Gateway to the Classics: Barbarian and Noble by Marion Florence Lansing
Barbarian and Noble by  Marion Florence Lansing

Roderick and the Saracens

Legend tells us that there was in the heart of Spain a palace, built within a cave in the olden days of magic and mystery, wherein was hid the fate of the Gothic kingdom in Spain, and that it was because Roderick penetrated its secrets that he was the last king of the Goths.

An ancient prophecy had foretold, so the story ran, that barbarians would one day cross over from Africa and conquer the fair land of Spain. A wise old king heard this prophetic word and determined to use the powers of magic, in which he was well versed, to set this evil day as far along as possible. For this purpose he built within the great cave a palace with many windings and turnings, and cast over it a spell. In the innermost room he placed a secret talisman, and by the powers of magic he brought it to pass that as long as this talisman remained undisturbed and none knew its secret, so long Spain should be safe from invasion. He could not prevent the prophecy from coming true some time, for so it had been decreed by the Fates; but because of his wisdom and his great love for his land it was given to him to set this check upon the coming of that terrible day.

A strong iron gate barred the entrance to the palace, and upon this the king put a huge lock. In the centuries which followed, every king of Spain came upon the day of his accession to the throne and added a lock, until the door was covered with fastenings.

Thirty-two padlocks, most of them rusty with age, hung from the gate when Roderick came to the throne. It was two hundred years since the death of Theodoric, and the Goths had lost in that time their former glory and supremacy in Europe. The Teutonic kingdom which Theodoric had tried to build up had fallen to pieces when his strong leadership was gone. Only in Spain did the Goths retain their power, and in that luxurious southern land, with its vineyards and its palaces, they had gradually lost the strength and simplicity which they had brought from the north, and had become a weak and sinful people. Kings had vied with their nobles in oppressing the common people and making the court a place of wickedness. The last monarch had been deposed for his tyranny; and his cousin Roderick had seized the throne by force but with the support of the people, who saw in him bravery and daring, and thought they discerned wisdom and sagacity as well.

The day came when Roderick should add his lock to the collection on the gateway, but the story spread through the startled kingdom that the new king had declared his intention of opening the gate instead. Perhaps the story of the reason for the locked door had been forgotten in the centuries; perhaps the fatal curiosity and reckless daring of Roderick would not have been held back even by the ancient tale of the evil which would befall his realm when the secret was known. The pleasure-loving Goth met the protests of his counselors with a laugh and a shrug of the shoulders.

"It is no talisman, but a treasure house," he said to them. "The old king was a miser who desired to keep his wealth from others, and so he made this clever story of a spell and magic, and his ruse has succeeded with a credulous people all these centuries. Gold and silver and jewels lie hidden in its moldy depths. My coffers are empty, and I should be a fool to let a cluster of rusty locks keep me from filling them from this ancient storehouse."

The fear of the mystery was so heavy on the wise men of the kingdom that they offered to raise the needed money for Roderick, if he would refrain from disturbing the palace. Then Roderick showed that he was a true Goth. Gold had tempted him greatly, but these words set the seal on his purpose.

"Now I will surely go," he said; "it shall never be said that Don Rodrigo, king of the Goths, was halted by fear!"

The ancient locks were filed and torn from the gate; the rusty hinges were forced to yield; and the king, bearing a torch in his hand, passed through he creaking portals and, followed by his train, entered the cave palace. The dust of centuries lay upon the rooms, but as the king strode through one chamber after another he found no gold nor hidden treasure. He had almost thrown off the feeling of dread with which, in spite of his bold words, the entrance into the century-old cavern had inspired him, when he came to the last room of all, where the fatal secret was reported to be shut away.

Roderick glanced curiously about this inner shrine to see wherein lay the terrible magic. Before him was a marble urn containing a parchment scroll, and on the wall opposite the door was a rude painting, drawn on the plastered wall and so brightly colored that even the dust of centuries could not wholly dim the gay reds and yellows and greens. The picture represented a group of strangely dressed horsemen. The steeds upon which they sat were of Arabian breed, small and well formed. Some of the warriors, for such their lances and pennons showed them to be, wore turbans; others were bareheaded, with locks of coarse black hair hanging over their foreheads. All were dressed in skins and presented a strange and warlike appearance.

Puzzled over the meaning of this rude picture Roderick turned to the scroll and read these words: "Unfortunate king, it is an evil hour in which thou hast come. Whenever this room is entered and this scroll read, the people shown in yonder picture shall invade the land and overturn the throne of its kings. The rule of the Goth shall end, and the land and the people shall be degraded by barbarian invaders."

Roderick had read the ancient inscription slowly, spelling out aloud the dim old lettering as he deciphered it. As he finished, the long silent passages gave back the echo, so that the courtiers, who had drawn back in fear when their king entered the magic room, heard it repeated, and the sound of it came with an unearthly force to Roderick: "The rule of the Goth shall end,—the land and the people be degraded by barbarian invaders."

Then King Roderick looked back at the picture, and his eyes were opened to see its meaning. The peoples who had looked strange yet familiar were the Arabs (the turban wearers) and the Moors (the black-haired warriors) who had conquered all Africa and were already gazing longingly across the Straits of Gibraltar into the sunny provinces of Spain. He had broken the spell, and now they would come over. The rash king fled through the empty passages,—his courtiers had already disappeared,—and escaped into the open air where they were waiting in terror. That night an earthquake destroyed the cave palace.

