Story of Roland - James Baldwin

A Roland for an Oliver

Charlemagne held high festival at Paris. It was in thanksgiving for the victories with which his arms had everywhere been blessed. Once more the foes of Christendom had been driven from Christian soil; once more did peace and prosperity seem to smile upon France. And the king had summoned the worthiest barons and warriors of his realm to award to each some fitting recompense for his services and good faith.

Among the knights who had come to Paris was old Count Gerard, the grandfather of Oliver, and one of the most powerful barons of France. He had come to renew his homage for his ancient fief of Viana; and he hoped that the king, as a reward for his lifelong services, would grant him now the vacant fief of Burgundy. But, from some reason best known to himself, Charlemagne failed to invest him with the wished-for dukedom. Some say that it was all the result of an awkward accident. The count, they say, after doing homage for Viana, stooped, as was the custom in those times, to kiss the king's foot. But, greatly to his chagrin, he stumbled, and his lips touched the foot of the queen, who was sitting by the side of Charlemagne. The knights who stood around were much amused, and could not forbear laughing at the unlucky count; but the king, in anger, told him that the fief of Burgundy had already been granted to a younger and more courteous knight, and that he must content himself with Viana until he had learned better manners. Count Gerard, boiling over with rage, turned upon his heel, and strode out of the palace. He called his men together, mounted his horse, and set out with all speed for Viana.

It matters not whether this story be true or not, we know that Count Gerard rebelled against the king, and declared, that, for the affront which Charlemagne had offered him, he would no longer be his man, nor pay him tribute. He shut himself up in the stronghold of Viana, which he victualled and strengthened with great care, and made ready for a long and a close siege. He sent also to his brother Miles of Apulia and to his son Rainier of Genoa, craving their help. Miles came with a thousand men bearing shields; and Rainier, with two thousand crossbow-men. With Rainier came also his son Oliver, boldest of warriors, and his daughter Alda, beautiful as a Persian peri, brave as a Saxon valkyrie.

Great indeed was the siege which Charlemagne placed around Viana: none ever saw the like before. And he vowed that he would never leave it, nor give up the contest, until the proud Gerard should be humbled in the dust before him. For nine weeks he besieged the stronghold, and allowed no one to come in or to go out; and yet so well supplied was the garrison with all things needful for life and comfort that they cared but little for the blockade. Neither besiegers nor besieged spared any pains to annoy one another. If Charlemagne's warriors dared approach too near the walls, they were driven back by a shower of arrows from the crossbows of the sharp-sighted Genoans. If the men of Viana ventured outside of the gates, or beyond the moat, a troop of fleet horsemen drove them back at the point of the lance. Sometimes the besieged would make a bold sally, and attack their foes in the open plain; sometimes the besiegers would try to take the stronghold by storm. But day after day went by, the summer passed, and autumn came, and the war seemed no nearer at an end.

Sometimes the Lady Alda stood upon the ramparts, and cheered the besieged, or helped to throw down stones and other missiles upon the heads of those who were trying to scale the walls. And once, dressed in full armor, she ventured out at the head of the Vianese, and boldly charged upon the besiegers. One day, Roland, seeing the fair lady standing upon the wall, rode up within call, and asked her her name.

"My name is Alda," she answered, "and my grandfather is the Count Gerard."

"And my name is Roland," said the hero, "and my uncle is King Charlemagne. Never have I seen a warrior-maiden fairer or nobler than thou. Never will I cease to love and to woo thee, though it should be at the cost of my life."

The next morning Roland fully armed, with his hawk perched on his wrist, rode down toward the Rhone. In the garden, beneath the walls of the fortress, he saw a mallard sitting. Thinking to have some sport, he loosed the hawk from his arm. High into the air the creature sprang; round and round above his head it circled, looking down in search of prey. It saw the mallard in the garden, and, quick as an arrow, darted down upon it. But, after it had struck the unoffending bird to the ground, it seemed not at all anxious to come back to its master. In vain did Roland whistle and call: as if knowing that it was beyond his reach, it sat on the branch of an apple tree, and quietly plumed its feathers. A knight in the castle, seeing the hawk, and wishing to have it for his own, came out into the garden to call it. He was armed from head to foot, and his visor was closed, and a long red plume waved from his helmet's crest. The bird heard his call, and flew to him, and alighted upon his wrist. A noble bird it was,—the falcon which Roland petted and prized more than any other.

