|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 |
THE VALE OF THORNS
 SEVEN years passed. In all the world there was not
such another king as Charlemagne. Wherever his arms
were carried, there victory followed; and neither
Pagan nor haughty Christian foe dared lift up hands any
more against him. His kingdom stretched from the Baltic
Sea to the Italian shores, and from beyond the Rhine to
the great Western Ocean. Princes were his servants;
kings were his vassals; and even the Pope of Rome did
him homage. And now he had crossed the Pyrenees, and
was carrying fire and sword into the fair fields and
rich towns of the Spanish Moors; for he had vowed to
punish Marsilius, king of Spain, for the injuries he
had done the French in former years. And he had overrun
the whole of that haughty land, and had left neither
castle, nor city, nor wall, unbroken, save only the
town of Saragossa.
One day Charlemagne sat beneath the blossoming trees of
an orchard near Cordova. White was his beard, and
flowered was his head; yet still handsome was his body,
and proud his form. Around him were
 the noblest of his
knights, Roland and Oliver and old Duke Namon, and
fifteen thousand of the choicest men of France. It was
a gala-day for the French, and the warriors amused
themselves with field-sports, and many pleasant games.
Then a party of Moorish messengers were brought before
the king. They came from Marsilius at Saragossa, who
had sent to beg peace of Charlemagne.
"What will Marsilius give for peace?" asked the king.
"If you will go back to your own country, and cease
this unhappy war," answered they, "then Marsilius binds
himself to do this: he will go to Aix at Michaelmas,
and be baptized; he will do homage then for Spain, and
will faithfully hold it in fief from you; he will give
you great store of treasures,—four hundred mules loaded
with gold, and fifty cartloads of silver, besides
numbers of bears and lions and tame greyhounds, and
seven hundred camels, and a thousand moulted falcons.
Too long has this cruel war been waging. Marsilius
would fain have peace."
Charlemagne listened to the words of the messengers,
but he was not quick to answer. He called together his
peers, and laid the matter before them. "What think you
of the Moor's offers of peace?" asked he.
"Put no trust in Marsilius!" cried Roland. "He is the
most faithless of Pagans, and speaks only lies. Carry on
the war as you have begun, and talk not of peace until
Saragossa is ours."
 Charlemagne's face grew dark, yet he said not a word.
It was plain that he coveted the treasures which
Marsilius had promised. Then Ganelon arose, and with
curling lip, thus answered,—
"If Marsilius offers to
do fealty for Spain, and to hold it as a gift from you,
wherefore should we refuse his plea? He who would
advise you otherwise cares not what manner of death we
And Namon of Bavaria added, "If the Moor is beaten, and
cries for mercy, it would be an unknightIy act to
continue warring against him. My voice is for peace."
And all the peers, save Roland and Oliver, cried out,
"The duke hath spoken wisely. Let us have peace!"
"It is well," answered Charlemagne; "and so it shall
be. But whom shall we send to Saragossa to treat with
Marsilius, and to receive the pledges of good faith
which he shall give?"
Then arose a great dispute among the peers as to which
should undertake this dangerous errand. Duke Namon, who
was never known to shirk a duty, offered to go; but the
king would not consent. He liked not to part with his
wise old friend, even for a single day.
"I will carry the message," said Roland.
"Not so, my brother," interrupted Oliver. "Thy pride
will get the better of thy judgment, and thou wilt act
rashly. Let me undertake the errand."
But Charlemagne refused them both. "Neither of you
shall go," said he. "But you may choose one from among
these other barons to be the messenger."
 "Then send Ganelon of Mayence," said Roland. "He is in
favor of this peace, and he is most fit to carry the
"Yes, send Ganelon of Mayence!" cried all the peers.
Ganelon rose from his seat in rage. Fire flashed from
his hazel eyes; his lips quivered; he tore the sable
border from his crimson tunic, and stood proudly before
Roland. "Fool!" cried he. "Who art thou who wouldst
send me to Marsilius? If I but live to come again from
Saragossa, I will deal thee such a blow as thou shalt
"Speak softly, Sir Ganelon," said Roland. "Men know
that I care not for threats. If thou art afraid of the
danger, mayhap the king will allow me to go in thy
Hotter than before was Ganelon's wrath; but he held his
tongue, and turned humbly toward the king.
