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Historical Tales: French by  Charles Morris

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ROLAND AT RONCESVALLES

[40] FROM the long, straight ridge of the Pyrenees, stretching from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, and dividing the land of France from that of Spain, there extend numerous side-hills, like buttresses to the main mountain mass, running far into the plains on either side. Between these rugged buttresses lie narrow valleys, now spreading into broad amphitheatres, now contracting into straightened ravines, winding upward to the passes across the mountain chain. Dense forests often border these valleys, covering the mountain-sides and summits, and hiding with their deep-green foliage the rugged rocks from which they spring. Such is the scene of the celebrated story which we have next to tell.

All these mountain valleys are filled with legends, centring around a great event and a mighty hero of the remote past, whose hand and sword made famous the little vale of Roncesvalles, which lies between the defiles of Sizer and Val Carlos, in the land of the Basques. This hero was Roland, the nephew of the great emperor Charlemagne, who has been given by romantic fiction the first place among the legendary Paladins of France, and made memorable in epic poetry as the hero of the celebrated "Orlando Furioso" of Ariosto, and the less notable "Orlando Innamorato" of Boiardo.

[41] All these stories are based upon a very slender fabric of history, which would have been long since forgotten had not legend clung to it with so loving a hand, and credited its hero with such a multitude of marvellous deeds. The history of the event is preserved for us by Eginhard, the secretary and annalist of Charlemagne. He takes few words to tell what has given rise to innumerable strophes.

In the year 778, Charlemagne invaded Spain, then almost wholly in the hands of the Saracens. His march was a victorious one until Saragossa was reached. Here he found himself before a well-supplied, strongly-fortified, and fully-garrisoned city, while his own army was none too well provided with food. In the end he found it expedient to retreat, leaving Saragossa still in Saracen hands.

The retreat was conducted without loss until the Pyrenees were reached. These were crossed by the main body of the army without hostile disturbance, leaving to follow the baggage-train and a rear-guard under the king's nephew Roland, prefect of the Marches of Brittany, with whom were Eginhard, master of the household, and Anselm, count of the palace; while legend adds the names of Oliver, Roland's bosom friend, the warlike Archbishop Turpin, and other warriors of renown.

Their route lay through the pass of Roncesvalles so narrow at points that only two, or at most three men could move abreast, while the rugged bordering hills were covered with dense forest, affording a secure retreat for an ambushing foe. It was when [42] the main body of the army was miles in advance, and the rear-guard struggling up this narrow defile, that disaster came. Suddenly the surrounding woods and mountains bristled with life. A host of light-armed Basque mountaineers emerged from the forest, and poured darts and arrows upon the crowded columns of heavily-armed Franks below. Rocks were rolled down the steep declivities, crushing living men beneath their weight. The surprised troops withdrew in haste to the bottom of the valley, death pursuing them at every step. The battle that followed was doubtless a severe and hotly-contested one; the prominent place it has gained in tradition indicates that the Franks must have defended themselves valiantly; but they fought at a terrible disadvantage, and in the end they were killed to a man. Then the assailants, rich with the plunder which they had obtained from the baggage-wagons and the slain bodies, vanished into the forests whence they came, leaving to Charlemagne, when he returned in search of Roland and his men, only the silence of death and the livid heaps of the slain in that terrible valley of slaughter.

Such is the sober fact. Fancy has adorned it with a thousand loving fictions. In the valleys are told a multitude of tales connected with Roland's name. A part of his armor has given its name to a flower of the hills, the casque de Roland, a species of hellebore. The breiche de Roland, a deep fissure in the mountain crest, is ascribed to a stroke of his mighty blade. The sound of his magic horn still [43] seems to echo around those rugged crests and pulse through those winding valleys, as it did on the day when, as legend says, it was borne to the ears of Charlemagne miles away, and warned him of the deadly peril of his favorite chieftain.

