Story of Roland - James Baldwin

A Flight to the Land of Prester John

King Charlemagne sat in his council-hall, and the noblest peers of the realm stood before him.

"Who now, for the love of our dear nephew," said he, "will seek for him, and bring him back, that we may see him happily restored to his right mind?"

And Duke Namon answered, "My lord, such wonder was never known, that a madman should recover his senses. And, however much we have loved him, the Roland whom we once knew is now no more. Only a shadow remains where there was a man before."

And Reinold of Montalban said, "There are other knights in your service as loyal, as brave, and as true as ever our cousin Roland was. Trust them to uphold your power, and defend your kingdom."

And Ganelon, the old traitor, smiled, and said, "Methinks that this Roland is now well out of our way, and that we shall nevermore hear it said, 'Behold the king's nephew,—the knight without fear and without reproach!' "

But Oliver said, "My lord, I will follow my brother to the ends of the earth, rather than not find him. I will bring him back to France, to his home and his kindred and those who love him, that through their care and kindness he may be healed."

And Astolpho, the poet knight, said, "I also will go in search of the lost hero; for although I have neither the strength nor the skill of a warrior, yet who knows but that my fancy in its highest flights may discover the lost senses of Roland, and bring them back to their owner!"

Then Oliver and Astolpho mounted their steeds and rode away; and they pledged themselves that they would never come back to France, nor undertake any other adventure, until they should find Roland, and see him whole again in mind and worthy to be called the peerless knight.

Now, it chanced that Astolpho owned a wonderful winged horse,—the same creature that had once belonged to Atlantes, the Moorish wizard. Astolpho had long kept this steed, with care and secrecy, in his own castle among the mountain peaks, where the wild eagles soared, and the air was fresh and pure, and the busy hum of the laboring world was seldom heard. Sometimes, merely to amuse himself, the knight had mounted his winged courser and taken short flights into fairyland, or soared aloft toward the sun. And he had often thought, that when Charlemagne's wars were over, and he was no longer needed either at court or in the field, he would take a longer flight and stop not until he had reached the farthest boundaries of the earth. So, now, he hastened back to his mountain castle, resolved to make use of the winged steed in his search for the lost hero.

At Astolpho's command the wondrous horse was led out of the marble halls, where he had been stabled, and accoutred for a flight longer than any he had ever yet taken. It was early morning. The sun was rising dripping from the waters of the great midland sea. The crags and peaks shone like burnished silver against the dark-blue sky. The crimson clouds turned golden, and then melted away into nothingness. The mountain eagles flew down from their rock-built eyries, and screamed around the hero and his steed, and then soared high toward heaven, as if daring him to a loftier flight. Astolpho vaulted into the saddle. The noble steed spread his wings, and leaped into the air. Upward and still upward he soared, until the green fields of France, and the rugged mountains and the snow-crowned peaks dwindled almost out of sight. The screaming eagles were left far behind, the great sun seemed not much higher. The whole earth was transformed into a scene of beauty such as the knight had seldom dreamed of. Sweet France lay directly beneath him, spread out like a map, its rivers and mountains and forests and fields dimly outlined in the hazy distance. To his right was fair Spain, bounded on three sides by the sea, and on the fourth by the great wall of the Pyrenees. In front of him was the midland sea, stretching away and away, as far as the eye could reach, until its shining waters seemed hidden behind the sun. And there he saw vine-clad Italy basking in the morning light; and farther away lay the isles of Greece, where the gods in the golden time taught men the sweet secrets of music and song.

And the winged steed sailed onward toward the rising sun, faster than falcon or swiftest bird that flies. Over the midland sea he flew, and over many strange countries, and amid many beautiful scenes. He came to the land where grow the date and the palm; he soared above the shaggy tops of the Atlas Mountains, and the Great Desert, which lies sultry and bare beyond; he winged his way over Nubia and the land of the Pyramids and the Nile. Yet Astolpho allowed not his steed to stop. He had heard of another land still farther, where he hoped to learn tidings of the sad-minded Roland. From Egypt, his course now lay southward: he followed the great River Nile even to its mysterious head-spring, and over the boundless regions of Ethiopia he directed his flight. He came at length to the wondrous realm ruled by the mighty Prester John, and there his steed alighted.

