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Roland The Paladin






Source: A Book Of Myths

“Roland, the flower of chivalry,
Expired at Roncevall.”

Thomas Campbell.
“Hero-worship endures for ever while man endures.”

Carlyle.
“Roland, the gode knight.”

Turpin’s History of Charlemagne.

The old chroniclers tell us that on that momentous morning when William the Conqueror led his army to victory at Hastings, a Norman knight named Taillefer (and a figure of iron surely was his) spurred his horse to the front. In face of the enemy who hated all things that had to do with France, he lifted up his voice and chanted aloud the exploits of Charlemagne and of Roland. As he sang, he threw his sword in the air and always caught it in his right hand as it fell, and, proudly, the whole army, moving at once, joined with him in the Chanson de Roland, and shouted, as chorus, “God be our help! God be our help!”
“Taillefer ... chantoit de Rollant
Et d’Olivier, et de Vassaux
Qui mourent en Rainschevaux.”

Wace, Roman de Rose.

Fifteen thousand of those who sang fell on that bloody day, and one wonders how many of those who went down to the Shades owed half their desperate courage to the remembrance of the magnificent deeds of the hero of whom they sang, ere ever sword met sword, or spear met the sullen impact of the stark frame of a Briton born, fighting for his own.

The story of Roland, so we are told, is only a splendid coating of paint put on a very slender bit of drawing. A contemporary chronicle tells of the battle of Roncesvalles, and says: “In which battle was slain Roland, prefect of the marches of Brittany.” Merely a Breton squire, we are told to believe—a very gallant country gentleman whose name would not have been preserved in priestly archives had he not won for himself, by his fine courage, such an unfading laurel crown. But because we are so sure that “it is the memory that the soldier leaves after him, like the long trail of light that follows the sunken sun,” and because so often oral tradition is less misleading than the written word, we gladly and undoubtingly give Roland high place in the Valhalla of heroes of all races and of every time.

777 or 778 A.D. is the date fixed for the great fight at Roncesvalles, where Roland won death and glory. Charlemagne, King of the Franks, and Head of the Holy Roman Empire, was returning victoriously from a seven years’ campaign against the Saracens in Spain.
“No fortress stands before him unsubdued,
Nor wall, nor city left to be destroyed,”

save one—the city of Saragossa, the stronghold of King Marsile or Marsiglio. Here amongst the mountains the King and his people still held to their idols, worshipped “Mahommed, Apollo, and Termagaunt,” and looked forward with horror to a day when the mighty Charlemagne might, by the power of the sword, thrust upon them the worship of the crucified Christ. Ere Charlemagne had returned to his own land, Marsile held a council with his peers. To believe that the great conqueror would rest content with Saragossa still unconquered was too much to hope for. Surely he would return to force his religion upon them. What, then, was it best to do? A very wily emir was Blancandrin, brave in war, and wise in counsel, and on his advice Marsile sent ambassadors to Charlemagne to ask of him upon what conditions he would be allowed to retain his kingdom in peace and to continue to worship the gods of his fathers. Mounted on white mules, with silver saddles, and with reins of gold, and bearing olive branches in their hands, Blancandrin and the ten messengers sent by Marsile arrived at Cordova, where Charlemagne rested with his army. Fifteen thousand tried veterans were with him there, and his “Douzeperes”—his Twelve Peers—who were to him what the Knights of the Round Table were to King Arthur of Britain. He held his court in an orchard, and under a great pine tree from which the wild honeysuckle hung like a fragrant canopy, the mighty king and emperor sat on a throne of gold.

The messengers of Marsile saw a man of much more than ordinary stature and with the commanding presence of one who might indeed conquer kingdoms, but his sword was laid aside and he watched contentedly the contests between the older of his knights who played chess under the shade of the fruit trees, and the fencing bouts of the younger warriors. Very dear to him were all his Douzeperes, yet dearest of all was his own nephew, Roland. In him he saw his own youth again, his own imperiousness, his reckless gallantry, his utter fearlessness—all those qualities which endeared him to the hearts of other men. Roland was his sister’s son, and it was an evil day for the fair Bertha when she told her brother that, in spite of his anger and scorn, she had disobeyed his commands and had wed the man she loved, Milon, a poor young knight.

