The story of the Knights of Arthur ends in defeat.
The king dreamed a strange and dreadful dream. It seemed to him that he was sitting in a chair, dressed in the richest cloth-of-gold that ever was made; and under him was "a hideous deep black water, and therein were all manner of serpents, and worms and wild beasts, foul and terrible," and suddenly the chair turned upside down, and he fell among the serpents, and "every beast took him by a limb." It is a picture of the fall of the Britons into the cruel power of their enemies the Angles.
The story of the Knights of Charlemagne is also a story of defeat.
The king has been fighting with the Saracens. Out of Arabia have come those wild soldiers of Mohammed to invade Europe. They are threatening both the religion and the civilization of the West. They have destroyed the Eastern empire, and are now proceeding to take the Western empire out of the hands of its barbarian conquerors. Their purpose is to make Arabia a world-power, such as Assyria and Chaldea, and Greece and Rome had been. They intend to annex Europe to Arabia, and to make Rome, as they had already made Jerusalem, subject to Mecca. The situation is like that in the days when Xerxes came with his Persians to the conquest of Greece, and was met by Leonidas at the Pass of Thermopylæ.
Thus the Saracens are met by Roland and Oliver at the Pass of Roncesvalles. And, as in the old time, there is a traitor. Ganelon, the false knight, shows a way by which the men who fight under the Crescent may have the advantage of the men who fight under the Cross. Charlemagne and the greater part of the army have gone on ahead, but Roland will not sound his horn to call them back. He will not ask for help. "Please God and His Holy Angels," he cries, "France shall not be so shamed through me; better death than such dishonor. The harder we strike, the better the emperor will love us." So they strike, till all the sides of the mountains are filled with the bodies of the slain. At last, the leaders themselves fall.
There is this difference, however, between the Death of Arthur and the Song of Roland: the defeat of Arthur is the end of the story, but the defeat of Roland is only an incident. Back comes Charlemagne and puts the Saracens to flight. It illustrates the contrast between the Britons, fighting their losing battles against the Angles, and their kinsmen the Franks, fighting their winning battles against the Angles' kinsmen, the Saxons.
This was mainly due to the might of Charlemagne.
The Franks, over whom Charlemagne was king, were Christians. But their Saxon neighbors, to the north and east, in Germany, were heathen. Christian missionaries had, indeed, been busy, following the brave examples of Patrick and Columba and Augustine, and tribe after tribe had yielded to the new religion. Boniface, for example, had come down from England, from the church which had been formed at last by the union of the missions of Columba with the missions of Augustine, and had won the title of "Apostle of Germany." But he had died a martyr, the pagan Frisians attacking him in his tent and putting him to death. The Saxons were still unconverted.
High among the Saxon mountains, in the forests of the Teutoberg, stood a tall, mysterious column called the Irminsul. It was the supreme idol of the Saxons. It looked down over the valleys into which, in the days of Augustine, the Saxons had enticed the legions under Varus, and had destroyed them. The Saxons prayed to it before they went to war. It represented the great god of Saxon Good Luck.
Of course, the Franks and Saxons fought continually. That was then the fashion among neighbors. The Saxons made their forays into the Frankish lands, and stole cattle and burned villages, and the Franks returned their visits. But more and more, as the Franks increased in civilization and in their knowledge of religion, the war between these tribes became a war between the reign of law and the reign of disorder, between learning and ignorance, and between Christianity and paganism. It was a new mission. Boniface had gone with the gospel, helped and defended only by his good life; and when at last the savage Frisians came howling about his tent, he would not permit any of his companions to strike a blow against them. Charlemagne came with the sword.
The first thing which he did was to destroy the Irminsul. Down came the sacred column crashing to the ground, and it seemed, for the moment, as if the religion and the might of the Saxons had fallen with it. But fighting the Saxons was like fighting a forest fire. While Charlemagne was putting out the flames of war in one place, they were breaking out more furiously than ever somewhere else. Every time he won a battle, he gathered his prisoners together, the vanquished chiefs and the subdued people, and marched them down into the nearest river and had them all baptized, every man of them. It was a queer kind of mission; and these converts often went back to paganism again when Charlemagne's back was turned, as might have been expected. But there were priests and bishops who went in among the people, dismayed as they were by the failure of their old gods to protect them, and taught them more effectively the truths to which the sword had so forcibly called their attention.