The land in which Astolpho now found himself seemed to be a very paradise of delights. It was governed by an ancient Christian prince, whose birth and lineage were unknown, and whose dominion stretched eastward to India, and southward to the great sea. In that land every man was a hero,—not one who wins a name and fame through bloodshed or on the battlefield, but one whose heart is free from guile, whose brain is clear, whose every deed is noble. In that land there were temples and palaces and cities surpassing in riches and beauty any thing that Astolpho had ever before seen. There every kind of gem-stone was found,—emeralds, sapphires, carbuncles, onyxes, and beryls; and gold was more plentiful than iron. There, too, every strange and useful animal lived. It was the home of the elephant, the camel, the white and red lion, the white bear, the wild horse, the wild ox. There, also, roamed those wondrous creatures of which we read in the old myth-stories of Greece, such as centaurs and fauns and satyrs and pygmies and strange chimeras. And there dwelt the phœnix, that solitary bird, which, after living a thousand years, burns itself on its own funeral pile, and afterward rises with renewed youth from the ashes.

Near the place where Astolpho first alighted there was a garden, and in the garden was a fountain. On either side of the fountain sat two saintly men, who were dressed in long white robes, and whose hair and beard were whiter than the drifted snow. These men, as the knight approached, arose and saluted him.

"Art thou a Christian?" asked one.

"I am," answered Astolpho, making the sign of the cross.

"Wouldst thou be healed of all thine infirmities, whether of body or of mind?" asked the other.

"Nothing do I desire more greatly," was the answer.

Standing within the fountain was a pure white stone, shaped like a mussel shell, and covered by a few inches of water.

"If what thou sayest is true," said the elder, who had first spoken, "step now into this mussel shell."

Astolpho did as he was bidden, and the water began of its own accord to rise about him. Three times it lifted itself and gushed over his head; and then the aged men bade him step out of the fountain. As he did so, he felt as if the balmiest days of his youth had returned, and that he should never again be oppressed with weariness or pain.

"Go thou," said the elders, "and may no evil thing betide thee!"

Then Astolpho went straight to the palace wherein dwelt the king. The walls which stood around this palace were of the purest white marble. The drawbridge was of ivory, and the chain and bolts were of gold. The gate was a wondrous piece of workmanship, wrought of precious metals and costly stones; and above it was placed the horn of a horned snake, so that nothing unclean could pass through. The inner gates were of ebony, inlaid with gold. At each end of the palace was a high tower; and on each of these a carbuncle and an apple of gold were placed; and by day the golden apple shed a soft radiance over the palace and all the country around, while at night the carbuncle shone as brightly as the sun at noon. The wide courtyard was floored with onyx,—a stone which gives strength and courage to the feeble-hearted. The architraves, the joists, the ceilings of the palace, were of the mystic Sethym wood: the roof was of ebony, and so built that fire could never touch it. Heavy curtains, and carpets of every hue and texture, added comfort to riches. In wall and roof and pavement were countless pearls and purest gems. And in the great assembly hall was a wondrous mirror, reached by five and twenty steps of porphyry and serpentine, in which the king could see at a glance every thing that was happening in every corner of his kingdom.

No man knew how long this country had been ruled by Prester John; for, in a land so blessed with every comfort and every luxury, the years were all golden, and men noticed not the flight of time. The great Prester John kindly welcomed Astolpho to his court, and ordered that the best guest room in the palace should be made ready for his use. But the knight was surprised to see, that, although the king was surrounded with every thing that could add to one's happiness, there was an air of sadness on his face, as if he were harassed by some fearful evil which he could not escape.