"My lord," said he, "since you will that I bear this
message to Marsilius, I go. But I know too well the
false-hearted Moor to hope that I shall ever return. I
pray you, care for my fair son Baldwin, to whom I leave
my lands and all my fiefs. Keep him well, for these
eyes of mine shall never see him again."
"Thou art too fearful, and too tender of heart," said
the king, as he offered to Ganelon the staff and the
glove which messengers were wont to carry as signs of
their office. "Go now, and doubt not the issue of thine
 Ganelon took the staff; but his hand trembled, and the
glove fell to the ground.
"An evil omen is that," whispered the peers who saw it.
"It is a sign of no good fortune, either to him or to
Then Ganelon bade the king good-by, and went on his
way. But he said to himself, "This is Roland's doings,
and I shall hate him all my life long: neither shall I
love Oliver his brother, nor any other of the twelve
When he reached Saragossa, Ganelon was led into the
presence of Marsilius. The Moorish king sat under a
pine tree, and twenty thousand warriors stood around
"What answer bring you from your liege-lord
Charlemagne?" asked he.
Ganelon had studied well what he should say; and he
answered, like one long used to cunning guile, "If
thou wilt be baptized and become a Christian,
Charlemagne will give thee the half of Spain to hold in
fief. If thou wilt not accept this offer, then he will
besiege thee in Saragossa, and take thee prisoner; and
he will send thee bound upon the back of a sumter
horse to Aix, and there he will have thee put to death.
This is the message while Charlemagne sends thee."
Great was the anger of the Moorish king, and he raised
his javelin to strike the messenger dead. But Ganelon,
no whit daunted, set his back against the trunk of a
tree, and drew his sword part way from its scabbard.
 "Good sword," said he, "thou art fair and bright, and
thou hast done me many a service. Never shall it be
said that Ganelon died alone in a strange land."
But the courtiers of King Marsilius stepped in between
them. "It were better," said they, "to treat with this
man than to slay him. If his face slander him not, he
is a man who may be persuaded to help us. Try him."
Then Marsilius called Ganelon to his side, and offered
him five hundred pounds of gold for his friendship. And
the two sat long together, and plotted bloodshed and
"Indeed, what think you of this Charlemagne?" asked the
Moor. "Through how many lands has he carried that old
body of his? How many scars are there on his shield?
How many kingdoms has he stolen, and how many kings
impoverished? Methinks that his days are well-nigh
spent. He must be more than two hundred years old."
But Ganelon, although a traitor, would say naught
against the king. "None can see him," said he, "but
will say that he is a man. None can so praise or honor
him, but that there shall yet be in him more worth and
"Yet, methinks," said the Moor, "that he is very old.
His beard is white; his hair is flowered. It is strange
that he grows not tired of fighting."
"That he will never do so long as Roland, his nephew,
lives," answered Ganelon. "There, too, is Oliver;
there are the other peers of the realm, all of whom the
king holds most dear. They alone are worth twenty
"I have heard much of Roland," said the Moor; "and I
would fain put him out of the way. Tell me how it can
be done, and thou shalt have three baggage horseloads
of gold, three of silver, and three of fine silk and
red wine and jewels."
Now Ganelon desired, above all things, the death of
Roland; and he eagerly made known his plans to
"Send to Charlemagne," said he, "great store of rich
gifts, so that every Frenchman shall wonder at your
wealth. Send also hostages, and promise him that on
next Michaelmas you will be baptized at Aix and do him
homage for Spain. Pleased with your promises, he will
return to sweet France. But this rearguard, with Roland
and Oliver, and twenty thousand Frenchmen, will be long
among the passes of the Pyrenees. A hundred thousand
Moors could well cope with them there."
Then the two traitors exchanged promises and pledges;
and Ganelon, taking with him the keys of Saragossa, and
rich presents for Charlemagne, went back to Cordova.
Right glad was Charlemagne to hear the message which
the lying traitor brought. He was tired of warring, and
he longed to return in peace to his own sweet France.
The next day the trumpets sounded
through-  out the camp.
The tents were struck; the baggage was packed on the
sumter horses; the knights mounted their steeds;
banners and pennons waved thick in the air; the great
army began its glad march homeward. Joyful was the
beginning of that march; but, ah, how sad the ending!