It was a simple magic when it came to the light. The power of fear, which the old king by his words had held away from them for so long, came upon the king and all the people. They had sinned, and their hour had come. There was no hope for them. They were doomed. So Roderick felt in his heart when within a year the hordes of Arabs and Moors—Saracens the people of Europe called them—came over into Spain.

"The Hun," a wise writer has said, "was a more terrible foe than the Saracen. But the Goth conquered him in a generation, almost in a day, when he came to meet him face to face. Against the Mohammedan peoples, the barbaric races of Arabs and Moors, the Teuton had to fight for five hundred years."

The Goth was the first member of the Teutonic family of nations to meet the Saracen, but whereas in the days of Attila, the Goth had been the noblest of the peoples, now he was the weakest, and he went down in defeat before the Eastern races which swarmed into his land.

A traitor Goth gave the Saracens the opportunity to come over into Spain at a time when King Roderick was quelling a disturbance in the north, and they had landed in great numbers and established themselves in his kingdom before he could reach the south. In the state of a Gothic king he had traveled from the north, riding in a chariot of ivory lined with cloth of gold, drawn by three white mules. Pearls, rubies, and other jewels sparkled from the rich silken awning, and the king, when he rode on the battle field of Guadelete, where the two armies were drawn up, was clad in a robe of silk interwoven with strings of pearls, and wore upon his head a crown of gold. Only his yellow hair and his blue eyes would have reminded one that he was of the race of the old barbarian kings who had sent terror into Europe from the north even as the Saracens were bringing it from the far south.

It was not personal vanity which made Roderick approach in this splendor; it was the custom of Spanish kings, and the people took new courage as he rode on his throne of ivory through the ranks and reminded them of the glory of their Gothic ancestors and of the holy Christian faith which they were defending. When the battle began, the king did not sit idle in his chariot. He laid aside his crown and, "donning his helmet adorned with horns of gold after the old Gothic custom, mounted his milk-white war horse Orelia and took his place in the forefront of the battle. As he came in sight of the heathen host it is said that he exclaimed, "By the faith of the Messiah, those are the very men whom I saw painted on the walls of the chamber of the palace."

If fear entered Roderick's heart at the sight of the pictured barbarians on the palace wall, it did not govern him when he met them face to face in battle. In the three days during which the conflict raged he was everywhere in the fiercest of the fight, encouraging and leading his men. At first the victory seemed to be with the Christians. Then the tide of success turned and the attacks of the Moslems beat the Goths back, back, back toward the mountains. Here and there resistance would be attempted and the line would be broken for a moment, but soon the forces would be cut down and scattered, and the steady, relentless pressure would go on. King Roderick was thrown from his fleet steed Orelia and wandered defenseless on the field till at last he threw aside his purple mantle and his embroidered sandals, by which he would be recognized by the enemy as king, and among the very last followed the example of the survivors of the Gothic army and fled from the field. A picture of the defeated king wandering about after the battle has been preserved in an old ballad, dear to the hearts of Spaniards, and to those who know it in English by Mr. Lockhart's translation.

The hosts of Don Rodrigo were scattered in dismay,

When lost was the eighth battle, nor heart nor hope had they;

He, when he saw that field was lost, and all his hope was flown,

He turned him from his flying host, and took his way alone.

His horse was bleeding, blind, and lame,—he could no farther go;

Dismounted, without path or aim, the king stepped to and fro;

It was a sight of pity to look on Roderick,

For, sore athirst and hungry, he staggered, faint and sick.

All stained and strewed with dust and blood, like to some smoldering brand

Plucked from the flame, Rodrigo showed:—his sword was in his hand,

But it was hacked into a saw of dark and purple tint;

His jeweled mail had many a flaw, his helmet many a dint.

He climbed unto a hilltop, the highest he could see,

Thence all about of that wide rout his last long look took he;

He saw his royal banners, where they lay drenched and torn,

He heard the cry of victory, the Arab's shout of scorn.

He looked for the brave captains that led the hosts of Spain,

But all were fled except the dead, and who could count the slain?

Where'er his eye could wander, all bloody was the plain,

And, while thus he said, the tears he shed run down his cheeks like rain:—

"Last night I was the King of Spain,—to-day no king am I;

Last night fair castles held my train,—to-night where shall I lie?

Last night a hundred pages did serve me on the knee,—

To-night not one I call mine own:—not one pertains to me.

"Oh, luckless, luckless was the hour, and cursed was the day,

When I was born to have the power of this great signiory!

Unhappy me, that I should see the sun go down to-night!

O Death, why now so slow art thou, why fearest thou to smite?"

Neither Goth nor Moslem ever knew the fate of the unhappy king, whose defeat at Guadelete ended three centuries of Gothic rule in Spain and ushered in eight centuries of Saracen dominion. One story is that he found his way to a monastery and there did penance for his sins until the death he longed for delivered him. Those who tell this tale say that in a hermitage in Spain there was found two hundred years later a tomb with the simple inscription, "Here lies Roderick, last king of the Goths."

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