Roland spurred his steed, and rode as near to the walls as a prudent fear of the crossbow-men would allow. "Sir knight," cried he very courteously, "give me back my bird, and you shall have fifteen pounds of gold!"

"Nay," answered the Knight of the Red Plume. "Not for a hundred pounds would I give him to you. I have taken him fairly, as the spoils of war, and I mean to keep him. No usurer shall buy me with gold."

Then Roland again put spurs to his horse, and, heeding not the threats of the crossbow-men upon the battlements, he rode boldly across the field, and paused not until he stood within ten paces of the strange knight, and close to the castle wall. But the visors of both warriors were closed, and neither could see the other's face.

Very courteously, as became a well-taught knight, Roland asked the other his name.

"Vassal," answered he, "my name is my own, and I give it not to strangers or to foes. You may call me the Knight of the Red Plume."

"Friend," said Roland, "I seek no quarrel with you. Give me my bird—carry it no farther,—and we shall part in peace, to meet, perhaps, as foes another time."

"Ah, indeed!" answered the stranger-knight with a sneer. "Truly, you should be my henchman. A brave man you seem to be! If you will serve me a year and a day, you shall be knighted, and shall have either land, or fee, or burgh, or castle, as your valor shall deserve."

Roland was deeply angered by these taunting words, and he drew his sword half out of its scabbard. But then he remembered that he had vowed not to cross weapons that day with any foe.

"Vassal!" cried he, rising in his stirrups, "I pray you that for love you give me the bird; and I promise you that if, after to-day, you ask aught of satisfaction from me, it shall be as you wish."

"The hawk is yours," answered the knight, loosing the bird, and handing it to Roland. "Willingly I give it you. But remember your promise."

"Truly it shall not be forgotten," answered Roland.

And the two knights parted.

Week after week passed by, and still the wearisome siege continued. Some say that Charlemagne was encamped around Viana for seven years, but I think it could not have been more than seven months. Nevertheless, the whole country, for leagues on every side, was laid waste; and what had once been a blooming garden was now in a fair way to become a desert. The vineyards had been destroyed; the orchards had been cut down; the houses of the country-folk had been burned and destroyed. Great, indeed, was the distress caused by this quarrel between the king and the count; but the distress fell upon neither king nor count, but upon the innocent and the helpless. Ah, how cruel is war!

The king allowed neither wind nor rain to turn him aside from his purpose, or to make him forget his vow; and all winter long his men sat by their camp fires, and surlily guarded the approaches to Viana. At length, however, Eastertide drew on apace; and the woods began to grow green again, and the flowers sprang up in the meadows, and the birds sang soft and sweet. And many knights bethought them then how idly and vainly their time was being spent in this fruitless war against one of their own number; and they longed to ride away in quest of other and more worthy adventures. The king tried hard to press the siege and to bring it to a speedy close, but in vain. The watchful and valiant crossbow-men held the besiegers at bay, and obliged them to keep their accustomed goodly distance from the walls.

One day a party of strange knights rode into the camp, and asked to see the king without delay. They came from the mountain land which borders France on the south; and they brought stirring news,—news which aroused the zeal of every loyal Christian warrior. Marsilius, the Pagan king of Spain, they said, had crossed the Pyrenees with a great host of Saracens, and was carrying fire and sword and dire distress into the fairest provinces of Southern France. Unless Charlemagne should come quickly to the help of his people, all Aquitaine and Gascony would be lost, and the Pagans would possess the richest portion of his kingdom.

The king was much troubled when he heard these tidings, and he called his peers together to ask their advice. All declared at once in favor of raising the siege of Viana, of making some sort of peace with Gerard, and marching without delay against the invaders. But Charlemagne remembered, that, before undertaking the siege of Viana, he had vowed not to desist until Count Gerard was humbled in the dust at his feet.

"I have an oath in heaven," said he, "and I must not break it. This traitor Gerard shall not be spared."

"Which were better," asked Duke Ganelon mildly,—"to forget a vow which was made too hastily, or to sit here helpless, and see all Christendom trodden under the feet of accursed Saracens?"

"It seems to me," said sage Duke Namon, "that the present business might be speedily ended by leaving it to the judgment of God. Count Gerard knows nothing of the straits that you are in: he cannot have heard of this invasion by the Saracens; and he will gladly agree to any arrangement that will bring your quarrel with him to an honorable end. Let two knights be chosen by lot, one from each party, and let the combat between them decide the question between you and Count Gerard."