It so happened that the day was a great feast day, when all the earls and noblemen in the kingdom were bidden to court, and a rich banquet was to be served in the hall. And Astolpho was invited to sit at table with the rest.

"I hope, indeed, that they will not come to-day," the king was overheard saying to one of his courtiers. And the knight wondered who it could be whose company was so undesirable.

At the appointed hour the guests were led into the banquet chamber. There the ceilings were very high and vaulted, the windows were large, and the doors were broad. The floor was waxed and polished until it shone like a mirror. The tables were of ebony, inlaid with amethyst and gold, and supported upon legs of ivory. Astolpho was seated on a raised platform at the right hand of the king; and the noblest men of the realm—dukes, earls, archbishops, and bishops—sat near him. While the attendants were placing the food before them, the king, pale and trembling, as if fearing some great danger, told Astolpho the story of his sad misery.

"You would think," said he, "that a man living in the midst of all these delights would be supremely happy. And yet I am the most miserable of earth's creatures. I will tell you why. Far to the south there is a beautiful mountain, the like of which is found in no other land. On that mountain, it is said, there is everlasting spring; and there old age is unknown, and death never comes. Long was it my wish to discover that earthly paradise, and long did I aspire to add it to the kingdoms of my realm. At last, in an evil hour, I marshalled my hosts, and with a noble array of knights and lords I marched across the southern desert, determined to carry my banners to the very summit of that famous mountain. But when we reached it, sad was our disappointment. The white cliffs rose up before us, like the walls of a great city; and, when we tried to scale them, the rocks rolled down upon our heads; the dark gorges opened and swallowed up my warriors; fire and smoke belched forth from the peaks; and rivers of melted rock poured down upon us. And then I heard a voice saying, 'Think not, vain man, to pry into the secret things of the Most High. Go back into thine own country, and be thankful that thy life is spared.' Then I turned, and fled with all speed from that forbidden ground. And, of all the mighty host that had gone with me thither, not more than a tenth returned with me to this land. And the Harpies, who since the days of Jason and the Argonauts had been penned up in the cave of the Winds, were freed from their prison, and sent to harass me every day of my life. And now, like Phineus of old, I am miserable in the midst of delights, I am tormented with hunger while all around me is plenty; for no sooner is my table ready, than those loathsome creatures swoop down, and snatch the food from my plate, and leave me naught to satisfy my hunger. It is thus that Heaven punishes him who would lay hands upon forbidden things."

The king had scarcely finished speaking, when Astolpho heard a strange noise above them, like the whirring of many wings in the upper air. The old king covered his face with his hands, and cried out, "They come! there is no ridding ourselves of them!" And many of the guests arose and fled from the hall.

Then, through doors and windows, the Harpies came flying in. Seven in number were they,—pale-faced, blear-eyed, with long crooked talons, and snake-like tails knotted in many a fold. Down upon the feast table they swooped, and they stopped not their greedy onslaught until every morsel of food was snatched from the board. Astolpho drew his sword and struck manfully about him; but as well might he have smitten the wind, for the sharpest blade could not cut through the feathery armor of those loathsome fowls.

[Illustration] from The Story of Roland by James Baldwin


"Ah, me!" cried the king, "is there no escape? Must I endure this torment forever?"

Then Astolpho bethought him of a horn which he carried at his girdle. The weird woman Melissa had given it to him long before, and had said to him, "Whenever your sword fails you, blow this horn." So, after the king and all who were in the hall had filled their ears with wax, he lifted it to his lips and blew such a bugle-blast as had never before been heard in the land of Prester John. The palace itself shook from turret to foundation stone; the leaves of the trees quivered as in a storm; the rocks rolled down the mountain-side. The Harpies, more affrighted than when, in the olden time, they had been chased by the sons of old Boreas, flew in wild dismay from the hall. Astolpho quickly mounted his winged charger, and followed them, blowing peal after peal upon his wondrous horn. Southward the creatures flew, across the great sandy desert; nor did they slacken their flight until they reached the mountain whereon the earthly paradise was said to be. Into a dark and narrow cavern in the mountain's side they flew,—the prison-house into which the sons of Boreas had driven them long before. And Astolpho, with trees and stones, and whatsoever else would serve as a wall or hedge, wedged up the cavern door; so that never again shall those loathsome creatures visit the air to torment mankind with their horrid presence.