The French did not see the crafty Moors following them
through the upper valleys, their banners furled, their
helmets closed, their lances in rest.
That first night the king was troubled with sad dreams.
He thought that Ganelon seized his lance and shook it,
and that it fell in pieces. He thought that he hunted
in the forest of Ardennes, and that both a boar and a
leopard attacked him. A thousand fearful fancies vexed
him. Mountains fell upon him and crushed him; the earth
yawned and swallowed him; perils beset him on every
side: but amid them all, the face of Ganelon was ever
to be seen.
By and by the army came to the Pyrenees, and
land of France lay just beyond the mountains.
"To whom now," said the king to his peers, "shall we
intrust our rearguards while we pass safely through
the mountain gates?"
"Give it to Roland, your nephew," said Ganelon. "There
is none more worthy than he."
"And who shall lead the vanguard?"
"Ogier, the Dane. Next to Roland, he is the bravest of
Right willingly did Roland accept the dangerous trust.
 "I will see to it," said he, "that no harm come to the
French while passing through the gates. Neither
pack-horse, nor mule, nor palfrey, nor charger, nor man
shall we lose, that shall not be paid for by the blood
of our foes."
Then he mounted his steed, and rode back to the rear.
And with him went Oliver and Gerin and Gerer and Josse
and Berenger and Jastor and Anseis, and Duke Gaifer,
and proud Gerard of Rousillon, and Turpin the
archbishop, and twenty thousand valiant fighting-men.
High were the mountains, and gloomy the valleys; dark
were the rocks, and fearful were the glens. But the day
was fair, and the sky was clear; and the bright shields
of the warriors glittered in the sunlight like flashes
of fire. All at once a sound, as of a thousand trumpets
blowing, was heard in the valley below them. The French
"Comrades," said Oliver, "methinks that we are followed
by the Moors."
"And may God grant us battle and victory!" said Roland
earnestly. "Well is it that we are here to defend the
king. For one should never murmur that he suffers
distress for his friends: for them, he should lose, if
need be, both blood and flesh and even life itself."
Then Oliver climbed a high pine tree, and looked down
into the grassy valley behind them. There he beheld
such troops of Pagan folk as he had never seen before.
 "Comrades," cried he, "we shall have such a battle as
no man has known. The passes are full of armed Moors:
their hauberks and glittering helmets fill the lower
valleys. Great mischief is in store for us, but may we
stand to the field like men!"
"Shame be to him that flees!" said the warriors who
Bewildered and amazed at sight of so terrible an array
of Pagans, Oliver descended from the tree.
"Brother Roland," said he, "I pray thee blow thy horn.
The king will hear it, and he will turn him about and
come to our succor."
"To do so would be to act as a craven," answered
Roland. "Never shall it be said that I feared a foe. I
will strike strong strokes with Durandal. Ill shall it
fare with the Pagan traitors."
"Comrade Roland," again said Oliver, "now blow thy
horn. Charlemagne will hear it, and he will make his
"Never," answered Roland, "shall my kinsmen upbraid me,
or be blamed by me. But I will strike with Durandal.
The brand which the king gave me when he knighted me,
that shall be our succor."
Then Oliver prayed him the third time, "Comrade Roland,
sound now thine ivory horn. Charlemagne, who is passing
the gates, will hear us and come to our aid."
"No man shall ever say," answered Roland, "that I have
blown my horn for Pagans. My kinsmen shall
 not bear
that reproach. But when the great battle is joined,
then you shall see the lightning flashes of Durandal in
the thickest of the fight. A thousand and seven hundred
times shall the blade be dyed in the blood of the
Moors. Better would it be to perish than suffer
But Oliver was not yet satisfied. "I have seen the
Moorish host," said he. "The mountains and the plains,
the valleys and the groves, are full of them. Never
have we fought against such great odds."
"Friend and brother," answered Roland, "say not another
word. The king has left us here, with a rearguard of
twenty thousand men, and he esteems everyone of us a
hero. Do thou strike with thy lance and thy good blade
Haultclear. As for me, Durandal shall serve me well.
And, if I die, men shall say, 'This sword belonged to a
noble knight.' "
Then the good Archbishop Turpin rode down the ranks,
holding a sword in one hand and a crucifix in the
other. "Comrades," cried he, "the king has left us
here. He trusts in us, and for him we shall die. Cry
now your sins to Heaven. Pray God's mercy, and ask his
In a moment every knight among those twenty thousand
horsemen had dismounted. Humbly and reverently every
knee was bent, and every head was bowed. And the good
archbishop blessed the company in God's name.
die," said he, "ye shall have places in paradise."