Charlemagne and his peers were much pleased with this plan; and a messenger with a truce-flag was sent into the fortress to propose the same to Count Gerard. The men of Viana were not only heartily tired of fighting against the king, but they foresaw that, if the siege were kept up much longer, they would be obliged to surrender for want of food; for their provisions were already beginning to run low. So they very gladly agreed to leave the whole matter to the decision of Heaven; and, as they numbered among them some of the bravest and most skilful swordsmen in Christendom, they had little doubt but that the judgment would be in their favor.

When the messenger came back to Charlemagne with Count Gerard's answer, the king and his peers at once drew lots in order to determine which one of their number should be their champion. The lot fell upon Roland; and to him was assigned the danger and the honor of maintaining the dignity and authority of the king, and of deciding a question which many months of warfare and siege had failed to settle.

Early the following morning Roland was ferried over to an island meadow in the Rhone, where the knight who had been chosen by the Vianese folk to oppose him was already waiting. He was surprised to see that it was the Knight of the Red Plume,—the same with whom he had talked in the garden beneath the castle walls. Roland was well armed; but instead of his own shield he carried another, which the king had given him—one wide and thick, but new and untried; yet his good sword, Durandal the terror, slept in its sheath by his side, and with it alone he would have felt sure of victory. The Knight of the Red Plume had armed himself with the greatest care. His war coat had been wrought by the famed smith, the good Jew Joachim, and was said to be proof against the stroke of the best-tempered sword. The hauberk which he wore was the one which King Æneas, ages before, had won from the Greeks on the plains of Troy. His buckler was of fish-skin from the great salt sea, stretched on a frame of iron, and hard enough to turn the edge of any common sword.

On one bank of the river stood the friends of Roland, anxious to see how the young hero would acquit himself, and yet not at all fearful of the result. On the other side were Count Gerard and Miles and Rainier, and the bravest knights and the fairest ladies of Viana. And among these last, the fairest of all was Alda, the daughter of Rainier, and the sister of Oliver. Very beautiful was she to look upon. A coronet of pearls encircled her brows; golden was her hair, which fell in rich ringlets on her shoulders; blue were her eyes as the eyes of moulted falcon; fresh was her face, and rosy as dawn of a summer's day; white were her hands, her fingers long and slender; her feet were well shaped and small. The red blood had risen to her face. Eagerly she waited the beginning of the fray. Roland, when he saw her, trembled as he had never trembled before an enemy.

The signal for the onset is given. The two knights put spurs to their steeds, and dash toward each other with the fury of tigers and the speed of the wind. The lances of both are shivered in pieces against the opposing shields, but neither is moved from his place in his saddle. Quickly, then, they dismount, and draw their swords. How Durandal flashes in the light of the morning sun! Now does the helmet which the good Jew Joachim made do good service for the red-plumed knight. The fair Alda is overcome with fear. She hastens back to the castle. She goes to the chapel to pray, and falls fainting at the foot of the altar.

Never before has there been so equal a fight. For more than two hours the two knights thrust and parry, ward and strike; but neither gains the better of the other. At last, however, the sword of the red-plumed knight is broken by a too lusty blow upon Roland's helmet: his shield, too, is split from top to bottom. He has neither wherewith to fight, nor to defend himself, yet he has made up his mind to die rather than to be vanquished, and he stands ready to fight with his fists. Roland is pleased to see such pluck, and he scorns to take advantage of his foe's ill plight.

"Friend," said he right courteously, "full great is your pride, and I love you for it. You have lost your sword and your shield, while my good Durandal has neither notch nor blemish. Nephew am I to the king of France, and his champion I am to-day. Great shame would be upon me, were I to slay an unarmed man when he is in my power. Choose you now another sword—one to your own liking—and a more trusty shield, and meet me again as my equal."

Roland sat down upon the grass and rested himself, while the red-plumed knight bade his squires bring him another sword from the castle. Three swords were sent over to him,—that of Count Gerard, that of Rainier the Genoese, and Haultclear, a blade which the Jew Joachim had made, and which in old times had been the sword of Closamont the emperor.

The knight chose Haultclear. Roland rose from the grass, and the fierce fight began again. Never were weapons wielded with greater skill; never was there a nobler combat. The sun rose high in the heavens, and the noontide hour came; and still each knight stood firmly in his place, thrusting and parrying, striking and warding, and gaining no vantage over his foe. After a time, however, the patience of the red-plumed knight gave out. He grew furious. He was anxious to bring the combat to an end. He struck savagely at Roland; but the stroke was skillfully warded, and Haultclear snapped short off near the handle. At the same time Durandal, coming down with the force of a thunderbolt, buried itself so deeply in the shield of the red-plumed knight, that Roland could not withdraw it.

