Spain, like France, had its hero of legend. The great French hero was Roland, whose mighty deeds in the pass of Roncesvalles have been widely commemorated in song and story. In Spanish legend the gallant opponent of the champion of France was Bernardo del Carpio, a hero who perhaps never lived, except on paper, but about whose name a stirring cycle of story has grown. The tale of his life is a tragedy, as that of heroes is apt to be. It may be briefly told.
When Charlemagne was on the throne of France, Alfonso II. was king of Christian Spain. A hundred years had passed since all that was left to Spain was the cave of Covadonga, and in that time a small kingdom had grown up with Oviedo for its capital city. This kingdom had spread from the Asturias over Leon, which gave its name to the new realm, and the slow work of driving back the Moslem conquerors had well begun.
Alfonso never married and had no children. People called him Alfonso the Chaste. He went so far as to forbid any of his family to marry, so that the love affairs of his sister, the fair infanta Ximena, ran far from smooth. The beautiful princess loved and was loved again by the noble Sancho Diaz, Count of Saldaņa, but the king would not listen to their union. The natural result followed; as they dared not marry in public they did so in private, and for a year or two lived happily together, none knowing of their marriage, and least of all the king.
But when a son was born to them the truth came out. It threw the tyrannical king into a violent rage. His sister was seized by his orders and shut up in a convent, and her husband was thrown into prison for life, some accounts saying that his eyes were put out by order of the cruel king. As for their infant son, he was sent into the mountains of the Asturias, to be brought up among peasants and mountaineers.
It was known that he had been sent there by Alfonso, and the people believed him to be the king's son and treated him as a prince. In the healthy outdoor life of the hills he grew strong and handsome, while his native courage was shown in hunting adventures and the perils of mountain life. When old enough he learned the use of arms, and soon left his humble friends for the army, in which his boldness and bravery were shown in many encounters with the French and the Arabs. Those about him still supposed him to be the son of the king, though Alfonso, while furnishing him with all knightly arms and needs, neither acknowledged nor treated him as his son. But if not a king's son, he was a very valiant knight, and became the terror of all the foes of Spain.
All this time his unfortunate father languished in prison, where from time to time he was told by his keepers of the mighty deeds of the young prince Bernardo del Carpio, by which name the youthful warrior was known. Count Sancho knew well that this was his son, and complained bitterly of the ingratitude of the youth who could leave his father perishing in a prison cell while he rode freely and joyously in the open air, engaged in battle and banquet, and was everywhere admired and praised. He knew not that the young warrior had been kept in ignorance of his birth.
During this period came that great event in the early history of Spain in which Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees with a great army and marched upon the city of Saragossa. It was in the return from this expedition that the dreadful attack took place in which Roland and the rear guard of the army were slain in the pass of Roncesvalles. In Spanish story it was Bernardo del Carpio who led the victorious hosts, and to whose prowess was due the signal success.
This fierce fight in a mountain-pass, in which a valiant band of mountaineers overwhelmed and destroyed the flower of the French army, has been exalted by poetic legend into one of the most stupendous and romantic of events. Ponderous epic poems have made Roland their theme, numbers of ballads and romances tell of his exploits, and the far-off echoes of his ivory horn still sound through the centuries. One account tells that he blew his horn so loud and long that the veins of his neck burst in the strain. Others tell that he split a mountain in twain by a mighty stroke of his sword Durandal. The print of his horse's hoofs are shown on the mountain-peak where only a flying horse could ever have stood. In truth, Roland, whose name is barely mentioned in history, rose to be the greatest hero of romance, the choicest and best of the twelve paladins of Charlemagne.
Bernardo del Carpio was similarly celebrated in Spanish song, though he attained no such world-wide fame. History does not name him at all, but the ballads of Spain say much of his warlike deeds. It must suffice here to say that this doughty champion marched upon Roland and his men while they were winding through the narrow mountain-pass, and as they advanced the mountaineers swelled their ranks.
"As through the glen his spears did gleam, the soldiers from the hills,
They swelled his host, as mountain-stream receives the roaring rills;
They round his banner flocked in scorn of haughty Charlemagne,
And thus upon their swords are sworn the faithful sons of Spain."
Roland and his force lay silent in death when the valiant prince led back his army, flushed with victory, and hailed with the plaudits of all the people of the land. At this moment of his highest triumph the tragedy of his life began. His old nurse, who had feared before to tell the tale, now made him acquainted with the true story of his birth, telling him that he was the nephew, not the son, of the king; that his mother, whom he thought long dead, still lived, shut up for life in a convent; and that his father lay languishing in a dungeon cell, blind and in chains.
As may well be imagined, this story filled the soul of the young hero with righteous wrath. He strode into the presence of the king and asked, with little reverence, if the story were true. Alfonso surlily admitted it. Bernardo then demanded his father's freedom. This the king refused. Burning with anger, the valiant youth shut himself up in his castle, refusing to take part in the rejoicings that folowed the victory, and still sternly demanding the release of his father.
"Is it well that I should be abroad fighting thy battles," he asked the king, "while my father lies fettered in thy dungeons? Set him free and I shall ask no further reward."
Alfonso, who was obstinate in his cruelty, refused, and the indignant prince took arms against him, joining the Moors, whom he aided to harry the king's dominions. Fortifying his castle, and gathering a bold and daring band from his late followers, he made incursions deep into the country of the king, plundering hamlet and city and fighting in the ranks of the Moslems.
This method of argument was too forcible even for the obstinacy of Alfonso. His counsellors, finding the kingdom itself in danger, urged him to grant Bernardo's request, and to yield him his father in return for his castle. The king at length consented, and Bernardo, as generous and trusting as he was brave, immediately accepted the proposed exchange, sought the king, handed him the keys of his castle, and asked him to fulfil his share of the contract.
Alfonso agreed to do so, and in a short time the king and his nephew rode forth, Bernardo's heart full of joy at the thought of meeting the parent whom he had never yet seen. As they rode forward a train came from the opposite direction to meet them, in the midst a tall figure, clad in splendid attire and mounted on horseback. But there was something in his aspect that struck Bernardo's heart deep with dread.
"God help me!" he exclaimed, "is that sightless and corpse-like figure the noble Count of Saldaņa, my father?"
"You wished to see him," coldly answered the king. "He is before you. Go and greet him."
Bernardo did so, and reverently took the cold hand of his father to kiss it. As he did so the body fell forward on the neck of the horse. It was only a corpse. Alfonso had killed the father before delivering him to his son.
Only his guards saved the ruthless tyrant at that moment from death. The infuriated knight swore a fearful oath of vengeance upon the king, and rode away, taking the revered corpse with him. Unfortunately, the story of Bernardo ends here. None of the ballads tell what he did for revenge. We may imagine that he joined his power to the Moors and harried the land of Leon during his after life, at length reaching Alfonso's heart with his vengeful blade. But of this neither ballad nor legend tells, and with the pathetic scene of the dead father's release our story ends.