To Charlemagne the war against the Saxons was not merely a war of conquest. He fought against the Saxons for the love of Christ, and by war and hatred he meant to lead them to the religion of peace and love.
But beside the Saxons there were other heathen to fight. For Spain was in the power of the infidel Saracens. They had brought the teaching of Mohammed from Africa, and all but crushed out the Christian religion in Spain. But now the Saracens were at war amongst themselves, and there came to the court of Charlemagne an Arab, named Ibn-al-Arabi, to ask help of the mighty King against the Caliph Abderrahman.
Charlemagne gladly promised help, for he hoped to win back Spain to the Christian faith. So, gathering a great army from every part of his kingdom, he set out across the Pyrenees.
At first his march was victorious and easy. Town after town opened its gates to the conqueror, and, taking hostages with him, Charlemagne passed on his way triumphant until he reached Saragossa.
Ibn-al-Arabi had promised that as soon as Charlemagne arrived the gates of Saragossa should be opened to him. But Ibn-al-Arabi had promised more than he could perform, for the gates of the town remained closed. Worse still, the Arabs and Saracens, forgetting their own quarrels, now joined to resist the Christian King.
Charlemagne saw that he had been deceived. He had been beguiled by empty promises into the heart of a hostile land. He had no great engines of war with which to batter down the walls or force open the closed gates of Saragossa. To starve the city into surrender was not to be thought of, for already food for his own great army was growing scarce. So, seeing nothing else for it, Charlemagne turned homeward. With him went the unfortunate Ibn-al-Arabi, a prisoner.
All went well until the Valley of Roncesvalles was reached. Here the pass is so narrow that scarcely three men could walk abreast. But Charlemagne and the main part of the army passed safely through, and began to descend the farther slope into France. Roland, the beloved nephew of Charlemagne, followed next, in command of the rear-guard.
Now, as they marched, the sound as of an advancing army came to the ears of Roland's comrade, Oliver.
"I fear me, Sir Comrade," he said to Roland, "that we shall have battle with the heathen foe."
"God grant it," replied Roland proudly; "are we not here to fight for our King?"
But Oliver had not the careless pride of Roland, so he climbed to a height and looked backward the way they had come. And there, in the glorious sunlight, he saw the gathered splendour of the heathen host. Helmet plumes and many-coloured pennons waved in the breeze, and the sun was reflected from a thousand glittering points of steel. At the sight Oliver's heart was filled with dread. Well he knew that the rear-guard alone could not withstand that mighty host. Charlemagne must return to their aid. So it came to his mind that he would ask Roland to sound his horn. For Roland carried a wonderful horn of ivory, the sound of which could be heard many miles afar. Well Oliver knew that should Charlemagne hear it he would return to their aid. So hastily he came down from the hill and sought out Roland.
"I have seen the heathen," he said, "with their helmets and their shining hauberks, their lances and their gleaming spears. We shall have such a battle as never before. God give us courage, my lords of France. Stand firm or we shall be vanquished."
"Sorrow overtake those who flee," replied the peers. "There is not one of us who fears to die."
But although the peers were brave and ready to fight to the last, Oliver's heart misgave him. "The heathen are many, and our Franks are few," he said. "Friend Roland, sound your horn, and Charlemagne will hear it and return."
"Nay," said Roland, "I should act as a fool. I should sully the glory of gentle France. I will not sound my horn, but I will strike such blows with my good sword Durandal that it shall be dyed red in the blood of the heathen."
Then, as the heathen rode forward to the attack, they taunted the Franks.
"Felon Franks," they cried, "he who ought to defend you has betrayed you. The King who left you in this pass is a fool. To-day the realm of France will lose its glory, and Charlemagne his right arm."
But such taunting words only roused the Franks to greater courage, and recklessly they dashed against the foe. The fight was fierce and long, but the Franks were far outnumbered by the Saracens. Darkness at length closed over the dreadful field where the Franks to a man lay dead, among them wise Oliver and his proud friend Roland.
Real history has very little to say about this fearful fight in the Valley of Roncesvalles, and we know nothing more of Roland but that he fell there, and that he was Warden of the Marches of Brittany. But legend has made it famous, and some day I hope you will read the whole splendid story in the Song of Roland.
In the Song of Roland we are told that Roland at length sounded his horn, and that Charlemagne hearing it returned to help his army, and that he defeated the Saracens with awful slaughter. But that is not true to history.
Charlemagne never returned to Spain, and he never avenged the defeat of Roncesvalles. For, as soon as the battle was over, the enemy scattered, taking refuge among the forest-clad hills, and to follow them would have been difficult and dangerous, and would have meant a long and troublesome war.
Meanwhile Charlemagne had other needs for his army. For the Saxons, never truly subdued, had once more risen against him under the leadership of a chieftain called Wittekind.