Both knights were thus made weaponless; but neither was vanquished. Wrathfully they rushed together to seize each other, to throw each other down. Moved by the same thought, each snatched the other's helmet, and lifted it from his head. Some say that a bright cloud and an angel came down between them, and bade them cease their strife; but I know not whether this be true, for, as they stood there, bareheaded, and face to face, memories of their boyhood came back to them. Both were struck dumb with astonishment for a moment. Roland saw before him his loved brother-in-arms, Oliver. Oliver, now no longer the red-plumed knight, recognized his old friend Roland. Then they rushed into each other's arms.

"I yield me!" cried Roland.

"I yield me!" cried Oliver.

[Illustration] from The Story of Roland by James Baldwin


Great was the wonder of Charlemagne and his peers when they saw their champion thus giving up the fight when victory seemed assured. Equally great was the astonishment of the Vianese and of Oliver's kinsmen. Knights and warriors from both sides of the river hastened to cross to the island. They were eager to know the meaning of conduct seemingly so unknightly. But when they came nearer, and saw the men, who had fought each other so long and so valiantly, now standing hand in hand, and pledging anew their faith as brothers-in-arms, every thing was made clear. And with one voice all joined in declaring that both were equally deserving of the victory. And Ogier the Dane stood up, and said, that, although the question between Charlemagne and Gerard was still unsettled, yet Roland and Oliver had acquitted themselves in all things as became true knights.

"Let him who would gainsay it speak now, or forever hold his tongue!" he cried.

But in all the host there was not one who wished to break lances with Ogier, or to risk his displeasure by disputing his word.

Then the folk of Viana went back to their castle prison, and their foes returned to their tents; and each party began anew to plan means by which this tiresome and unprofitable war might be brought to an end.

Another week, and a fortnight, passed by, and every day messengers came to Charlemagne, telling of the ravages of Marsilius the Moor, and begging him to hasten to the aid of his people. Very willingly would he have gone, and left Viana in peace, had it not been for the remembrance of his vow.

"I cannot go," said he, "until this rebel Gerard is humbled upon his knees before me."

One by one his knights, tired of inaction, and preferring to wage war against unbelievers rather than against men of their own faith and nation, stole quietly from the camp, and rode away toward the Pyrenees. It seemed as if the king would be left, after a while, to carryon the siege of Viana alone; yet he never faltered in his determination to perform his vow to the very letter.

One day some huntsmen brought word to Charlemagne that a fierce wild boar had been seen in Claremont wood, and that he was now hiding in a thicket not far from Viana. Ever eager for the chase, the king at once mounted his horse, and, followed by his men and his hounds, he hastened to the wood. It was not long until the grim beast was driven from his lair; and the king, as was his wont, gave chase. Duke Gerard and his knights, watching from the towers of Viana that morning, had seen the kingly hunting party ride out into the wood.

"Let us have a hand in this hunt," said Rainier of Genoa. "We might hunt for royal game; and, could we but take the king, we might end this war on our own terms."

Count Gerard and the other nobles were pleased.

"I know a secret underground passage," said the count, "which leads directly from the castle to the wood. Once there, we might lie in wait in the thickets, and waylay the king as he passes by."

The knights at once girded on their armor, hung their shields to their necks, and took their bows and arrows in hand. Then, led by two trusty squires, who lighted the way with torches, they filed through the long, dark tunnel, and came out in the midst of a briery thicket in the wood of Claremont. The sound of the baying hounds told them that the game was not far away; and soon, as good fortune would have it, the hunted beast, furious with rage, rushed past them. Very close behind him came Charlemagne, riding upon his favorite hunting-steed and so intent upon spearing the boar that he neither saw nor thought of any thing else. The huntsmen and most of the hounds had been left far behind.

"Now is our time!" cried Rainier. And, quick as thought, five well-armed knights rushed out of the thicket, and seized the king's charger by the reins, and called upon him to surrender. Having only the weapons of the chase, and being set upon so unexpectedly, Charlemagne was no match for his stout assailants. Quickly he was seized, and dragged from the saddIe: firmly but gently was he held by his captors. Then Aymery of Narbonne, bloodthirsty, and at heart a traitor, whispered to Count Gerard, and advised him to kill the king.

