Roland, a Knight of France
Of the childhood of Roland, and of his meeting with Charlemagne
In the days of old, when every morning brought adventure and every noonday the hope of winning knightly fame, there ruled in Europe a mighty Christian emperor called Charles. At first he had been king of only the realm of France, but as the years went by he had so extended his power that on Christmas Day, in the year 800, he was crowned at Rome emperor of all the kingdoms of Europe save those that were held by the northern barbarians or the heathen peoples from the East. So well and wisely did this Emperor Charles rule his mighty realm, that before many years were gone men spoke of him and wrote of him always as the great Charles, and they said it so often that it became part of his name, and everywhere and for all time he came to be known as Charlemagne, which is to say Charles the Great.
It is of an adventure that came to Charlemagne when he was journeying from France to Italy on his way to be made emperor, that I would tell you. All along the route which he was to take, the report had gone out that the mighty Charlemagne was coming, and crowds had flocked to the roadside to see the famous king go by with his escort of dukes and lords and barons and earls, who were reckoned the most valiant company of knights in Christendom.
Of all those who awaited the coming of the king, none were more eager than two half-grown lads who stood on a hilltop near Sutri in northern Italy and watched the long file of heralds and soldiers in armor, who made up the advance guard of the army, march up the winding road that led to the little village. They were a strange couple, these two, the one dark-haired and graceful in the velvet suit which he had donned for this feast day, and which set off his slender figure well, the other strong and handsome but clad in ragged garments, and with unkempt flaxen locks streaming in the wind. Yet the rough clothes of Roland, the village boy, could no more hide an air of distinction with which he carried himself than could the rich garments of Oliver, the governor's son, conceal the lithe strength of his young body.
The villagers never ceased to wonder that the governor allowed his son to be seen with Roland, but it had come about in this wise: Roland was the strongest of the village boys, and they made him their leader and champion, who should settle the unending feud which existed between them and the boys of high station, of whom Oliver was the leader. In a wrestling match the two had fought it out, and though the contest was long and close, Roland had finally thrown his opponent. But Oliver, being a courteous lad as well as strong, rose to his feet and declared that Roland had proved himself the better, and that so much did he admire his valor, that he would fain be friends with him. And there began a friendship which was to last as long as Roland and Oliver should live, and was to be sung in many languages and told by many chroniclers.
Thus it came about that Roland and Oliver watched from a hilltop in Sutri the coming of the army, and shouted themselves hoarse when the king himself came in sight, mounted on a prancing charger and surrounded by the twelve peers who were the best of all his knights and whose fame had spread throughout all Christendom. But after the king had passed, Oliver must needs hasten to the village green, where a feast had been set for the king, and the governor's son must serve as one of the pages who passed the heaping platters and bore the silver tankards of rich red wine. Roland turned his face to go to the cave where he and his widowed mother dwelt in sad poverty outside the village walls, but as he went he came upon a line of the emperor's servants bearing trays of dainty viands to the table. For many days Roland and his mother had been living on crusts of bread and goat's milk, for the winter was hard and food scarce, and the sight of meat drove from the boy's mind all remembrance of aught but his hunger and his mother's sufferings. He rushed upon the men, and snatching the plates from their hands, made away with them with such speed that before they realized what had happened he was out of sight.
When the emperor was told of the boy's deed, he sat silent, buried in thought, and all at the table waited, fearing lest the lad be severely punished for his bold act; but Charlemagne was thinking of a dream which had troubled him for three nights. He had seen the fierce, starving boy seizing the food, and had been warned to follow him. He dispatched three knights to find the boy and bring him into his presence. They had little difficulty in finding him, for every one in the village knew Roland; but when they came to the cave he met them, and told them fiercely that none should enter the cave, uninvited, to harm his mother, but should receive first a blow from his cudgel. His mother calmed the angry boy and invited the messengers to enter.
That was a time of surprise for young Roland, for when the knights saw the boy's mother, they knew her to be no peasant woman but a lady of high rank and they bowed low before her, and told her that King Charles, who was to be crowned emperor at Rome, desired the presence of her son. And Roland's mother wept when she heard the name of Charles, and told the knights that she was his own sister, the lady Bertha, who had fled from the court many years before because her royal brother would not give her leave to marry a poor but noble knight, by the name of Milone. They had escaped together to Italy, and had hidden in this cave to wait till the spies of Charlemagne should have returned from searching for them. There Roland had been born, and from there Milone had departed when the heathen Saracens had come to the very gates of Rome to take her, and every knight in Christendom had been summoned to defend the faith and save the city. In that battle he had been killed, and for all the years of Roland's childhood his mother had lived on in the cave, subsisting as best she might. Then the knights knelt before the sister of Charlemagne and gave her homage, and entreated her that she let them bring the boy into the royal presence and sue for pardon for them both. But Roland sat as in a dream as he heard of his royal lineage, and marveled that the mighty king, whom he had looked upon that very morning, was his uncle.