And the poets tell of many other wondrous deeds that Astolpho did in the land of Prester John,—how he visited the earthly paradise, and talked there with the patriarchs of old; how he flew to the moon's orb, and was shown the place where all things are stored that have been lost on earth; how he found there the lost senses of the unhappy Roland, and brought them in a phial back to the earth; how he visited the place where the Fates spin the thread of life, and weave the woof of doom for every creature; and how he healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind. But, whether these stories be true or false, I will not stop to repeat them to you. Let us hasten to find the now long-lost Roland.

When Astolpho had learned from the Fates the whereabouts of Roland, and the manner in which that knight should be made himself again, he went into the presence of Prester John, and asked a boon of that king.

"You shall have whatsoever you wish," said the grateful monarch.

And Astolpho asked that a band of warriors should be allowed to go with him across the desert, to invade Algeria and the land of the Moors, and thus lend aid to his liege-lord Charlemagne. The king was well pleased to grant this request. He sent forth his heralds to bid all the bravest warriors of his realm to come and join the standard of Astolpho. And there came from every mountain stronghold and from every countryside, troops of knights and armed men, equipped and ready for the long march. Some came on the backs of elephants, some on camels; but the greater number were on foot, for there were no trained horses in that country. But, when they learned that they were expected to march across the Great Desert, they shook their heads, and hesitated.

"We shall never live to cross those terrible sands," said some: "for the South Wind will come upon us like the breath of a furnace, and will scorch the skin of our bodies, and parch our tongues with thirst; and then the whirlwind will take up the burning sand in its arms, and hurl it down upon us, and bury us alive."

But others said, "Cannot he who has done such wonders in our midst control even the South Wind? We will trust him."

On the evening previous to the day which had been set for the march, Astolpho secretly mounted his winged courser, and flew away toward the south. On and on he flew, until he came to the land where dwell the summer's heat and the fierce fire-forces. There, in a cave, the South Wind has her home. Every day, at early morn, she comes out of her dwelling, and roams over the earth, kissing the buds and blossoms, and causing them to open to the sun; rippling the waters of the lake, and rustling among the canebrakes and the corn; melting the snow and the ice on the mountain tops, and laughing with the rivulet which pours its waters over the rocky ledge; unlocking the frozen rivers, and sending great icebergs floating out to sea; speeding the heavily laden ships on their homeward voyage; stirring the waves into fury; and feeding the death-dealing whirlwinds which sweep over the desert and the sea. Oh, a kind blessing, as well as a fearful curse, is the South Wind! When Astolpho came to her dwelling, she had retired to rest. Not a leaf was stirring on the trees, not a ripple could be seen on the lake. All nature seemed asleep. Even in the cavern of the South Wind no sound was heard, save that of her heavy breathings as she lay reposing in her golden chamber. Astolpho hearkened a moment, and then carefully spread a magic net across the cavern's mouth; so that when the South Wind should awaken from her slumber, and should step forth from her dwelling, ready dight for her wondrous journey over the world, she should be caught and held fast in the meshes. Then he turned the head of his winged courser, and was soon safely back in the palace of Prester John.