 Then the warriors arose, light-hearted and hopeful.
They rode into the place which is called Roncevaux, the
Vale of Thorns, and there they put themselves in
battle-array, and waited the onset of their foes.
Roland sat astride of his good war steed, and proudly
faced the Moorish host. In his hand he held the bared
blade Durandal, pointing toward heaven. Never was seen
a more comely knight. Courteously he spoke to the
warriors about him.
Then, putting spurs to his steed, he cried,—
"Comrades, ride onward! The day shall be ours!"
"Forget not the war cry of Charlemagne," said Oliver.
At these words the rocks and valleys rang with the cry,
And every warrior dashed forward to
meet the foe.
Long and fierce was the fight, and terrible was the
slaughter. With heart and strength the French knights
struck. The Moors were slain by hundreds and by
thousands. For a time victory seemed to be with the
French. Many and valiant were the deeds achieved by
Roland and Oliver and the archbishop and the peers that
were with them. But at length Marsilius came down upon
them with a fresh troop of seven thousand Moors. They
hemmed the French heroes in on every side. Roland saw
his knights falling one by one around him. All were
slain save sixty men.
"Oliver, my fair dear comrade," said he, "behold
 how many brave vassals have fallen! The battle goes hard
with us. If, now, we only knew how to send news to
Charlemagne, he would return and succor us."
"It is too late," answered Oliver. "Better would we die
than suffer shame."
Then said Roland, "I will sound my ivory horn. Mayhap
Charlemagne, who is passing the gates of Spain, will
hear it and return."
"Do no such thing," answered Oliver. "Great shame would
be upon you and your kinsmen forever. You would not
blow your horn when I advised it, and now you shall not
do so because the day is lost."
Then the archbishop rode up, and said, "The day is
indeed lost, and to blow the horn would now no more
avail us. But, should the king hear it, he will come
back through the passes. He will find us dead: his men
will lift us in biers and carry us home to be buried in
minsters, and we shall not be left as food for wolves
"Thou sayest well," said Roland. And he placed the horn
to his lips. High were the hills, deep and dark were
the gorges, narrow were the ways among the mountains.
Yet the sound of that horn was heard for thirty
leagues. Charlemagne and Duke Namon heard it while yet
they were between the gates.
"Hark!" said the king. "I hear Roland's horn. The felon
Moors have attacked him: he is hard pressed in battle."
"You are foolishly mistaken," said Ganelon. "There
 is no battle. You are old, your beard is white, your head
is flowery, you are growing childish. You love your
silly nephew, Roland, too well. He is only hunting
among the mountains. He would blow his horn all day for
a single hare, and then he would boast before you of
his valor. Ride on. Your own France is not far ahead."
But the king was not to be deceived. He ordered Ganelon
to be seized and bound and given in charge of his
cooks, who were to hold him a close prisoner. They
bound him with a great chain, and laid him across the
back of a sumter horse; they pulled his beard; they
struck him with their fists; they beat him with sticks.
Sorry indeed was the traitor's plight, but his
punishment was just. As for Charlemagne, he turned
and, with all his host, hastened back to the succor of
Roland and the valiant rearguard. High were the
mountain walls, and darkly did they overhang the way;
deep were the mountain gorges; swift and
strong were the torrents; narrow and steep was the
road. The trumpets sounded: anxiously and with haste
the king and his horsemen retraced their steps.
Fiercely still the battle raged in the fated Vale of
Thorns. One by one the French knights fell; but for
every one that was slain ten Pagans bit the dust. At
length Oliver was wounded unto death; but still he sat
on his horse and struck valiantly about him with his
good Haultclear. His eyes lost their strength: he could
not see. He met Roland, and struck him a blow which
 split his helmet down to the nose-piece, but luckily
wounded him not.
"Brother," said Roland softly and gently, "thou has not
done this willingly. I am Roland, he who has loved thee
so long and so well."
"Ah, comrade!" said Oliver, "I hear thee; but I can not
see thee. Pray forgive me if I have harmed thee."
