Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin

Frederick Barbarossa


Three score and nine years old was the red-bearded king, Frederick Barbarossa. He was by right the master of Germany. He had subdued Italy and had been crowned in the imperial city of Rome. Throughout Europe his name was known and feared; in his own country he was the hero of heroes.

He might have ended his days in quiet and peace, but such was not the wish of the iron-hearted warrior. War was his chosen pastime; war was his delight; and the glory of his country was his ambition.

From the Holy Land, far over the sea, a call for help was sounded. The Saracens of the desert had captured Jerusalem; they had seized upon the Holy Sepulcher, so dear to every Christian heart; the sacred banner of the cross had been trailed in the dust.

Throughout Europe there was great alarm. Devout men went from land to land preaching a crusade for the delivery of the holy places. Christian princes raised mighty armies and, crossing the seas, fought bravely to drive the unbelieving Saracens back to their native deserts.

At such a time could Frederick Barbarossa remain idle at home? Could he rest quietly who had spent fifty years in the turmoil of war? As well could the mountain torrent stand still on the brow of a precipice. He sounded the word of command; he put himself at the head of his armed hosts; he led them forth to the defense of the Holy Land. Neither mountains nor seas nor sun nor storm delayed his march; and dismay filled the hearts of the Saracens when they heard of his coming.

On a day in early spring his army arrived upon the banks of a broad stream in Asia Minor. The land of the Saracens was on the farther side; the banners of the Saracen army were seen in the distance. But the stream was deep and rapid, fed by ice-cold torrents from the melting snows of the mountains. There was neither ferry nor ford; and the soldiers paused, fearing to go forward.

Then Frederick rode up and down upon his prancing war steed. A thousand knights, clad in glittering suits of mail, were behind him. They were the flower of Germany, the bravest and best of the heroes of the Rhineland. The emperor's long beard streamed in the wind like the tail of a flaming red comet. His gleaming sword flashed like lightning as he waved it above his head. His voice was like rolling thunder as he turned in his saddle and called to his eager followers.


"Beyond this stream," cried he, "lies the goal towards which we have been pressing. I see the banners of the Saracens upon the hill tops. I hear their cries of defiance. Even now I smell the battle, and see the enemy fleeing before us. Why do we pause here? Let every brave man follow me!"

He turned his horse quickly and plunged into the stream. His thousand mailed knights upon their impatient horses followed him. The roaring waters leaped high to meet them. Horsemen and steeds battled bravely with the flood. They were borne down by the torrent; their heavy armor dragged them to the bottom; not one was able to reach the farther shore.

Frederick Barbarossa was the last to be overcome. With the strength of a giant he fought his way to the middle of the stream. Then a great wave seized upon him. It hurled him from his steed, and bore him helpless along in the trough of the rushing current. The foot soldiers, watching from the shore, soon lost sight of the hero. The last they saw of him was his red beard streaming far behind, and his glittering sword, which he still held upright.

They watched until there was no longer any sign of armored knight or warrior king, for the waters had closed over all. Then, as if moved by a single thought, they cried out in dismay and grief; they wept for their lost leader; they bewailed their own hard fate, thus left without guide or commander, in a strange and unfriendly land. Strong men gave way to despair, and brave warriors who feared no danger were overcome with sorrow.

As they ran in confusion hither and thither, shrieking and lamenting, a wonderful vision appeared to them. A holy monk, clad in long robes and holding a crucifix in his hand, stood upon the river bank at the spot from which Frederick the hero had leaped into the waves. He beckoned to them to listen.

"Why do you weep for your lost leader?" he said. "He is not dead. He has gone back to his own country and yours—to Germany; and with him are his mailed knights. In the Kyffhäuser Mountain, in the great hall of the immortals, Frederick Barbarossa rests with his chosen heroes. He will sleep there until the eagles shall cease to fly around the mountain peaks. He will rest there until the time is ripe for the doing of mighty deeds. Then the bell shall toll the hour, the trumpet shall sound, and he will ride forth with his mailed knights to conquer the world. Weep no more; but return to your fatherland to wait for the day and the hour when your warrior king shall call you!"

And having spoken these words the strange monk vanished.