No longer would Charlemagne recognise her as sister, and in obscurity and poverty Roland was born. He was still a very tiny lad when his father, in attempting to ford a flooded river, was swept down-stream and drowned, and Bertha had no one left to fend for her and for her child. Soon they had no food left, and the little Roland watched with amazed eyes his famished mother growing so weak that she could not rise from the bed where she lay, nor answer him when he pulled her by the hand and tried to make her come with him to seek his father and to find something to eat. And when he saw that it was hopeless, the child knew that he must take his father’s place and get food for the mother who lay so pale, and so very still. Into a great hall where Charlemagne and his lords were banqueting Roland strayed. Here was food in plenty! Savoury smelling, delicious to his little empty stomach were the daintily cooked meats which the Emperor and his court ate from off their silver platters. Only one plateful of food such as this must, of a surety, make his dear mother strong and well once more. Not for a moment did Roland hesitate. Even as a tiny sparrow darts into a lion’s cage and picks up a scrap almost out of the monarch’s hungry jaws, so acted Roland. A plateful of food stood beside the King. At this Roland sprang, seized it with both hands, and joyfully ran off with his prey. When the serving men would have caught him, Charlemagne, laughing, bade them desist.

“A hungry one this,” he said, “and very bold.”

So the meal went on, and when Roland had fed his mother with some pieces of the rich food and had seen her gradually revive, yet another thought came to his baby mind.

“My father gave her wine,” he thought. “They were drinking wine in that great hall. It will make her white cheeks red again.”

Thus he ran back, as fast as his legs could carry him, and Charlemagne smiled yet more when he saw the beautiful child, who knew no fear, return to the place where he had thieved. Right up to the King’s chair he came, solemnly measured with his eye the cups of wine that the great company quaffed, saw that the cup of Charlemagne was the most beautiful and the fullest of the purple-red wine, stretched out a daring little hand, grasped the cup, and prepared to go off again, like a marauding bright-eyed bird. Then the King seized in his own hand the hand that held the cup.

“No! no! bold thief,” he said, “I cannot have my golden cup stolen from me, be it done by ever so sturdy a robber. Tell me, who sent thee out to steal?”

And Roland, an erect, gallant, little figure, his hand still in the iron grip of the King, fearlessly and proudly gazed back into the eyes of Charlemagne.

“No one sent me,” he said. “My mother lay very cold and still and would not speak, and she had said my father would come back no more, so there was none but me to seek her food. Give me the wine, I say! for she is so cold and so very, very white”—and the child struggled to free his hand that still held the cup.

“Who art thou, then?” asked Charlemagne.

“My name is Roland—let me go, I pray thee,” and again he tried to drag himself free. And Charlemagne mockingly said:

“Roland, I fear thy father and mother have taught thee to be a clever thief.”

Then anger blazed in Roland’s eyes.

“My mother is a lady of high degree!” he cried, “and I am her page, her cupbearer, her knight! I do not speak false words!”—and he would have struck the King for very rage.

Then Charlemagne turned to his lords and asked—“Who is this child?”

And one made answer: “He is the son of thy sister Bertha, and of Milon the knight, who was drowned these three weeks agone.”

Then the heart of Charlemagne grew heavy with remorse when he found that his sister had so nearly died of want, and from that day she never knew aught but kindness and tenderness from him, while Roland was dear to him as his own child.

He was a Douzepere now, and when the envoys from Saragossa had delivered their message to Charlemagne, he was one of those who helped to do them honour at a great feast that was held for them in a pavilion raised in the orchard.

Early in the morning Charlemagne heard mass, and then, on his golden throne under the great pine, he sat and took counsel with his Douzeperes. Not one of them trusted Marsile, but Ganelon, who had married the widowed Bertha and who had a jealous hatred for his step-son—so beloved by his mother, so loved and honoured by the King—was ever ready to oppose the counsel of Roland. Thus did he persuade Charlemagne to send a messenger to Marsile, commanding him to deliver up the keys of Saragossa, in all haste to become a Christian, and in person to come and, with all humility, pay homage as vassal to Charlemagne.

Then arose the question as to which of the peers should bear the arrogant message. Roland, ever greedy for the post of danger, impetuously asked that he might be chosen. But Charlemagne would have neither him nor his dear friend and fellow-knight, Oliver—he who was the Jonathan of Roland’s David—nor would he have Naismes de Bavière, nor Turpin, “the chivalrous and undaunted Bishop of Rheims.” He could not afford to risk their lives, and Marsile was known to be treacherous. Then he said to his peers:

“Choose ye for me whom I shall send. Let it be one who is wise; brave, yet not over-rash, and who will defend mine honour valiantly.”

Then Roland, who never knew an ungenerous thought, quickly said: “Then, indeed, it must be Ganelon who goes, for if he goes, or if he stays, you have none better than he.”

And all the other peers applauded the choice, and Charlemagne said to Ganelon:

“Come hither, Ganelon, and receive my staff and glove, which the voice of all the Franks have given to thee.”

But the honour which all the others coveted was not held to be an honour by Ganelon. In furious rage he turned upon Roland:

“You and your friends have sent me to my death!” he cried. “But if by a miracle I should return, look you to yourself, Roland, for assuredly I shall be revenged!”

And Roland grew red, then very white, and said:

“I had taken thee for another man, Ganelon. Gladly will I take thy place. Wilt give me the honour to bear thy staff and glove to Saragossa, sire?” And eagerly he looked Charlemagne in the face—eager as, when a child, he had craved the cup of wine for his mother’s sake.

But Charlemagne, with darkened brow, shook his head.

“Ganelon must go,” he said, “for so have I commanded. Go! for the honour of Jesus Christ, and for your Emperor.”

Thus, sullenly and unwillingly, and with burning hatred against Roland in his heart, Ganelon accompanied the Saracens back to Saragossa. A hate so bitter was not easy to hide, and as he rode beside him the wily Blancandrin was not long in laying a probing finger on this festering sore. Soon he saw that Ganelon would pay even the price of his honour to revenge himself upon Roland and on the other Douzeperes whose lives were more precious than his in the eyes of Charlemagne. Yet, when Saragossa was reached, like a brave man and a true did Ganelon deliver the insulting message that his own brain had conceived and that the Emperor, with magnificent arrogance, had bidden him deliver. And this he did, although he knew his life hung but by a thread while Marsile and the Saracen lords listened to his words. But Marsile kept his anger under, thinking with comfort of what Blancandrin had told him of his discovery by the way. And very soon he had shown Ganelon how he might be avenged on Roland and on the friends of Roland, and in a manner which his treachery need never be known, and very rich were the bribes that he offered to the faithless knight.

Thus it came about that Ganelon sold his honour, and bargained with the Saracens to betray Roland and his companions into their hands in their passage of the narrow defiles of Roncesvalles. For more than fifty pieces of silver Marsile purchased the soul of Ganelon, and when this Judas of the Douzeperes returned in safety to Cordova, bringing with him princely gifts for Charlemagne, the keys of Saragossa, and the promise that in sixteen days Marsile would repair to France to do homage and to embrace the Christian faith, the Emperor was happy indeed. All had fallen out as he desired. Ganelon, who had gone forth in wrath, had returned calm and gallant, and had carried himself throughout his difficult embassy as a wise statesman and a brave and loyal soldier.

“Thou hast done well, Ganelon,” said the king. “I give thanks to my God and to thee. Thou shalt be well rewarded.”

The order then was speedily given for a return to France, and for ten miles the great army marched before they halted and encamped for the night. But when Charlemagne slept, instead of dreams of peace he had two dreams which disturbed him greatly. In the first, Ganelon roughly seized the imperial spear of tough ash-wood and it broke into splinters in his hand. In the next, Charlemagne saw himself attacked by a leopard and a bear, which tore off his right arm, and as a greyhound darted to his aid he awoke, and rose from his couch heavy at heart because of those dreams of evil omen.