"I am none the worse," answered Roland; "and there is
naught to forgive."
Then the two brothers bent over from their steeds, and
embraced each other; and amid much love and many hasty
words of farewell, they parted.
And now all the French were slain, save only Roland and
the archbishop. The hero was wounded in a dozen places:
he felt his life-blood oozing away. Again he drew his
ivory horn, and feebly sounded it. He would fain know
whether Charlemagne were coming. The king was in the
pass, not far away, and he heard the failing blast.
"Ah, Roland!" said he, "the battle goes ill with thee."
Then he turned to his host, and said, "Blow loud your
trumpets, that the hero may know that succor comes."
At once sixty thousand bugles were blown so loudly that
the valleys and the caves resounded, and the rocks
themselves trembled. Roland heard it and thanked God.
The Pagans heard it and knew that it boded no good to
them. They rushed in a body upon Roland and the
archbishop. Roland's horse was slain beneath
 him; his
shield was split in twain; his hauberk was broken. The
archbishop was mortally wounded, and stretched upon the
ground. Again the trumpets of Charlemagne's host were
heard, and the Pagans fled in great haste toward Spain.
Then Roland knelt by the side of the dying archbishop.
"Kind friend, so good and true," said he, "now the end
has come. Our comrades whom we held so dear are all
dead. Give me leave to bring them and lay them in order
by thee, that we may all have thy blessing."
"It is well," answered the good Turpin. "Do as thou
wilt. The field is thine and mine."
So Roland, weak and faint, went all alone through that
field of blood, seeking his friends. He found Berenger
and Otho and Anseis and Samson, and proud Gerard of
Rousillon; and one by one he brought them and laid them
on the grass before the archbishop. And lastly he
brought back Oliver, pressed gently against his bosom,
and placed him on a shield by the others. The
archbishop wept; and he lifted up his feeble hands and
blessed them: "Sad has it been with you, comrades. May
God, the glorious King, receive your souls in his
Then Roland, faint with loss of blood, and overcome
with grief, swooned and fell to the ground. The good
archbishop felt such distress as he had never known
before. He staggered to his feet; he took the ivory
horn in his hands, and went to fetch water from the
 which flows through the Vale of Thorns. Slowly
and feebly he tottered onward, but not far: his
strength failed and he fell to the ground. Soon Roland
recovered from his swoon and looked about him. On the
green grass this side of the rivulet, he saw the
archbishop lying. The good Turpin was dead.
And now Roland felt that he, too, was nigh death's
door. He took the ivory horn in one hand, and Durandal
in the other, and went up a little hill that lies
toward Spain. He sat down beneath a pine tree where
were four great blocks of marble. He looked at the
blade Durandal. "Ha, Durandal," he said, "how bright
and white thou art! Thou shinest and flamest against
the sun! Many countries have I conquered with thee, and
now for thee I have great grief. Better would it be to
destroy thee than to have thee fall into the hands of
the Pagan folk."
With great effort he raised himself on his feet again.
Ten times he smote with Durandal the great rock before
him. But the sword was bright and whole as ever, while
the rock was split in pieces. Then the hero lay down
upon the grass, with his face toward the foe. He put
the sword and the horn under him. He stretched his
right glove toward heaven, and an unseen hand came and
took it away. Dead was the matchless hero.
THE DEATH OF ROLAND.
Not long after this King Charlemagne with his host came
to the death-strewn Vale of Thorns. Great was the grief
of the king and of all the French, when they found that
they had come too late to save even a single
Roland was found lying on the grass, his face turned
toward Spain. Charlemagne took him up tenderly in his
arms, and wept.
"Friend Roland," said he, "worthiest of men, bravest of
warriors, noblest of all my knights, what shall I say
when they in France shall ask news of thee? I shall
tell them that thou art dead in Spain. With great
sorrow shall I hold my realm from this time on. Every
day I shall weep and bewail thee, and wish that my
life, too, were ended."
Then the French buried their dead on the field where
they had fallen. But the king brought Roland and Oliver
and the archbishop to Blaye in France, and laid them in
white marble tombs; and there they lie until this day,
in the beautiful little chapel of St. Roman's. And he
took the ivory horn to Bordeaux, and filled it with
fine gold, and laid it on the altar of the church in
that city; and there it is still seen by the pious
pilgrims who visit that place.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics