Story of Roland - James Baldwin

How the Army Crossed the Alps

It was near the time of the solemn festival of Easter,—the time when Nature seems to rise from the grave, and the Earth puts on anew her garb of youth and beauty. King Charlemagne was at St. Omer; for there the good Archbishop Turpin was making ready to celebrate the great feast with more than ordinary grandeur. Thither, too, had gone the members of the king's household, and a great number of lords and ladies, the noblest in France. There were the queen, the fair Fastrada, and Charlemagne's two sons Charlot and Louis, and his sisters Bertha and Alice, and his daughters Belissent and Emma. And there also were many of the peers of the realm,—Duke Namon, and Ganelon, and Malagis the wizard, and Alcuin the English schoolmaster, and Gerineldo the king's scribe, and Roland, and Ogier the Dane. And with many fond anticipations all awaited the coming of the festal day, and the new season of active duty and labor which it would usher in.

But there came fleet messengers to St. Omer, bearing to Charlemagne news as unlooked-for as it was disagreeable. The ambassadors whom he had sent last autumn to claim the homage and the tribute due from Duke Godfrey of Denmark had come home with shaved faces and tonsured heads. Barely had they escaped with their lives from the traitorous Dane. And they had brought this word from Godfrey. "Tell your king," said he, "that the lord of Denmark is no man's thrall, and that never will he do homage, or pay aught of tribute, to any foreign tyrant."

Great was the wrath of Charlemagne, and he declared at once that Ogier the Dane, and his three comrades, should be put to death; for, according to the terms made with Godfrey, the young men were now for-hostaged, and their lives were justly forfeited. And in spite of the sage advice of Duke Namon, and the prayers of the queen herself, the king caused the four hostages to be thrown into the dungeon of St. Omer; and he threatened that, as soon as Eastertide was past, they should be brought out, and hanged in the sight of all the people. Then word was sent to Paris and to Aix, and to all the chiefs and lords in France, calling every one who was able to bear arms to rally around the king's standard, and be ready on a moment's notice to move against the traitorous Duke of Denmark. And when, at length, Easter morning broke, and the sun rose clear and bright in a cloudless sky, its rays fell upon the armor and banners of a mighty host encamped at St. Omer, and expecting on the morrow to begin the march to the North.

But a new surprise awaited Charlemagne. Scarcely had the good archbishop pronounced a blessing upon the devout multitude assembled at the Easter service, when two messengers came in hot haste, and demanded to speak with the king. They had come from Rome, and they bore letters from Pope Leo. Sad was the news which these letters brought, but it was news which would fire the heart of every Christian knight. The Saracens had landed in Italy, and had taken Rome by assault. "The pope and the cardinals and the legates have fled," said the letters; "the churches are torn down; the holy relics are lost; and the Christians are put to the sword. Wherefore the Holy Father charges you as a Christian king to march at once to the help of the Church."

It needed no word of Charlemagne to arouse the ardor of his warriors. Every other undertaking must be laid aside, so long as Rome and the Church were in danger. The design of marching against the Danes was given up for a time; and the heralds proclaimed that on the morrow, at break of day, the army, instead of advancing northward, would move southward toward Italy.

"What shall we do with Ogier and the other Danish hostages?" asked Ganelon, smiling, and hoping that the king would carry out his threats, and have the young men put to death.

"It is no fit time to deal with them now," answered the king. "Let the three who are of lower rank lie in prison where they are. But as for Ogier, the prince, do you take charge of him, and bring him with you to Rome. See that he does not escape; and, when we have driven the Pagans out of the city, we shall have him hanged as a traitor in the sight of the whole host."

The morning after Easter dawned, and the great army waited for the signal to march. The bugles sounded, and the long line of steel-clad knights and warriors began to move. Charlemagne rode in the front ranks, ready, like a true knight, to brave every difficulty, and to be the first in every post of danger. Never did a better king wear spur. Roland, as was his wont on such occasions, rode by the side of Duke Namon, carrying that knight's shield and the heavier parts of his armor; and, as became a trusty squire, he thought not of his own pleasure, but of the comfort of him whom he served. Nor did he consider his own safety or his own honor to be matters of concern, so long as Duke Namon was his lord. But Ogier the Dane rode in the rear of the host, with Ganelon's squires; and, being a prisoner, he was not allowed to carry any arms, or to move out of sight of the young men who guarded him.

Great was the haste with which the army moved, and very impatient were the warriors; for the whole of France lay between them and fair Italy, and they knew that weeks of weary marching must be endured, ere they could meet their Pagan foe in battle, and drive him out of the Christians' land. Many days they rode among the rich fields, and between the blooming orchards, of the Seine valley; many days they toiled over unbroken forest roads, and among marshes and bogs, and across untrodden moorlands. They climbed steep hills, and swam broad rivers, and endured the rain and the wind and the fierce heat of the noonday sun, and sometimes even the pangs of hunger and thirst. But they carried brave hearts within them; and they comforted themselves with the thought that all their suffering was for the glory of God and the honor of the king, for their country's safety and the security of their homes. And every day, as they advanced, the army increased in numbers and in strength: for the news had been carried all over the land, that the Saracens had taken Rome, and that Charlemagne with his host was hastening to the rescue; and knights and noblemen from every city and town and countryside came to join his standard, sometimes alone and singly, and sometimes with a great retinue of fighting men and servitors. And when at last they had passed the boundaries of France, and only the great mountains lay between them and Italy, Charlemagne could look behind him, and see an army of a hundred thousand men. And now messengers came to him again, urging him to hasten with all speed to the succor of the pope.

But the Alps Mountains lifted themselves up in his pathway, and their snowy crags frowned threateningly upon him; their steep, rocky sides arose like walls before him, and seemed to forbid his going farther; and there appeared to be no way of reaching Italy, save by a long and circuitous route through the southern passes. In the hope that he might find some shorter and easier passage, Charlemagne now sent out scouts and mountaineers to explore every valley and gorge, and every seeming mountain pass. But all came back with the same story: there was not even so much as a path up which the mountain goats could clamber, much less a road broad enough for an army with horses and baggage to traverse. The king was in despair, and he called together his counsellors and wise men to consider what should be done. Duke Namon urged that they should march around by way of the southern passes; for, although a full month would thus be lost, yet there was no other safe and well-known land-route to Italy. Ganelon advised that they should turn back, and, marching to Marseilles, embark from thence on ships, and undertake to reach Rome by way of the sea.

Then the dwarf Malagis came before Charlemagne, bearing in his hand a book, from which he read many spells and weird enchantments. Upon the ground he drew with his wand a magic ring, and he laid therein the hammer of Thor and the sword of Mahmet. Then, in a loud, commanding voice, he called upon the sprites, the trolls, and the goblins, with whom he was familiar, to come at once into his presence. And the lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled, and smoke and fire burst forth from the mountain peaks, and the rocks and great ice-fields were loosened among the crags, and came tumbling down into the valley. And dwarfs and elves, and many an uncanny thing, danced and shouted in the mountain caves; and grinning ogres peeped out from the deep clefts and gorges; and the very air seemed full of ghostlike creatures. Then the wizard called by name a wise but wicked goblin, known among the Saracens as Ashtaroth; and the goblin came at once, riding in a whirlwind, and feeling very angry because he was obliged to obey.

"Tell me now," said Malagis, "and tell me truly, whether there is here so much as a pathway by which Charlemagne may lead his army through the mountains."

The goblin was silent for a moment; and a dark cloud rested upon his face, and his look was terrible. But the wizard, in no wise daunted, returned his glance, and in the tones of a master bade him clear up that clouded look, and answer the question he had asked. Then Ashtaroth curbed his anger, and spoke.

"On what errand would the French king cross the Alps?" he asked. "Seeks he not to harm my friends the Saracens?"

"That is, indeed, his errand," answered Malagis.

"Then, why should I do aught to help him?" asked the goblin. "Why do you call me from my rest, and bid me betray my friends?"

"That is not for thee to ask," said Malagis. "I have called thee as a master calls his slave. Tell me now, and tell me truly, is there here any pass across the mountains into Italy?"

"There is such a pass," answered the goblin gravely; "but it is hidden to eyes like mine. I cannot guide you to it, nor can any of my kind show you how to find it. It is a pathway which only the pure can tread."

"Tell me one thing more," said Malagis. "Tell me one thing, and I will let thee go. "How prosper thy friends the Saracens at Rome?"

"They have taken all but the Capitol," was the answer. "They have slain many Christians, and burned many buildings. The pope and the cardinals have fled to Spoleto. If Charlemagne reach not Italy within a month, ill will it fare with his friends."

Then Malagis, satisfied with what he had heard, unwound the spell of his enchantments; and amid a cloud of fire and smoke the goblin flew back again into the mountains.

And now the good Turpin came forward, with crosier in his hand, and a bishop's mitre on his head, and a long white robe thrown over his shoulders, scarcely hiding the steel armor which he wore beneath. And he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and prayed. And the sound of his voice arose among the cliffs, and resounded among the rocks, and was echoed from valley to valley, and re-echoed among the peaks and crags, and carried over the mountain tops, even to the blue sky above. And the king and those who stood about him fancied that they heard sweet strains of music issuing from the mountain caves; and the most bewitching sounds arose among the rocks and gorges; and the air was filled with a heavenly perfume and the songs of singing-birds; and a holy calm settled over mountain and valley, and fell like a blessing upon the earth. Then the Alps no longer seemed obstacles in their way. The steep cliffs, which had been like mighty walls barring their progress, seemed now mere gentle slopes, rising little by little toward heaven, and affording a pleasant and easy highway to the fair fields Italy beyond.

While Charlemagne and his peers gazed in rapt delight upon this vision, there came down from the mountain crags a beautiful creature such as none of them had ever before seen. It was a noble stag, white as the drifted snow, his head crowned with wide-branching antlers, from every point of which bright sunbeams seemed to flash.

[Illustration] from The Story of Roland by James Baldwin


"Behold our leader and our hope!" cried Turpin. "Behold the sure-footed guide which the Wonder-king has sent to lead us through narrow ways, and over dangers steeps, to the smiling valleys and fields of Italy! Be only strong and trustful and believing, and a safe way shall open for us, even where there seemed to be no way."

Then the vision faded slowly away from the sight of the peers; and the mountain walls rose up before them as grim and steep as ever; and the snow-crowned crags looked down upon them even more angrily than before, and there seemed no road nor pathway which the foot of man could follow. But the wondrous white stag, which had filled their minds with a new-born hope, still stood in plain sight on the lowermost slopes of the mountain.

The king, without once taking his eyes from the Heaven-sent creature, mounted his war steed, and sounded the bugle which hung at his girdle; and the great army, confiding in the wisdom of their leader, began to move. The white stag went first, steadily following a narrow pathway, which led upward by many steep ascents, seemingly to the very clouds; and behind him rode Charlemagne, keeping ever in view his radiant, hopeful guide, and followed by the long line of knights and warriors, who, cheered by his earnest faith, never once feared the end. Higher and higher they climbed, and more and more difficult became the way. On one side of them arose a steep wall, shutting out from their sight more than half of the sky: on the other side, dark gorges and yawning gulfs descended, threatening to bury the whole army in their bottomless depths. And by and by they came to the region of snow and ice, where the Storm-king holds his court, and reigns in everlasting solitude. And, looking back, they could see sweet France, lying spread out as a map before them, its pleasant fields and its busy towns seeming only as specks in the dim distance. But when they looked forward, hoping there to see a like map of fair Italy, only the rocks and the ice, and the narrow pathway, and the desolate mountain crags, met their sight. And they would have become disheartened by the difficulties before them, and have turned back in utter despair, had not the bright form of their guide, and the cheerful countenance of Charlemagne, inspired them with ever-renewed hope. For seven days they toiled among the dangerous steeps: and on the eighth a glorious vision burst upon their view—the smiling plains of Italy lay before them. At this sight a great shout of joy went up from the throats of the toil-worn heroes, and the good archbishop returned thanks to Heaven for their deliverance from peril. And, a few hours later, the whole army emerged into the pleasant valleys of Piedmont, and encamped not far from Aosta.

Very wonderful indeed had been this passage over the Alps; and, what was more wonderful still, not a man, nor a beast, nor any part of the baggage, had been lost. After he had rested and dined, the king called before him his minstrels and jongleurs, and bade them sing their merriest songs, and play their gayest tunes on the harp, the viol, and the guitar. And the heart of the king was softened by the sweet strains of music, and by the feelings of thankfulness which filled his soul; and he felt no longer any malice toward those who had done him wrong, nor any hatred toward his enemies. Then one among the minstrels, an old man who had been a bard among the Saxons, and who knew all the lore of the North-folk, turned his harp, and sang a song of the old Pagan days, and of the bold, free life of the Danish sea-kings.

When the minstrel ceased, the king, who had been strangely touched by the lively melody, looked around upon his peers and asked,—

"Is there not with us a young Danish prince, one Ogier, the son of the rebel Godfrey? Methinks that he, too, can make fine music on the harp."

"My lord," answered Duke Namon, "the young man, as you doubtless remember, is for-hostaged; and he is now a prisoner in charge of the Duke Ganelon."

"Let him be brought hither," said the king.

A few minutes later, Ogier, erect and proud, and as fearless as a young lion, was led into the presence of Charlemagne and the peers; and by his side walked his brother-in-arms, young Roland. He took the harp from the minstrel's hands; and, as his fingers swept lightly over the strings, he sang a song that he had learned in his father's court in Denmark. And all who heard him agreed that they had never listened to sweeter music.

"Young man," said the king, "thou singest well. I would fain reward thee, and hence I grant thee a reprieve. I give thee thy life until we again return to France."

Then Roland, as the nephew of the king, boldly begged that he would grant a full pardon to Ogier. But he would not. Never, said he, should feelings of pity turn him aside from the path of justice. Should he spare the life of one person for-hostaged, the value of hostages as pledges of good faith would no longer be regarded. Then Duke Namon asked the king, that, as a personal favor, he would allow Ogier to remain with him during the rest of the march: he wished him to care for his nephew, a noble knight who was in his train, and was sick. To this request the king readily assented, and Ogier was re-instated in the service of his former loved master. And Roland and the other squires with Duke Namon, welcomed him most heartily to his old place of honor among them.