This horn is reputed to have had magical powers. Its sound was so intense as to split all other horns. The story goes that Roland, himself sadly wounded, his fellows falling thickly around him, blew upon it so mighty a blast that the veins and nerves of his neck burst under the effort. The sound reached the ears of Charlemagne, then encamped eight miles away, in the Val Carlos pass.

"It is Roland's horn," he cried. "He never blows it except the extremity be great. We must hasten to his aid."

"I have known him to sound it on light occasions," answered Ganalon, Roland's secret foe. "He is, perhaps, pursuing some wild beast, and the sound echoes through the wood. It would be fruitless to lead back your weary host to seek him."

Charlemagne yielded to his specious argument, and Roland and all his followers died. Charles afterwards discovered the body with the arms extended in the form of a cross, and wept over it his bitterest tears. "There did Charlemagne," says the legend, "mourn for Orlando to the very last day of his life. On the spot where he died he encamped and caused the body to be embalmed with balsam, myrrh, and aloes. The whole camp watched it that night, honoring his corpse with hymns and [44] songs, and innumerable torches and fires kindled in the adjacent mountains."

At the battle of Hastings the minstrel Taillefer, as we have elsewhere told, rode before the advancing Norman host, singing the "Song of Roland," till a British hand stilled his song and laid him low in death. This ancient song is attributed, though doubtfully, to Turold, that abbot of Peterborough who was so detested by Hereward the Wake. From it came many of the stories which afterwards were embodied in the epic legends of mediŠval days. To quote a few passages from it may not be amiss. The poet tells us that Roland refused to blow his magic horn in the beginning of the battle. In the end, when ruin and death were gathering fast around, and blood was flowing freely from his own veins, he set his lips to the mighty instrument, and filled vales and mountains with its sound.

"With pain and dolor, groan and pant,

Count Roland sounds his Olifant:

The crimson stream shoots from his lips;

The blood from bursten temple drips;

But far, oh, far, the echoes ring,

And in the defiles reach the king,

Reach Naymes and the French array;

''Tis Roland's horn,' the king doth say;

'He only sounds when brought to bay,'

How huge the rocks! how dark and steep

The streams are swift; the valleys deep!

Out blare the trumpets, one and all,

As Charles responds to Roland's call.

Round wheels the king, with choler mad

The Frenchmen follow, grim and sad;

[45]

No one but prays for Roland's life,

Till they have joined him in the strife.

But, ah! what prayer can alter fate?

The time is past; too late! too late!"

The fight goes on. More of the warriors fall. Oliver dies. Roland and Turpin continue the fight. Once more a blast is sent from the magic horn.

"Then Roland takes his horn once more;

His blast is feebler than before,

But still it reaches the emperor;

He hears it, and he halts to shout,

'Let clarions, one and all, ring out!'

Then sixty thousand clarions ring,

And rocks and dales set echoing.

And they, too, hear,—the pagan pack;

They force the rising laughter back:

'Charles, Charles,' they cry, 'is on our track!'

They fly; and Roland stands alone,—

Alone, afoot; his steed is gone."

Turpin dies. Roland remains the sole survivor of the host, and he hurt unto death. He falls on the field in a swoon. A wounded Saracen rises, and, seeing him, says,—

"Vanquished, he is vanquished, the nephew of Charles! There is his sword, which I will carry off to Arabia." He knew not the power of the dying hero.

"And as he makes to draw the steel,

A something does Sir Roland feel;

He opes his eyes, says nought but this,>

'Thou art not one of us, I wis,

[46]

Raises the horn he could not quit,

And cracks the pagan's skull with it. . . .

And then the touch of death that steals

Down, down from head to heart he feels;

Under yon pine he hastes away

On the green turf his head to lay;

Placing beneath him horn and sword,

He turns towards the Paynim horde,

And there, beneath the pine, he sees

A vision of old memories;

A thought of realms he helped to win,

Of his sweet France, of kith and kin,

And Charles, his lord, who nurtured him."

And here let us take our leave of Roland the brave, whose brief story of fact has been rounded into so vast a story of fiction that the actual histories of few men equal in extent that of this hero of romance.


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