In the morning he held a council and reminded his knights of the dangers of the lonely pass of Roncesvalles. It was a small oval plain, shut in all round, save on the south where the river found its outlet, by precipitous mountain ridges densely covered with beech woods. Mountains ran sheer up to the sky above it, precipices rushed sheer down below, and the path that crossed the crest of the Pyrenees and led to it was so narrow that it must be traversed in single file. The dangers for the rearguard naturally seemed to Charlemagne to be the greatest, and to his Douzeperes he turned, as before, for counsel.

“Who, then, shall command the rearguard?” he asked. And quickly Ganelon answered, “Who but Roland? Ever would he seek the post where danger lies.”

And Charlemagne, feeling he owed much to Ganelon, gave way to his counsel, though with heavy forebodings in his heart. Then all the other Douzeperes, save Ganelon, said that for love of Roland they would go with him and see him safely through the dangers of the way. Loudly they vaunted his bravery:
“For dred of dethe, he hid neuer his hed.”

Leaving them behind with twenty thousand men, and with Ganelon commanding the vanguard, Charlemagne started.

“Christ keep you!” he said on parting with Roland—“I betak you to Crist.”

And Roland, clad in his shining armour, his lordly helmet on his head, his sword Durendala by his side, his horn Olifant slung round him, and his flower-painted shield on his arm, mounted his good steed Veillantif, and, holding his bright lance with its white pennon and golden fringe in his hand, led the way for his fellow-knights and for the other Franks who so dearly loved him.

Not far from the pass of Roncesvalles he saw, gleaming against the dark side of the purple mountain, the spears of the Saracens. Ten thousand men, under Sir Gautier, were sent by Roland to reconnoitre, but from every side the heathen pressed upon them, and every one of the ten thousand were slain—hurled into the valley far down below. Gautier alone, sorely wounded, returned to Roland, to tell him, ere his life ebbed away, of the betrayal by Ganelon, and to warn him of the ambush. Yet even then they were at Roncesvalles, and the warning came too late. Afar off, amongst the beech trees, and coming down amongst the lonely passes of the mountains, the Franks could see the gleam of silver armour, and Oliver, well knowing that not even the most dauntless valour could withstand such a host as the one that came against them, besought Roland to blow a blast on his magic horn that Charlemagne might hear and return to aid him. And all the other Douzeperes begged of him that thus he would call for help. But Roland would not listen to them.
“I will fight with them that us hathe sought
And or I se my brest blod throughe my harnes ryn
Blow never horn for no help then.”

Through the night they knew their enemies were coming ever nearer, hemming them in, but there were no night alarms, and day broke fair and still. There was no wind, there was dew on the grass; “dew dymmd the floures,” and amongst the trees the birds sang merrily. At daybreak the good Bishop Turpin celebrated Mass and blessed them, and even as his voice ceased they beheld the Saracen host close upon them. Then Roland spoke brave words of cheer to his army and commended their souls and his own to Christ, “who suffrid for us paynes sore,” and for whose sake they had to fight the enemies of the Cross. Behind every tree and rock a Saracen seemed to be hidden, and in a moment the whole pass was alive with men in mortal strife.

Surely never in any fight were greater prodigies of valour performed than those of Roland and his comrades. Twelve Saracen kings fell before their mighty swords, and many a Saracen warrior was hurled down the cliffs to pay for the lives of the men of France whom they had trapped to their death. Never before, in one day, did one man slay so many as did Roland and Oliver his friend—“A Roland for an Oliver” was no good exchange, and yet a very fair one, as the heathen quickly learned.
“Red was Roland, red with bloodshed;
Red his corselet, red his shoulders,
Red his arm, and red his charger.”

In the thickest of the fight he and Oliver came together, and Roland saw that his friend was using for weapon and dealing death-blows with the truncheon of a spear.
“‘Friend, what hast thou there?’ cried Roland.
‘In this game ’tis not a distaff,
But a blade of steel thou needest.
Where is now Hauteclaire, thy good sword,
Golden-hilted, crystal-pommelled?’
‘Here,’ said Oliver; ‘so fight I
That I have not time to draw it.’
‘Friend,’ quoth Roland, ‘more I love thee
Ever henceforth than a brother.’”

When the sun set on that welter of blood, not a single Saracen was left, and those of the Frankish rearguard who still lived were very weary men.

