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Roland at Roncesvalles.
With these brief outlines of the history of Roncesvalles before us it is interesting to observe the grandiloquent strain of the old Norman rymours, the fearless exaggerations, and the total ignorance of the actual state of affairs in Spain under the enlightened and accomplished Arabians.
"Carles li reis nostre emperere magnes,
Set anz tut pleins ad estet en Espaigne."
Our great emperor Charles the King had been for seven full years in Spain, so runs the chronicle; castle and keeper alike had gone down except Saragossa, the mountain town, where King Marsil held his court, surrounded by 20,000 Mohammedan nobles. At their council it was agreed to accept Spain as a fief from the emperor, and ten knights set out with golden bridles and silver saddles,
"And they ride with olive boughs in hand,
To seek the lord of the Frankish land."
Near the pass of Roncesvalles, one of the Pyrenean "gates" of Spain, sits the emperor upon a throne of beaten gold. His form is tall and majestic, and his long white beard flows over his coat of mail. 'Tis whispered, too, that he is already two hundred years old, and yet, there he is in all his pride. Beside him stand his nephew Roland, the Lord Marquis of the marches of Bretagne; Sir Olivier; Geoffrey of Anjou, the progenitor of the Plantagenets; "and more than a thousand Franks of France." The Moslem knights are introduced to this council of war, King Marsil's offer is accepted, and Sir Ganelon is sent to Saragossa to represent the emperor. Jealous of Roland's military glory, and envious of the stores of pagan gold, the false Ganelon conspires with King Marsil to put the all-powerful Roland to death. King Marsil is assured that on receipt of the golden tribute, Charlemagne will be persuaded to leave Spain, while by the traitor's advice Roland will be appointed to remain behind and guard the rear of the retiring hosts. The scheme succeeded. Ganelon returned to the Frankish camp with the tribute-money for the emperor, and the traitor's gold for himself. The Franks begin their homeward march. They are now descending the mountains into their own fertile Gascon plains, and their hearts beat lightly, for
"They think of their homes and their manors there,
Their gentle spouses and damsels fair."
But their great chief is silent and gloomy. Roland, the bravest of the brave, has been left behind with all the paladins, save Ganelon, beyond the gates of Spain. Last night the emperor dreamed he seemed to stand by Cizra's pass in Roncesvalles, when Ganelon appeared before him, wrenched the emperor's spear from out his hand, waved it on high, then dashed it in pieces. What did it mean? He remembered the ominous words of his peers, "Evil will come of this quest, we fear," and Ganelon's strange reply, "Ye shall hear."
Meanwhile Sir Roland was far behind in Roncesvalles. He rode his gallant steed Veillantif; his white pennon, fringed with gold and set with diamonds, sparkled in the sunshine; and by his side he wore his famous sword Durindana, with its hilt of gold shaped like a cross, on which was graven the name of "Jesus." What a glorious picture of the Christian hero of mediaeval times! With him were Olivier, the good Archbishop Turpin, and the remaining knights who made up the Order of the Paladins of Charlemagne, together with an army of 20,000 men.
The drums beat to arms in Saragossa's town, the tambours roll, the tabors sound, and 400,000 men attend the call of King Marsil. From a neighboring height Sir Olivier observes this countless host approaching. He calls to Roland to blow his ivory horn and bring back the emperor. Roland refuses, and the Franks prepare to fight; not, however, before on bended knee they receive the archbishop's benediction and a promise of paradise to all who die in this holy war against the pagan foe. With the old French battle-cry, "Mont-joie! Mont-joie!" the Christians dash the rowels into their steeds and close with the enemy. Homer does not relate a bloodier fight than that which follows, and which takes eighty-six stanzas, or fifty of Mr. O'Hagan's pages, to describe. Again and again the Christians charge the Saracens. What deeds the great sword Durindana did that day! The slain lie in thousands; the Saracens flee; and in the pursuit all are killed save one, who reaches Saragossa. The triumph, however, is short-lived; Ganelon had decreed that Roland must die, and so a mightier army than before marches forth to exterminate Roland's handful, now reduced to 300.
During this battle a terrible storm passes over France,--thunder and whirlwinds, rain and hail, there came.
