Our Little Frankish Cousin of Long Ago  by Evaleen Stein

The Minnesinger Tells of Roland

"I DARE say," began the minstrel, "you know it all happened more than twenty years ago. King Charlemagne with a great army had gone down to Spain to fight the Saracens there, who were heathens ruled by the Emir Marsilius. With Charlemagne were his twelve Paladins, the noblest and bravest knights of the realm; and among them the bravest of all was young Roland, the King's nephew."

"Did you see Roland, sir?" asked Rainolf eagerly. "Malagis remembers him and says he was the handsomest knight he ever saw, and that he had more adventures than anybody else and had even spent a while in fairyland!" To which Malagis gravely nodded his head.

"Why, yes," said the minstrel, with a rather bewildered look, "I didn't know about his being in fairyland, but maybe he had, for everybody said he had had a wonderful life. I saw the whole army as it went by on the way to Spain; for my home is near the Pyrenees Mountains which divide Spain from Gaul. It was a great sight, the King in his iron armor riding a prancing war-horse and carrying a huge lance, and following him thousands of soldiers with spears and shields and banners and trumpets. The twelve Paladins rode together, Roland side by side with Oliver, his brother-in-arms."

"Malagis said they had been best friends ever since they were little boys!" said Aymon. "True," said the minstrel, "and a noble pair they were. Hanging from Roland's shoulder by a golden chain I saw the gleam of his ivory horn Olivant. I suppose you know about that?" and the minstrel paused inquiringly.

"O yes!" cried several of the boys. "It was the magic horn that had belonged to the King's grandfather, Charles the Hammer. It was made of the tooth of a sea-horse and all set thick with precious stones. After Charles the Hammer died nobody, not even King Charlemagne, could make the horn blow till Roland tried it one day and then it blew so loud that they heard it all the way from Aachen to Paris! So the King gave it to Roland."

"Good!" said the minstrel, while Malagis nodded approvingly. "And I suppose it's no use to tell you about his sword Durandal, either?"

"Yes," said the boys, "we know the King gave that to Roland too, and it was one Trojan Hector wore. It was the sharpest sword in the world."

"Was it any finer than King Charlemagne's sword?" asked Rainolf. "Isn't Joyeuse very wonderful?"

"Joyeuse is indeed a wonderful sword," answered Malagis. "Folks say that forged in it is the tip of the spear that pierced our Saviour's side. I don't know whether that is so or not, but it is a very terrible weapon. Though, for that matter," he added, "any weapon would be terrible enough in the hands of King Charlemagne. But," he said turning to the minstrel, "go on with your tale. It agrees very well with what I have always told these youngsters here."

"So," went on the minstrel, "Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees and marched into Spain. After some very hard fighting he captured a number of Saracen cities, and in one of them, Cordova, he decided to rest awhile. While he was there messengers came from the Emir saying their master was anxious for peace, and that if the Franks would go back to Gaul, Marsilius would soon come to Aachen and swear homage to Charlemagne and be baptized as a Christian. He offered rich presents as pledges of his good faith if the King would send a favorable answer.

"When Charlemagne asked the Paladins what they thought about it, all but Roland and Oliver advised him to make peace."

"You haven't said anything about Ganelon, the traitor, sir!" said Rainolf.

"Give me time, lad!" replied the minstrel. "I was just coming to him. I suppose you know he was the one the King sent back with the messengers to say he would make peace and to receive the pledges from Marsilius; though, of course, Charlemagne had no idea how false-hearted Ganelon was."

"And Ganelon hated Roland, too, didn't he?" interrupted one of the boys.

"Yes," said the minstrel, "he was a miserable traitor; and when he went to the Emir and Marsilius offered him a sum of gold if he would help plan how to destroy Charlemagne's army, he eagerly agreed. Though he knew Marsilius could never conquer the whole army, he showed him how he might trap a part of it in which would be Roland and most of the bravest knights.

"Then he went back to Cordova with the rich presents from the Emir and told the King everything was all right and Marsilius would do as he promised.

"So Charlemagne started back to Gaul. He did not expect any trouble, but, as every wise commander does on leaving a country where enemies might be lurking, he placed a strong guard at the back of his army. In this rear guard were the good Archbishop Turpin, who was as good a fighter as a bishop, the Paladins, and twenty thousand fighting men, all led by Roland.

"After several days' marching, King Charlemagne leading the main army climbed over the rocky peaks of the Pyrenees and entered Gaul; only the rear guard was still making its way through the mountain valleys and steep narrow passes."

