The Historic Basis
The whole romantic legend of Roland has sprung from the simple words in a contemporary chronicle, “In which battle was slain Roland, prefect of the marches of Brittany.”
This same fight of Roncesvalles was the theme of an archaic poem, the “Song of Altobiscar,” written about 1835. In it we hear the exultation of the Basques as they see the knights of France fall beneath their onslaughts. The Basques are on the heights—they hear the trampling of a mighty host which throngs the narrow valley below: its numbers are as countless as the sands of the sea, its movement as resistless as the waves which roll those sands on the shore. Awe fills the bosoms of the mountain tribesmen, but their leader is undaunted. “Let us unite our strong arms!” he cries aloud. “Let us tear our rocks from their beds and hurl them upon the enemy! Let us crush and slay them all!” So said, so done: the rocks roll plunging into the valley, slaying whole troops in their descent. “And what mangled flesh, what broken bones, what seas of blood! Soon of that gallant band not one is left alive; night covers all, the eagles devour the flesh, and the bones whiten in this valley to all eternity!”
A Spanish Version
So runs the “Song of Altobiscar.” But Spain too claims part of the honour of the day of Roncesvalles. [Pg 121] True, Roland was in reality slain by Basques, not by Spaniards; but Spain, eager to share the honour, has glorified a national hero, Bernardo del Carpio, who, in the Spanish legend, defeats Roland in single combat and wins the day.