Then Roland called on his men to give thanks to God, and Bishop Turpin, whose stout arm had fought well on that bloody day, offered up thanks for the army, though in sorry plight were they, almost none unwounded, their swords and lances broken, and their hauberks rent and blood-stained. Gladly they laid themselves down to rest beside the comrades whose eyes never more would open on the fair land of France, but even as Roland was about to take his rest he saw descending upon him and his little band a host of Saracens, led by Marsile himself.

A hundred thousand men, untired, and fiercely thirsting for revenge, came against the handful of wearied, wounded heroes. Yet with unwavering courage the Franks responded to their leaders’ call.

The war-cry of the soldiers of France—“Montjoie! Montjoie!”—rang clear above the fierce sound of the trumpets of the Saracen army.
“‘Soldiers of the Lord,’ cried Turpin,
‘Be ye valiant and steadfast,
For this day shall crowns be given you
Midst the flowers of Paradise.
In the name of God our Saviour,
Be ye not dismayed nor frighted,
Lest of you be shameful legends
Chanted by the tongues of minstrels.
Rather let us die victorious,
Since this eve shall see us lifeless!—
Heaven has no room for cowards!
Knights, who nobly fight, and vainly,
Ye shall sit among the holy
In the blessed fields of Heaven.
On then, Friends of God, to glory!’”

Marsile fell, the first victim to a blow from the sword of Roland, and even more fiercely than the one that had preceded it, waged this terrible fight.

And now it seemed as though the Powers of Good and of Evil also took part in the fray, for a storm swept down from the mountains, thick darkness fell, and the rumble of thunder and the rush of heavy rain dulled the shouts of those who fought and the clash and clang of their weapons. When a blood-red cloud came up, its lurid light showed the trampled ground strewn with dead and dying. At that piteous sight Roland proposed to send a messenger to Charlemagne to ask him for aid, but it was then too late.

When only sixty Franks remained, the pride of Roland gave way to pity for the men whom he had led to death, and he took the magic horn Olifant in his hand, that he might blow on it a blast that would bring Charlemagne, his mighty army behind him, to wipe out the Saracen host that had done him such evil. But Oliver bitterly protested. Earlier in the day, when he had willed it, Roland had refused to call for help. Now the day was done. The twilight of death—Death the inevitable—was closing in upon them. Why, then, call now for Charlemagne, when nor he nor any other could help them? But Turpin with all his force backed the wish of Roland.

“The blast of thy horn cannot bring back the dead to life,” he said. “Yet if our Emperor return he can save our corpses and weep over them and bear them reverently to la belle France. And there shall they lie in sanctuary, and not in a Paynim land where the wild beasts devour them and croaking wretches with foul beaks tear our flesh and leave our bones dishonoured.”

“That is well said,” quoth Roland and Oliver.

Then did Roland blow three mighty blasts upon his horn, and so great was the third that a blood-vessel burst, and the red drops trickled from his mouth.

For days on end Charlemagne had been alarmed at the delay of his rearguard, but ever the false Ganelon had reassured him.

“Why shouldst thou fear, sire?” he asked. “Roland has surely gone after some wild boar or deer, so fond is he of the chase.”

But when Roland blew the blast that broke his mighty heart, Charlemagne heard it clearly, and no longer had any doubt of the meaning of its call. He knew that his dreams had come true, and at once he set his face towards the dire pass of Roncesvalles that he might, even at the eleventh hour, save Roland and his men.

Long ere Charlemagne could reach the children of his soul who stood in such dire need, the uncle of Marsile had reached the place of battle with a force of fifty thousand men. Pierced from behind by a cowardly lance, Oliver was sobbing out his life’s blood. Yet ever he cried, “Montjoie! Montjoie!” and each time his voice formed the words, a thrust from his sword, or from the lances of his men, drove a soul down to Hades. And when he was breathing his last, and lay on the earth, humbly confessing his sins and begging God to grant him rest in Paradise, he asked God’s blessing upon Charlemagne, his lord the king, and upon his fair land of France, and, above all other men, to keep free from scathe his heart’s true brother and comrade, Roland, the gallant knight. Then did he gently sigh his last little measure of life away, and as Roland bent over him he felt that half of the glamour of living was gone. Yet still so dearly did he love Aude the Fair, the sister of Oliver, who was to be his bride, that his muscles grew taut as he gripped his sword, and his courage was the dauntless courage of a furious wave that faces all the cliffs of a rocky coast in a winter storm, when again, he faced the Saracen host.