Thus Charlemagne became the master of all the tribes of Europe. All those various companies of barbarians who had broken down the old empire and settled among the ruins, and the wilder tribes who still lived, like the Saxons, in their native forests, were forced by his strong hand into obedience to a single government. He had the mind and the ambition of Alexander and of Cæsar, and belongs with them among the masters of the world.
So far did the great sound of his name go, that one time there came to him an embassy from the distant East, from Bagdad sent by Harun-al-Raschid, out of the Arabian Nights; to see his court, as the Queen of Sheba came to see the glory of Solomon.
The eye of the ambassadors of Harun-al-Raschid were probably attracted most by the armor of the knights and the ranks of the soldiers, and the stories which they told on their return were mostly about Roland and Oliver. But the most significant persons at the court of Charlemagne were schoolmasters and clergymen.
There had come down from England, from a school at York, a wise man named Alcuin. And when his errand was accomplished, and he was about to return, Charlemagne detained him. "Stay here," he said, "and teach us."
They needed him, that was plain enough. The great men were soldiers, who knew much about war but nothing about books. They were aware in a dim way that a race had preceded them in those lands who, though they had finally been conquered, had excelled their conquerors in art and architecture, in science and letters, in law and order. They had about them continual reminders of that old civilization, in the remains of Latin roads and buildings. They felt themselves in the neighborhood of a buried treasure to which the clue was lost. In Alcuin, they found the man who had the clue. He knew the old history, and was acquainted with the old art, and was able to read the old books. They became his pupils, beginning with the emperor himself. And some of those whom Alcuin taught established other schools, which grew in years to great universities.
These schoolmasters were clergymen. Many of them were monks of the Order of St. Benedict, and all looked to the Italy of Benedict and Gregory, as the Jews in the old time in exile when they said their prayers looked toward Jerusalem. There dwelt the bishop who was the head of all things religious as the emperor was the head of all things political. To the clergymen of the court of Charlemagne there were two great powers in the world: the power of the sword, which was held by Charlemagne, and was possessed by him as the master of the new empire of Franks and Saxons and Goths, builded on the ruins of the old; and the power of the spirit, which, as represented by the Church, and by the pope as the ruler of the Church, was bringing among these new masters of the world the civilization and the religion of the past.
But the pope was beset by enemies: by the Lombards, who had invaded Italy and seized lands there and who, though Christians, were of the Arian kind; by the Greeks, who still had colonies in Italy, and whose allegiance, like that of the pope himself, was to the emperor whose throne was at Constantinople. He was still, in law, the emperor of Rome. Charlemagne came to the assistance of the pope.
On Christmas Day, in the year 800, the pope at that time being Leo III., Charlemagne was in Rome, and attended the service in St. Peter's Church. Suddenly, as he knelt before the altar, the pope placed upon his head a golden crown, and pronounced him emperor of Rome.
It meant that the new time had finally come. It completed the barbarian conquest. It announced that the old imperial line was set aside, that the West was independent of the East, and that the true successor of the ancient emperors was Charlemagne the Frank. It was the beginning of a new order of things, the Holy Roman Empire.
In the Holy Roman Empire Charlemagne was supreme. He ruled the Church as he ruled the State. He built churches and monasteries; he sent missionaries and appointed bishops. He fulfilled the proud words of Constantius, who said, "What I wish is a canon of the Church, and what I believe is an article of the creed." But happily, he was as wise as he was strong, a good man, honestly intent on the welfare of his people. So he died, full of years and honors, a true successor, not in name only, but in character and power, of the great emperors, and, like them, not emperor only, but Pontifex Maximus also.
Thus was played the first act in that great contention between the emperor and the pope for mastery, which is the tragedy of the Middle Ages. The emperor was supreme. The hero of the next act was Hildebrand.