At sunrise the dreaded march across the desert was commenced. And the warriors who followed Astolpho wondered what had become of the South Wind, and why no sand storms overtook them; for the only breeze that met them was the gentle, cooling West Wind, which cheered and strengthened them during their long journey. And at last the gray peaks of the Atlas Mountains, and the tall palm trees of Algeria, came in sight, and their perilous march was at an end. Then the South Wind, who had at last rid herself of the troublesome net, came tripping across the desert after them. She climbed the mountains behind them, and played among the treetops in the valleys, and whistled gleefully in the glens; but she had no power to do them any harm.

In the old poems, you may read wonderful stories of the manner in which Astolpho supplied his foot-soldiers with steeds by turning stones into horses; of how he routed Agramant and the other Saracen chiefs in battle; of how Charlemagne, hearing of his exploits, crossed the sea, and laid siege to Africa; and of many wondrous feats of arms performed by the Christian knights. Let us return to the pitiable fortunes of our hero.

Wandering aimlessly from place to place, as if drawn by some unseen hand, Roland advanced each day farther and farther south. At length he came to a little seaport town. The Straits lay before him, and beyond them was Africa. He was possessed with a mad wish to go onward, forever southward; and he felt that neither mountains nor seas should hinder him. A ship had just left the shore, with a party of Moorish soldiers on board. He rushed to the water's edge, calling to the sailors to come back, and take him into the vessel. But they, seeing his ragged clothing, and his wild, furious gestures, guessed rightly that he was some poor maniac, and paid not any attention to his cries. When Roland found that the vessel would neither turn back nor wait for him, he leaped madly into the sea, as if determined to swim across. Long and manfully did he buffet the waves, now rising high on the top of a swell, and now sinking deep into the trough of the sea. Both the land and the ship were out of sight; but still he struggled onward, knowing only that his life depended upon his keeping his head above the water. Yet he certainly would have been drowned, had not another vessel hove that way. The valiant swimmer was taken on board and carried across the Straits: for the Moorish knights who were in the ship pitied his forlorn case; and, when they reached their own shores, they allowed him to wander whithersoever he would.

It happened at this time, that the Christian hosts, with Charlemagne and Astolpho, were encamped not far from the sea, waiting for ships and a fair wind to bear them back to France. One day a strange man, ragged and tanned, came suddenly into the camp. He turned not aside for any thing that stood in his way. He hurled the warriors right and left from his path; he overturned the tents; he frightened the horses; he threw every thing into a panic. Astolpho and the knights who were with him seized their weapons, and ran hastily out to see what was going on. You may judge of their wonder and delight when they found that this strange madman was their old friend and comrade, Roland. By Astolpho's orders, they closed around him, and seized him from behind. Fiercely he struggled; and ill would his assailants have fared, had not their armor protected them from his mad blows. At length he was thrown to the ground and bound hand and foot. Then the good Astolpho took the precious phial of sense which he had carried so long and so carefully, and held it beneath the madman's nose.

A great change came over Roland. His unsettled mind at once regained its firmness, and his understanding became as strong and as clear as it had been of yore. He gazed about him, like one who wakes from a dream and finds himself in a strange place. He saw Astolpho and Oliver and Ogier standing over him, and he wondered why it was that he lay bound and unarmed upon the beach. Then the wild, vacant look passed from his face, and he seemed as calm and as composed as he had been in his happiest days. His friends knew that his madness had left him. They quickly unbound him and raised him to his feet. They led him to Astolpho's tent, and clothed him in raiment becoming the noblest of knights, and told him the strange story of his madness. And the next day a feast and a tournament were held in his honor, and the good Archbishop Turpin offered a public thanksgiving for the happy return of the wanderer. And many stories are told of Roland's prowess while yet the French army was delayed in Africa,—how, single-handed, he defeated three kings in a deadly passage at arms, and by so doing saved the life of his brother Oliver; how he regained by force the matchless helmet which Ferrau had carried away; how he won also for himself the sword Durandal, which Mandricardo the Tartar had stolen; and how, in every case, he dealt wisely and uprightly, and never sought undue advantage over his foes.