"Let us obey him and return to our homes," was the cry. But, alas, there were few in that great host who would ever see their fatherland again.


Days passed and years and circling centuries, but no man knew where to find the hall of the immortals in which Frederick Barbarossa was sleeping with his chosen heroes.

When half a thousand years had gone by, a shepherd chanced one day to wander into a lonely glen far up the side of the Kyffhäuser Mountain. A sheep had strayed from the flock and he had traced it thither, to a part of the mountain which he had never seen before. Suddenly the path which he was following ended. In the rocky wall before him he saw a narrow opening, like a doorway, half hidden by vines and overhanging boughs. Was this a cave, and could the stray sheep have wandered into it?

He peered through the doorway. It opened into a long, narrow passage, and beyond the end of the passage the shepherd thought he saw the sunlight glimmering among green trees.

"Ah, my stray lamb," he said, "you have found your way to new pastures, I see. I will follow you and learn what sort of place it is."

He went boldly in, thinking that the passage would open out into a sunny glen on the other side of the mountain. The way was long, and for a while he trudged carelessly along whistling a gay tune Then he began to sing in clear, joyous tones a little song that he himself had composed:—

"A throstle in a linden tree

Sings tir-ra, lir-ra, lir-ra;

He sings for you, he sings for me,

And he sings tir-ra, lir-ra.

"All day I watch my lambs and sheep,

And whistle tir-ra, lir-ra;

'Tis better far to laugh than weep,

So I sing tir-ra, lir-ra.

"At home my loved ones wait for me,

While I sing tir-ra, lir-ra;

And when at eve—"

The singing stopped suddenly. The shepherd had reached the end of the passage, and the sight which he saw almost caused him to faint. He was standing in the door of a broad hall, the roof of which was upheld by columns of green marble. The walls and the floor were inlaid with sparkling jewels, and it was the light from these, reflected from the green columns, that the shepherd had mistaken for sunlight among green trees.

At a marble table in the center of the hall sat Frederick Barbarossa. His head was resting upon his hands; his face was beaming with the light of other days; his red beard had grown through the table and lay in long, wavy masses upon the floor. Ranged along the wall on either side of the king sat a thousand mail-clad warriors. Beside them were their arms, glittering bright as on the day when they set out for the Holy Land. The hand of sleep was upon them all. They breathed softly; they dreamed of war and victory; the smile of triumph was on their faces. Long time had they waited there for the word that was to lead them forth.

The coming of the shepherd, singing his joyous song, had disturbed the king. Slowly he raised his head; he opened his eyes; he looked around upon his sleeping heroes. Then he cried in tones that echoed through the mountains: "Comrades! Comrades!"

The warriors awoke and leaped to their feet; they seized their lances and their swords; their armor rattled like the sudden bursting of thunder when a storm rages among the hills. A hum of joy ran through the hall.

"Do the eagles still circle above the mountain peaks?" asked Barbarossa, raising his sword toward the sparkling roof of the hall.

And a voice which seemed far, far away, echoed, "The eagles still circle above the mountain peaks!"

The shadows again settled upon the face of the king. He raised his hand to silence the awakened warriors. "Sleep on, comrades," he said; "the hour has not yet come."

With one accord they laid their weapons aside; the light of joy faded from their faces; they sank upon the ground; with closed eyes they slept as soundly as before.

The king remained awake for a little while. Then, with a sigh, he again rested his elbows upon the marble table. He leaned his head upon his hand. His fiery beard trailed upon the floor; his face beamed bright as when he was young; he slumbered, waiting for the appointed hour.

Strange, weird sounds were heard in the great hall. The wind whistled through the crevices in the rocks; it roared in the dome-shaped roof; it shrieked around the figures of the sleeping warriors. Voices of unseen beings were echoed back and forth, from wall to wall and from column to column. Then soft music filled the air and soothed the slumbering heroes, driving every harsher sound from the enchanted hall.

During all this time the shepherd stood entranced, without the power to move or speak. How he escaped from the place he never knew. But when he came to himself he was lying on the grass in the meadow where he was accustomed to keep his flock, and his sheep were quietly feeding around him.