Of all the Douzeperes, only Gautier and Turpin and Roland now remained, and with them a poor little handful of maimed men-at-arms. Soon a Saracen arrow drove through the heart of Gautier, and Turpin, wounded by four lances, stood alone by Roland’s side. But for each lance thrust he slew a hundred men, and when at length he fell, Roland, himself sorely wounded, seized once more his horn and blew upon it a piercing blast:
“... a blast of that dread horn,
On Fontarabian echoes borne,
That to King Charles did come,
When Rowland brave, and Olivier,
And every paladin and peer,
On Roncesvalles died.”

Sir Walter Scott.
ROLAND SEIZED ONCE MORE HIS HORN

That blast pierced right into the heart of Charlemagne, and straightway he turned his army towards the pass of Roncesvalles that he might succour Roland, whom he so greatly loved. Yet then it was too late. Turpin was nearly dead. Roland knew himself to be dying. Veillantif, Roland’s faithful warhorse, was enduring agonies from wounds of the Paynim arrows, and him Roland slew with a shrewd blow from his well-tried sword. From far, far away the hero could hear the blare of the trumpets of the Frankish army, and, at the sound, what was left of the Saracen host fled in terror. He made his way, blindly, painfully, to where Turpin lay, and with fumbling fingers took off his hauberk and unlaced his golden helmet. With what poor skill was left to him, he strove to bind up his terrible wounds with strips of his own tunic, and he dragged him, as gently as he could, to a spot under the beech trees where the fresh moss still was green.
“‘Ah, gentle lord,’ said Roland, ‘give me leave
To carry here our comrades who are dead,
Whom we so dearly loved; they must not lie
Unblest; but I will bring their corpses here
And thou shalt bless them, and me, ere thou die.’
‘Go,’ said the dying priest, ‘but soon return.
Thank God! the victory is yours and mine!’”

With exquisite pain Roland carried the bodies of Oliver and of the rest of the Douzeperes from the places where they had died to where Turpin, their dear bishop, lay a-dying. Each step that he took cost him a pang of agony; each step took from him a toll of blood. Yet faithfully he performed his task, until they all lay around Turpin, who gladly blessed them and absolved them all. And then the agony of soul and of heart and body that Roland had endured grew overmuch for him to bear, and he gave a great cry, like the last sigh of a mighty tree that the woodcutters fell, and dropped down, stiff and chill, in a deathly swoon. Then the dying bishop dragged himself towards him and lifted the horn Olifant, and with it in his hand he struggled, inch by inch, with very great pain and labour, to a little stream that trickled down the dark ravine, that he might fetch some water to revive the hero that he and all men loved. But ere he could reach the stream, the mists of death had veiled his eyes. He joined his hands in prayer, though each movement meant a pang, and gave his soul to Christ, his Saviour and his Captain. And so passed away the soul of a mighty warrior and a stainless priest.

Thus was Roland alone amongst the dead when consciousness came back to him. With feeble hands he unlaced his helmet and tended to himself as best he might. And, as Turpin had done, so also did he painfully crawl towards the stream. There he found Turpin, the horn Olifant by his side, and knew that it was in trying to fetch him water that the brave bishop had died, and for tenderness and pity the hero wept.
“Alas! brave priest, fair lord of noble birth,
Thy soul I give to the great King of Heaven!
May thy fair soul escape the pains of Hell,
And Paradise receive thee in its bowers!”

Then did Roland know that for him, also, there “was no other way but death.” With dragging steps he toiled uphill a little way, his good sword Durendala in one hand, and in the other his horn Olifant. Under a little clump of pines were some rough steps hewn in a boulder of marble leading yet higher up the hill, and these Roland would have climbed, but his throbbing heart could no more, and again he fell swooning on the ground. A Saracen who, out of fear, had feigned death, saw him lying there and crawled out of the covert where he lay concealed.