The people thought that the end of the world had come, but this was only a foreshadowing of Roland's death. At last all the nobles are killed except Roland, Olivier, the archbishop, and sixty men. Then only will Roland deign to blow his horn. Charlemagne hears it thirty leagues away, and orders his army to return to Roncesvalles. Ganelon alone seeks to dissuade him, and is put in chains by the desire of the nobles, who suspect him. The army of Charles hurries back, but all too late. They will not arrive in time. Away in the Pass of Cizra, Roland looks around on his dead comrades and weeps. He returns to Olivier's side, who is engaged in a hand-to-hand encounter with King Marsil's uncle, the Moslem prince, Algalif, from whom he receives his death-wound. Olivier reels in his saddle, his eyes are dimmed with blood, and as he strikes madly about with his spear, he smashes Roland's helmet. The friend of Olivier is astonished, but soft and low he speaks to him thus:
"'Hast thou done it, my comrade, wittingly?
Roland who loves thee so dear am I.
Thou hast no quarrel with me to seek?'
Olivier answered, 'I hear thee speak,
But I see thee not; God seeth thee.
Have I struck thee, brother, forgive it me?'
'I am not hurt, O Olivier;
And in sight of God, I forgive thee here.'
Then to each other his head hath laid,
And in love like this was their parting made."
With hands clasped Sir Olivier cries to God for admittance into Paradise, and for a blessing on "King Karl and France the fair," and above all on his brother Roland. Then his hands fall, his head sinks on his breast, and he passes away. Filled with grief, Roland murmurs:
"So many days and years gone by
We lived together.
And thou hast never done me wrong.
Since thou art dead, to live is pain."
Once more Roland turns to where Count Walter of Hum and the archbishop alone stand at bay:
"And the heathen cries, 'What a felon three!
Look to it, lords, that they shall not flee.'"
Count Walter falls at last, just as they hear the welcome sound of Charlemagne's trumpets, at which the Saracens flee, leaving Roland and the archbishop unconquered. But their end is near. Roland swoons, and the good archbishop, in attempting to bring water in the famous horn for the dying Paladin, falls from loss of blood. Roland recovers only in time to see him die; then, as he feels that death is near him also, he looks once more on his goodly sword Durindana, and as he looks he cries:
"Oh fair and holy, my peerless sword,
What relics lie in thy pommel stored--
Tooth of St. Peter, Saint Basil's blood,
Hair of St. Denis beside them strewed,
Fragment of Holy Mary's vest--
'Twere shame that thou with the heathen rest,
Thee should the hand of a Christian serve,
One who should never in battle swerve."
In despair lest it fall into pagan hands he tries to break it in pieces, and the mighty slashes he made in the rocks are still pointed out as the "Breche de Roland." You remember Wordsworth's lines:
"the Pyrenean breach,
Which Roland clove with huge two-handed sway,
And to the enormous labor left his name,
Where unremitting frost the rocky crescents bleach."
Surely Roland might now rest from his labors, amid the "flowerets of Paradise." But no; he had yet to smash the head of a prowling Saracen who thought him an easy prey. In doing so he spoiled forever the ivory horn, his only weapon. Not till then could he clasp his hands as he went to rest, and not till then did
"God from on high send down to him
One of His angel cherubim."
St. Michael it was, who with St. Gabriel bore his soul to Paradise.
It would be too long a story to tell of the vengeance of the Emperor Charles, how the sun stood still till the Franks had killed every one of the Saracens; how Ganelon was accused of treachery, tried by combat, and sentenced to be torn to pieces by wild horses. The story is a true tragedy, terrible as the tragedy of OEdipus. From another source we gather the mournful sequel.
Long before the battle of Roncesvalles Roland and Olivier had met in single combat on a quiet island in the Rhone. Toward even a fleecy cloud hovered over them, and from its midst an angel "wrapped in rosy light" separated the combatants, bidding them be friends, and telling them to turn their swords against the enemies of the Faith. The heroes shook hands, the angel vanished, and from that day there were no truer friends than Roland and Olivier. Their union was further cemented by the betrothal of Roland to the Lady Alda, Sir Olivier's sister, a maiden who had already, in Roland's presence, proved herself as bold in war as she was loving in peace.
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