Old Time Tales - Lawton Evans

The Death of Roland

Many years ago very few people could read or write or knew anything about books. What books the world had were written by hand with infinite patience and care, for the art of printing was not known until about fifty years before America was discovered. In fact, it is said that Charlemagne himself, the great king of France, though he had learned to read, could never write very well. He tried hard to learn to write and even took the tablets to bed with him that he might practice when he awoke, but he made small progress.

In those days people were accustomed to learn the stories of their heroes from wandering minstrels, who went about from place to place entertaining the great barons in their castles, and the people in the market-place, reciting stories of past times. Of course, these stories finally wandered far from the truth, but doubtless in the beginning were founded upon fact.

In this way a great many of the traditions of the ancient world have come down to us, though we cannot vouch for the truth of many of them. One of these traditions is called "The Song of Roland." The wandering minstrels invented part of it and doubtless added deeds and incidents that they knew would please the French people. Some parts of the story we know are not true, but in all probability much of it is. We have already learned the story of how Roland became a knight; we are now to learn how he came to die.

Marsil was king of the Saracens and was holding his court in the groves of Saragossa. One day he said to those around him, "Charlemagne has been in Spain for seven long years and has wrought much harm to my people. I hear he is two hundred years old and is still valiant and terrible as a warrior. What shall we do to rid us of his presence?"

One of his counselors, who was very shrewd, replied, "I advise, my master, that you send a message to this Christian king, that you offer him large sums of money and send him many curious ornaments, as well as bears and laces and greyhounds; also send him seven hundred camels, a thousand hawks, and many mules laden with gold and silver. But above all, promise him that you will become a Christian and be baptized in the name of his God, if he will withdraw his army from Spain."

Marsil decided that this was good advice. He sent ten Arab lords, each one on a snow-white mule, bearing the most expensive gifts to Charlemagne. When they came to the town where the king was, they found him surrounded by many lords of France, among them his beloved nephew, Roland, who was the bravest of all the French knights. There were also the Count Oliver, the dear friend of Roland, and Turpin, the archbishop. Among his guard there was a traitor named Ganelon, who had married Roland's mother and who bitterly hated his stepson.

After the Saracen lords had delivered their gifts, and asked for peace and a withdrawal of the French army from Spain, Charlemagne turned to his counselors and asked for advice. His lords agreed with one voice that the heathen king should not be trusted and that he did not want peace. Ganelon was the only one who advised otherwise.

Charlemagne, however, listened to Ganelon, who told him that he knew that Marsil was a heathen but that he could be trusted; that he really wanted friendship and that he would become a Christian if Charlemagne so desired. He advised him to accept the proffers of friendship and to send a French hostage in token of faith.

Ganelon said to the king, "I would that you would send Roland and Oliver and the archbishop, Turpin, who are doubtless eager to be sent as hostages, for that would please Marsil."

The three followers of the king were eager to go, not suspecting the treachery of Ganelon, but Charlemagne was not willing to part with any of them. Turning to Ganelon, he said, "No, I shall send none of them. You shall be the hostage."

When Ganelon arrived at the court of Marsil he was received with every demonstration of regard. Marsil said to him, "It is strange that Charlemagne, so old, desires war. I should think that with his age and possessions he would lay aside the business of war and take himself to more peaceful pursuits."

To this the traitor Ganelon replied, "Charlemagne will not cease from war as long as Roland breathes. He and Oliver and Turpin, three of his most valiant paladins, ever persuade him to arms."

He then told Marsil that Roland was a most valiant knight and that he would command the rear-guard of the French as they marched over the mountains back into France from their last incursion. He advised Marsil to send an army in pursuit, in spite of his promise of peace. After Charlemagne and the main body had gotten safely through the pass of Roncesvalles, it would be easy for the Saracens to fall upon the rear-guard and there destroy them. Thus Ganelon was a traitor to the king and plotted the destruction of his own countrymen.

Charlemagne accepted the terms of peace, believing that the Saracens were sincere, and broke up his camp in Spain. He took with him much of the booty he had plundered and ordered the trumpets to sound for the homeward march. The great host crossed the fertile plains, and rode into the mountain pass, leaving the three valiant paladins with twenty thousand men to guard the rear.