“It is Roland, the nephew of the Emperor!” he joyously thought, and in triumph he said to himself, “I shall bear his sword back with me!” But as his Pagan hand touched the hilt of the sword and would have torn it from Roland’s dying grasp, the hero was aroused from his swoon. One great stroke cleft the Saracen’s skull and laid him dead at Roland’s feet. Then to Durendala Roland spoke:
“I surely die; but, ere I end,
Let me be sure that thou art ended too my friend!
For should a heathen grasp thee when I am clay,
My ghost would grieve full sore until the judgment day!”

More ghost than man he looked as with a mighty effort of will and of body he struggled to his feet and smote with his blade the marble boulder. Before the stroke the marble split asunder as though the pick-axe of a miner had cloven it. On a rock of sardonyx he strove to break it then, but Durendala remained unharmed. A third time he strove, and struck a rock of blue marble with such force that the sparks rushed out as from a blacksmith’s anvil. Then he knew that it was in vain, for Durendala would not be shattered. And so he raised Olifant to his lips and blew a dying blast that echoed down the cliffs and up to the mountain tops and rang through the trees of the forest. And still, to this day, do they say, when the spirit of the warrior rides by night down the heights and through the dark pass of Roncesvalles, even such a blast may be heard, waking all the echoes and sounding through the lonely hollows of the hills.

Then he made confession, and with a prayer for pardon of his sins and for mercy from the God whose faithful servant and soldier he had been unto his life’s end, the soul of Roland passed away.
“... With hands devoutly joined
He breathed his last. God sent his Cherubim,
Saint Raphael, Saint Michel del Peril.
Together with them Gabriel came.—All bring
The soul of Count Rolland to Paradise.
Aoi.”

Charlemagne and his army found him lying thus, and very terrible were the grief and the rage of the Emperor as he looked on him and on the others of his Douzeperes and on the bodies of that army of twenty thousand.

“All the field was with blod ouer roun”—“Many a good swerd was broken ther”—“Many a fadirles child ther was at home.”

By the side of Roland, Charlemagne vowed vengeance, but ere he avenged his death he mourned over him with infinite anguish:
“‘The Lord have mercy, Roland, on thy soul!
Never again shall our fair France behold
A knight so worthy, till France be no more!
How widowed lies our fair France, and how lone!
How will the realms that I have swayed rebel,
Now thou art taken from my weary age!
So deep my woe that fain would I die too
And join my valiant Peers in Paradise,
While men inter my weary limbs with thine!’”

A terrible vengeance was the one that he took next day, when the Saracen army was utterly exterminated; and when all the noble dead had been buried where they fell, save only Roland, Oliver, and Turpin, the bodies of these three heroes were carried to Blaye and interred with great honour in the great cathedral there.

Charlemagne then returned to Aix, and as he entered his palace, Aude the Fair, sister of Oliver, and the betrothed of Roland, hastened to meet him. Where were the Douzeperes? What was the moaning murmur as of women who wept, that had heralded the arrival in the town of the Emperor and his conquering army? Eagerly she questioned Charlemagne of the safety of Roland, and when the Emperor, in pitying grief, told her:

“Roland, thy hero, like a hero died,” Aude gave a bitter cry and fell to the ground like a white lily slain by a cruel wind. The Emperor thought she had fainted, but when he would have lifted her up, he found that she was dead, and, in infinite pity, he had her taken to Blaye and buried by the side of Roland.

Very tender was Charlemagne to the maiden whom Roland had loved, but when the treachery of Ganelon had been proved, for him there was no mercy. At Aix-la-Chapelle, torn asunder by wild horses, he met a shameful and a horrible death, nor is his name forgotten as that of the blackest of traitors. But the memory of Roland and of the other Douzeperes lives on and is, however fanciful, forever fragrant.
“... Roland, and Olyvere,
And of the twelve Tussypere,
That dieden in the batayle of Runcyvale;
Jesu lord, heaven king,
To his bliss hem and us both bring,
To liven withouten bale!”

Sir Otuel.





Next: The Children Of LÎr

Previous: Beowulf



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