A Book of Myths
Page: 129The 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.
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 [Pg 268] 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 [Pg 269] 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.