Charlemagne rode forward with his army, leaving Roland, Oliver and Turpin behind, though he knew they were in peril if Marsil should prove false. In fact he had been warned in a dream not to trust the Saracens and had wished to leave a larger guard with his three paladins, but Roland had said to him, "No, my lord, twenty thousand is enough. We are more than a match for our enemies."

Soon the tramp of the French army died away in the distance and Roland, Oliver and Turpin were left in the pass with twenty thousand men. Then Roland heard the noise of the mighty host advancing from the Spanish side of the mountain. Oliver sprang to a high point and to his great dismay saw the army of the Saracens. Their helmets were flaming with inlaid gold, their spears were streaming with pennants. He could not count the mighty mass that was coming upon the little army. Marsil had proved false, and had laid an ambuscade in the pass of Roncesvalles.

Oliver ran to Roland and cried, "Marsil has broken his word and the Saracens are upon us. Sound your ivory horn that the king may hear the blast and send back a part of his army to our rescue."

Now, this horn of Roland's had a very magic power. Whenever Roland blew it, it could be heard many leagues away and he had often used it to call assistance. But now he was too proud to call for aid.

He sat upon his horse and drew his golden hilted sword that he had named Durinda, and calmly awaited the onset of the Saracens without fear of the result.

Again his friends besought him to blow his ivory horn, but again he refused, saying to those around him, "I shall not sound my ivory horn for it never shall be spoken of me that I blew a blast to call aid against a heathen enemy."

The archbishop sat upon a rock where he could see his army and absolve them from their sins. The twenty thousand soldiers knelt upon the ground and the brave archbishop told each man that he must fight his best against the foe as a penance for his sins.

The cry of the French was "Montjoie," which for long had been the battle cry of France. The fight raged very fiercely. It is said that Roland and Oliver and the archbishop killed a thousand men. So great was the slaughter that the Saracens turned and fled in dismay.

When Marsil heard of the battle raging so terribly and the slaughter of his men he led out even a greater army against Roland and his soldiers. Still Roland refused to let Charlemagne know that he was in danger. So terrible was the slaughter that only three hundred of the French were left alive. Another onset of the Saracens and only sixty were alive.

At last Roland agreed to sound his horn, which he placed at his lips and blew a mighty blast. The sound rolled around the mountain peaks and was heard for thirty miles away. The king in his tent heard the sound and cried, "The horn of Roland, blown only in the time of need! Our men battle and are in danger. Let us go to them at once."

Ganelon, the traitor, who had been allowed to return from the camp of the Saracens, was standing near the king, and when he heard the far notes of the horn sounding on the evening air the second time, and even the third time, he tried to persuade Charlemagne that there was no danger. But Charlemagne was deceived no longer. He knew then that Roland needed him. Ordering Ganelon to be bound and guarded, he called his men and flew at once to the rescue.

But Ganelon's treason had succeeded. Help came too late to Roland and Oliver and Turpin, for of the sixty followers that were left, now only three remained and they were the three brave men whose story we are telling. Oliver was the first to die. Roland came to him quickly and found him blinded by blood and fainting with exhaustion. Soon he clasped his friend's hand and passed away while the Saracens were making their assault.

Archbishop Turpin was the next to die, and then came Roland's turn last of all, falling in the midst of a pile of slain. A Saracen discovered him and attempted to take away his sword, Durinda, with the hilt of gold and jewels. Roland revived for a moment and struck the heathen on the hand with his magic horn. The horn was broken and the gems and gold that ornamented it were scattered on the ground.

Fearing lest this sword that was given him long since by an angel should fall into heathen hands, Roland, with his dying grasp, struck it on a rock, but the magic sword would not break nor would its keen edge be bent and dulled. Roland fell back exhausted upon the ground with his sword and horn beside him. When Charlemagne arrived all his host were slain and his three paladins were cold in death.

The king took a dreadful vengeance on the Saracens, pursuing them back to Spain and slaying them to the last man. A sad procession, bearing the bodies of Roland and Oliver and Turpin, moved slowly back to France, where they were received with great lamentations by all the people. The traitor Ganelon was bound between four horses and pulled apart by them as they ran across a field.

This is the tradition of the death of the brave Roland as we have it from those who told it in the olden days.