"With him out of our way," said he, "we shall be free; our fiefs shall be our own; and no man shall claim homage or tribute from us."

But the count pushed him aside with scorn.

"Shame on thee!" he answered. "May it not please God that ever king of France be killed by me: of him I will hold my castle and my lands!" And he knelt humbly before the captive king.

Charlemagne's heart was touched by the words of loyalty and good faith which fell from the lips of the count.

"Gerard of Viana," he cried, "all this trouble between thee and me is ended and forgotten. If thou hast harmed me, I freely forgive thee. No penny of tribute shalt thou pay for land, or fief, or castle. Only for the sake of my vow, renew thy homage."

Then Gerard ungirt his sword from his side, and uncovered his head, and knelt again before the king; and he placed both his hands between those of the king, and said—

"From this day forward I become your man of life and limb, and of all worldly worship; and unto you I will be loyal and true, and I will bear you faith for the lands and the castles and the houses that I claim of you. And to no other lord will I grant obedience, save at your behest."

Then the king raised him gently from the ground and kissed him, and answered,—

"Count of Viana, my man shalt thou be in life and limb and worldly worship; and to thee do I grant the lands, the fiefs, and the castles of Viana, to have and to hold without any payment of tribute, or any other service save that which is given in honorable war."

Then the other knights, in the order of their rank, came and knelt likewise before the king; and each in his turn promised to be his man,—first Rainier of Genoa, then Miles of Apulia, then Oliver, and lastly the headstrong Aymery of Narbonne. And the king forgave each one all the wrong that he had ever done him, and gave back to each all the lands and fiefs and tenements and all the honors that he had held before.

"And now," said Charlemagne to Count Gerard, "I will go with you, and sup with you to-night in your lordly castle of Viana."

Great was the wonder of the Vianese when they saw the king enter their halls, not as the prisoner, but as the friend and guest, of the count. And great, indeed, was the joy when it was known that peace had been made, and that the wearisome siege was at an end. In the broad feast hall, a rich banquet was spread, and the night was given up to feasting and music and merrymaking. And among the knights who sat at the table there was none more noble or more handsome than Oliver. And among the ladies who added grace and beauty to the glad occasion not one was so fair as Oliver's sister, the matchless Alda.

But in the tents of the besiegers that night there was much disquietude and bewilderment. The huntsmen had sought in vain for Charlemagne in the wood; and, when they could not find him, they came back to the camp, thinking that he had become wearied of the chase and had returned. On their way they had found his horse grazing among the herbage, with the reins lying loose on his neck. Great now was their uneasiness. Roland put himself at the head of fifty horsemen, and scoured the country for miles around. But as the darkness of night began to settle over the earth, they were forced to return, sadder and more perplexed than ever, to the camp. Many were the guesses which were hazarded regarding this strange disappearance of the king. Some thought that the wild boar, which was known to be very large and fierce, might have turned upon him, and torn him in pieces in the wood. Others suggested that mayhap he had followed the example of his barons, and ridden away from this dull siege to the more active war against the Saracens; but this did not seem at all probable. The greater number were agreed in believing that he had been waylaid and taken prisoner by the men of Viana. And all were for placing themselves under the leadership of Roland, resolved, that on the morrow they would make one grand assault on the castle, and carry it, if possible, by storm.

The next morning, what was the astonishment of the besiegers to see the gates of Viana thrown wide open, and the men, to the number of two thousand, march out with music playing, and banners flying, as if it were a gay holiday! But greater still was their wonder when they saw that the knight who rode so grandly in the van by the side of Count Gerard was their own loved king. Roland, who at first was fearful that the Vianese were plotting some treachery, had hastily drawn up his warriors in line of battle, ready to defend the camp. But Charlemagne, as soon as he had come near enough to be heard, explained that peace had been made, and that Count Gerard and the barons who were with him in Viana had renewed their homage, and that all past differences had been forgotten.

After this the king held his court for seven days in the castle of Viana; and the men who had so lately been foes stood together in the halls as sworn friends, loyal and true. And the days were given over to merrymaking. And Roland and Oliver, the long separated brothers-in-arms, sat together in the hall and at the feast table, and talked of what had befallen them since the day when they plighted their faith to each other among the hills of Sutri. And, before the week had passed, Roland and Alda, the sister of Oliver, were betrothed.