"Then they heard the Saracens' trumpets!" broke in one of the boys; for they all knew the story and always grew excited in the telling.

"Yes," said the minstrel, "all at once they heard a terrible blast of trumpets, and Oliver sprang from his horse and climbed to the top of a tall pine tree to try to see where the enemy was. He looked in all directions, and then he came down and said that never had he seen so great a host of Saracens! Their bright spears were gleaming on all sides; for, as Ganelon had planned, they had followed the rear guard and trapped them in the narrowest pass of the Pyrenees where it would be hardest for the Franks to defend themselves."

"We know!" cried Aymon. "It was the Pass of Roncesvalles!"—which means in our language the Valley of Thorns, and remember this; for everybody nowadays is expected to know about Roland and the Valley of Thorns just as much as those boys listening to the old minstrel over eleven hundred years ago.

"In a moment," went on the minstrel, "they heard the trumpets sounding nearer; and then Oliver, who had seen that the Saracens out-numbered the rear guard at least ten to one, begged Roland to blow his wonderful horn Olivant so that King Charlemagne might hear and come back to help them."

"But Roland was too brave!" exclaimed Rainolf.

"True," said the minstrel, "he was too brave and proud, and scorned to blow his horn for help against the heathens. Three times Oliver begged him, but each time he refused. Then the good Archbishop Turpin raised his hands and blessed all the men; for none of them hoped to escape alive. When he had finished, he drew his own sword with the rest and soon the Saracens rushed upon them and the fight began. Long and terrible was the battle, and bravely did the Frankish heroes defend themselves; but at length, one by one, all had fallen before the spears of the Saracens, save only Roland and Oliver and the good Archbishop, and they, too, were mortally wounded.

"Then at last Roland raised Olivant to his lips and with his dying breath blew a long blast; not hoping for help, for it was now too late, but because the Archbishop wished that Charlemagne might come and bear their bodies away from the wolves and wild beasts.


With his dying breath blew a long blast.

The blast echoed through the mountains, loud and clear and piercing, till far away in Gaul King Charlemagne heard it and knew that something terrible had happened, and quickly he turned about and hastened back over the Pyrenees. He ordered all his trumpeters to keep sounding their trumpets so that when they drew near Roland would know they were coming.

"But the King's army had far to march, and long before it reached the Pass of Roncesvalles all lay dead there save Roland. Then he staggered to his feet, and taking in his hand his wonderful sword Durandal, with a last effort he struck its blade against a mighty rock."

"Why did he do that?" asked Rainolf.

"Because," answered the minstrel, "he thought he would rather destroy Durandal than have it fall into the hands of the heathen. But instead of Durandal breaking, it was the great rock that split, for nothing could turn the edge of that magic blade. Four times Roland struck with Durandal, but each time bright and shining he drew it from a fresh cleft in the stone,—and I have seen those clefts myself," declared the minstrel, "so I know it is true! Then Roland lay down on the grass and placing Durandal and Olivant under his body, he held up his right hand to God, and so died the hero."

Everybody was very still for a few minutes. Then presently one of the boys said, "Malagis says that King Charlemagne cried when he came back and found Roland and all the brave Paladins and everybody dead."

"Indeed he did!" said Malagis. "One of the soldiers who was with the army told me the King cried bitterly. And no wonder! It was a terrible blow to lose all his bravest knights, and he was immensely fond of Roland."

"Where did they bury Roland?" asked the minstrel. "I never quite knew."

"At the Abbey of Blaye," answered Malagis. "Charlemagne had Roland and Oliver and the Archbishop laid there in beautiful white marble tombs."

"Please," inquired Rainolf, "what became of Durandal and Olivant?"

"Well," said Malagis slowly, "the King took the horn Olivant and filled it with gold and sent it to the church at Bordeaux where it may be seen in front of the altar."

"And Durandal?" again asked Rainolf.

But Malagis, who did not know about the end of Durandal (nor does anybody else), pretended not to hear; and jumping down from the stone seat, "Upon my word!" he cried. "Why, it is past dinner time! Come on, sir minstrel, and try the palace fare. The King will give you welcome when the hunt is over."

So they all went over to the palace; and late in the day the hunters rode back with two great boars. These had fought viciously when brought to bay, and killed three hounds with their sharp tusks and badly wounded one of the huntsmen; so the hunt was considered to have been a great success. King Charlemagne was in high spirits, and after supper everybody went into the palace hall where they listened to the minstrel as he sang his song-stories. The King praised him much, for heeding the advice of Malagis, he was wise enough to leave out the one about Roland.