Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 82

“‘Fair sirs and barons, Charles has left us here
To serve him, or at need to die for him.
See, yonder come the foes of Christendom,
And we must fight for God and Holy Faith.
Now, say your shrift, and make your peace with Heaven;
I will absolve you and will heal your souls;
And if you die as martyrs, your true home
Is ready midst the flowers of Paradise!’”

[Pg 140] The Frankish knights, dismounting, knelt before Turpin, who blessed and absolved them all, bidding them, as penance, to strike hard against the heathen.

Then Roland called his brother-in-arms, the brave and courteous Oliver, and said: “Fair brother, I know now that Ganelon has betrayed us for reward and Marsile has bought us; but the payment shall be made with our swords, and Charlemagne will terribly avenge us.”

“Montjoie! Montjoie!”

While the two armies yet stood face to face in battle array Oliver replied: “What good is it to speak? You would not sound your horn, and Charles cannot help us; he is not to blame. Barons and lords, ride on and yield not. In God’s name fight and slay, and remember the war-cry of our Emperor.” And at the words the war-cry of “Montjoie! Montjoie!” burst from the whole army as they spurred against the advancing heathen host.

The Fray

Great was the fray that day, deadly was the combat, as the Moors and Franks crashed together, shouting their cries, invoking their gods or saints, wielding with utmost courage sword, lance, javelin, scimitar, or dagger. Blades flashed, lances were splintered, helms were cloven in that terrible fight of heroes. Each of the Twelve Peers did mighty feats of arms. Roland himself slew the nephew of King Marsile, who had promised to bring Roland’s head to his uncle’s feet, and bitter were the words that Roland hurled at the lifeless body of his foe, who had but just before boasted that Charlemagne should lose his right hand. Oliver slew the heathen king’s brother, and one by one the Twelve [Pg 141] Peers proved their mettle on the twelve champions of King Marsile, and left them dead or mortally wounded on the field. Wherever the battle was fiercest and the danger greatest, where help was most needed, there Roland spurred to the rescue, swinging Durendala, and, falling on the heathen like a thunderbolt of war, turned the tide of battle again and yet again.

“Red was Roland, red with bloodshed:
Red his corselet, red his shoulders,
Red his arm, and red his charger.”

Like the red god Mars he rode through the battle; and as he went he met Oliver, with the truncheon or a spear in his grasp.

“‘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-pommeled?’
‘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.’”

The Saracens Perish

Thus the battle continued, most valiantly contested by both sides, and the Saracens died by hundreds and thousands, till all their host lay dead but one man, who fled wounded, leaving the Frenchmen masters of the field, but in sorry plight—broken were their swords and lances, rent their hauberks, torn and blood-stained their gay banners and pennons, and many, many of their brave comrades lay lifeless. Sadly they looked round on the heaps of corpses, and their minds were filled with grief as they thought of their companions, of fair France which they should see no more, and of their emperor who even now awaited them while they fought and died [Pg 142] for him. Yet they were not discouraged; loudly their cry re-echoed, “Montjoie! Montjoie!” as Roland cheered them on, and Turpin called aloud: “Our men are heroes; no king under heaven has better. It is written in the Chronicles of France that in that great land it is our king’s right to have valiant soldiers.”

A Second Saracen Army

While they sought in tears the bodies of their friends, the main army of the Saracens, under King Marsile in person, came upon them; for the one fugitive who had escaped had urged Marsile to attack again at once, while the Franks were still weary. The advice seemed good to Marsile, and he advanced at the head of a hundred thousand men, whom he now hurled against the French in columns of fifty thousand at a time; and they came on right valiantly, with clarions sounding and trumpets blowing.

“‘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 tongue 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 amid the holy
In the blessed fields of Heaven.
On then, Friends of God, to glory!’”

And the battle raged anew, with all the odds against the small handful of French, who knew they were doomed, and fought as though they were “fey.”[13]

[Pg 143]

Gloomy Portents

Meanwhile the whole course of nature was disturbed. In France there were tempests of wind and thunder, rain and hail; thunderbolts fell everywhere, and the earth shook exceedingly. From Mont St. Michel to Cologne, from Besançon to Wissant, not one town could show its walls uninjured, not one village its houses unshaken. A terrible darkness spread over all the land, only broken when the heavens split asunder with the lightning-flash. Men whispered in terror: “Behold the end of the world! Behold the great Day of Doom!” Alas! they knew not the truth: it was the great mourning for the death of Roland.