spent in the service of the ladies at court, and especially of the Duchess Blanchefleur, the wife of good Duke Namon. And he was instructed in the first duties of the true knight,—to reverence God, and honor the king; to speak the truth at all times; to deal justly with both friend and foe; to be courteous and obliging to his equals; to be large-hearted and kind to those beneath him in rank; and, above all, to help the needy, to protect the weak, and to respect and venerate the ladies. Some time, too, he spent in the company of his lord, Duke Namon. He waited on him at table, he poured out his wine, he carried his messages; and much wisdom did he learn, listening to the words that fell from the lips of the sage counselor. He became acquainted, too, with the officers of the court, and with the squires and grooms about the palace. And he learned how to manage horses, and how to mount and ride a high-mettled steed. He was taught how to hold a lance with ease, how to handle the broadsword dexterously, and how to draw the longbow, and shoot with sharp-sighted skill. When the weather was fine, and the snow not too deep on the ground, he often rode out with his master and other knights to hunt the deer and wild boars in the forest. And he learned all about the training and care of falcons and merlins and hunting-hounds, and how to follow the game in the wildwood, and how to meet the charge of a wounded buck or a maddened boar. Sometimes, during the long winter evenings, he [36] sat in the school of the palace with Charlemagne and the members of the family, and listened to the wise instructions of Alcuin, the English schoolmaster. And he learned to read in the few Latin books that were treasured with great care in the scriptorium, or writing-room, of the palace; and sometimes, under the direction of the schoolmaster, he tried to copy the beautiful letters of some old-time manuscript. At other times he sat with the knights and the squires in the low-raftered feast-hall, and listened to the music and the song-stories of some wandering harper.

And thus the winter months sped swiftly by; and as the days began to grow longer and warmer, and the snow melted from the ground, and the ice thawed in the rivers, Charlemagne thought it time to make ready for the long-deferred campaign against the Saxons. Messengers were sent out in every direction to summon every true knight and every loyal fighting man to join the king's standard at Aix; and it was expected, that, by the time of the Easter festival, a hundred thousand warriors would be there, ready to march against the Pagan folk of the North. About the king's castle many busy preparations were going on. Some were furbishing up their arms, or mending their old armor; others were providing new weapons for themselves, or new harness for their steeds; knights, squires, pages, and grooms, all found enough to do, and all looked forward with eager impatience to the day that was set for the march. In the smithies the bellows roared and the fires glowed; [37] and smiths and armorers worked day and night, forging swords and spear points, and riveting armor plates and rings of mail. And even in the kitchens there was an unwonted hurrying to and fro, and the sound of busy voices and busier hands; while in the halls and the castle-chambers many a brave-hearted lady sat stitching and embroidering rich garments for her lord.

The time of the Easter festival came at last. Grass was springing fresh and green in the meadows. The trees were putting for their leaves. In the wildwood the voice of the cuckoo and the song of the warbler were heard. The ice had disappeared from the river, and the snow had melted in the valleys: the roads were once more passable. It seemed a fitting time for the beginning of new schemes and of bold undertakings. And early one April morning the great army, with Charlemagne and his peers at its head, filed out of the city, and began its march toward the Rhine. And Roland, proud and happy as a knight with spurs, was allowed to ride in the train of Duke Namon.

When the Saxons heard of the coming of the Franks, they hastily crossed again into their own country, and shut themselves up in their towns and strongholds. But Charlemagne followed them without delay; nor did the wide, deep Rhine hinder him long. Through all their land he carried fire and sword; nor did he spare any one through pity. For he was a Christian: while the Saxons were Pagans, and worshipped Thor and Odin; and many of them had never heard of the true God. [38] It is said, that, a little while before this time, and English priest named St. Liebwin had gone alone into the very heart of Saxony for the purpose of carrying the gospel of Christ to that benighted folk. Boldly he stood up before them when they came to worship in their false temples, and, holding the cross in his hands, he upbraided them.

"What do ye?" he said. "The gods that ye worship live not, they understand not, they see not. They are the works of your hands. They can help neither you nor themselves. Wherefore, the only true and good God, having pity on you, has sent me unto you to warn you of the trouble which shall come upon you unless ye put away your false gods. A prince, wise, strong, and unsleeping, shall come among you, and he shall fall upon you like a torrent. At one rush he shall invade your country; and he shall lay it waste with fire and sword, and spare none."

Great was the anger of the Pagan folk when they heard this bold speech of St. Liebwin. Some threatened to tear him to pieces in front of their temples: others ran in haste to the woods, and began to cut sharpened stakes with which to slay him. But one, more wise than the rest, a chief named Buto, stood up before them, and cried out, "Do not act rashly in this matter! It is against our laws, and contrary to our custom, to mistreat or abuse ambassadors. We have always received them kindly, hearkened to their messages, and sent them away with presents. Here is an [39] ambassador from a great God; and should we slay him?"

The words of the chief softened the anger of the Saxons, and they allowed St. Liebwin to return unharmed across the Rhine. But they still clung to their false gods, and thought no more of his warning until after Charlemagne had overrun their country, and carried dire distress among them.

Among the places which fell into the hands of the French was the stronghold of Ehresburg, near which was a temple of the Saxons,—a spacious building, wide and high, and ornamented with thousand of trophies taken in battle. In the midst of this temple stood a marble column on which was the figure of an armed warrior holding in one hand a banner, and in the other a balance. On the breastplate of the figure was engraven a bear; and on the shield which hung from his shoulders was painted a lion in a field full of flowers. This figure was the idol known in history as Irmin, and was the image of the war-god of the Saxons. Charlemagne caused the temple of Irmin to be torn down and destroyed, and he buried the idol and its column deep in the earth. But so great was the building, and so large was the image, that the whole army was employed three days in their destruction.

By this time midsummer had come. The sun shone hot and fierce in a cloudless sky. There had been no rain since the early spring, and the ground was parched and dry. There was no water in the brooks; the [40] springs ceased flowing; and ere long the river itself became dry. The leaves of the trees withered for want of moisture; the grain would not ripen in the fields; the meadows and pastures were burned up with the heat and the long drought. Warriors who had never turned their backs upon a foe trembled now at the thought of death from thirst and starvation. Horrible indeed was the fate which threatened the French army, and Charlemagne ordered a quick retreat towards the river Rhine. Yet both men and horses were weak with fasting, and exhausted by the oppressive heat; and the march was slow and painful. They reached the dry bed of an unknown stream, and could go no farther. The soldiers groped among the rocks, and tried in vain to find some trace of moisture in the sand. Every mind was burdened with despair. Not one among the knights but that would have given his richest fief for a drink of cold water.

All at once, a storm cloud was seen in the south. Rapidly it rose higher and higher above the horizon. The lightnings flashed; the roar of distant falling rain was heard. A great hoarse shout went up from the parched throats of ten thousand warriors. They were saved. Soon the bed of the river was filled with a torrent of rushing, foaming water; and men and beasts hastened to quench their thirst. And good Archbishop Turpin, taking the crucifix in his hand, stood up before the host, and thanked Heaven for this timely deliverance. And all joined in solemnly singing praises to [41] God; and all devoutly believed that they had been thus blessed because they had overthrown the idol of Irmin, and destroyed his temple. The very same day, the Saxons sent to Charlemagne begging for peace, and offering to do him homage, and pay him tribute. And the king took hostages from them from among the noblest families in the land, and then recrossed the Rhine into his own country.


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