The knights led Roland into the king's presence, and the boy stood proudly before Charlemagne, and bore himself so well that all who looked on wondered at the appearance of this peasant boy. When he heard the story of the messengers, Charlemagne's heart yearned over the boy, who was his only sister's son, and he embraced him and welcomed him to his court. An escort of noble knights brought the Lady Bertha to the king, and from that time forth Roland and his mother belonged to the king's household. They journeyed with him to Rome, and every day Charlemagne rejoiced in the proud bearing of the lad, and in his strength and courage. When they returned to France, Roland was given over to the care of Duke Namo, who should take the lad and train him as a page in his household.
Of Roland as page, esquire, and knight
As a page in the household of Duke Namo, Roland began his knightly education in company with a group of noble youth who had come there for that purpose. It was hard for the freedom-loving boy, who had been under no tutelage but that of his gentle mother, to adapt himself to the castle life, but he set himself sternly to learn those first lessons of the page, "Obedience and Service," and won golden opinions from the lord and lady of the castle; for of all the pages none was so eager to learn, and none so ready to run with messages or wait upon the duke's guests, and none so quick to serve at table. The ladies of the court taught him courtesy, and he responded with gallant service and pretty speeches, until the duke reported to his uncle, the emperor, that the lad was the favorite of all the household, as well as his most promising pupil.
One day Roland was wild with delight, for his master had told him that he was to be made an esquire (for he was already fourteen years old). The lady Bertha might well be proud of the tall, flaxen-haired lad who stepped from the ranks of the pages when his name was called and exchanged the short dagger of the page for the sword of the esquire. Henceforth he was no longer a child, but a youth, whose duties would all be turned toward the profession of knighthood for which he was being trained. Once more he was assigned to the care of Duke Namo, and with him was placed a boy a few years older than he, who was his favorite of all the pages with whom he had been associated. This was Ogier the Dane, son and heir of the king of Denmark, who had been delivered to Charlemagne by his father as a pledge that Denmark would continue to render homage to him as emperor. Together the boys learned the duties of esquireship, caring for the armor of their lord, equipping his horse for him when he would go abroad, and attending him on every journey; together they were trained in the feats of knighthood, and together they listened to the tales of Bernardo the old armorer, who told of battles and tourneys and deeds of valor. And the boys lamented because the times were peaceful, but the old man said, "Never fear, young sirs; your time will come."
One day there came from Charlemagne a summons to arms. The Saracens from the East had landed in Italy, and were marching on Rome. Duke Namo waited scarcely an hour before he set out for the place of meeting, and Roland and Ogier went in his train.
Of that swift march and of the mighty army I will not speak. In one short week the mountains were crossed, and Charlemagne was face to face with his heathen foe.
The advance guard of the army was given to Duke Namo to command, and behind him, on a rise of ground where they could watch the battle, were his esquires. Should the duke become unhorsed, or should he lose any of his weapons, it was for them to rush to his assistance. In the forefront of the army rode Charlemagne, and at his right hand rode Alary, a knight of Lombardy, to whom the emperor had given the Oriflammes, or royal standard, to bear, for the battle was taking place in the province of Lombardy. This was the greatest honor knight could have, but Alary proved himself sadly unworthy of it.
When the combat was at its height, one division of the army became separated from the rest, so that Charlemagne was in danger and the outcome of the fight in that place was uncertain. All of a sudden the esquires saw Alary lower his banner and turn his horse in flight, leaving Charlemagne and a few brave knights alone in the midst of a band of Saracens.
Right into the arms of the esquires Alary rode, fleeing blindly and caring not where he went if only he could escape from the battle. But Ogier had seen his cowardly act, and he seized his bridle and stopped him, crying: "Stop, Alary! Are you conquered? Where is the king? How have ye left him?"
"The king is taken. The French are cut off and killed," wailed Alary in terror.
"You lie. Rather have you failed him in his hour of peril," cried Ogier, and he tore off Alary's armor, felling him with a blow of his fist, and put it on with all speed, calling to his fellow esquires to follow his example.
"Shame be on any, Ogier, who shall fail thee!" they cried, and they fell upon the retreating Lombard who had followed Alary, and armed themselves from their weapons as best they might. He who could not find a lance broke a staff of apple tree or ash. Their linen shirts they tore for pennons, and Ogier rode at the head in ill-fitting armor, but bearing the royal standard with its golden cords, and next to him rode Roland.
When the esquires reached the place where Charlemagne had been, they could not see him, for the center of the battle had changed and the emperor had been driven from his stand by the onrush of the enemy. When they reached him he was in the midst of the Saracens, who had come upon him from behind, and he and his trusty band of knights were in grave peril. But their hearts were glad when they heard the cry of Ogier and saw the Oriflammes once more. When the enemy had fallen back a little, Charlemagne found a moment to ride to his standard bearer and say to him, "Brave Alary, I thought thou hadst failed me, but now I see that it is to thee I owe my safety!"
Ogier made no reply,—indeed there was no time,—but plunged once more into the thick of battle, and ere long the Saracens were fleeing in every direction and the heathen horde had been defeated.
Then the Archbishop Turpin laid aside his armor, and standing beside the emperor, gave thanks to God for the victory he had given them. When he had finished, Ogier came in his heavy armor to lay the Oriflammes at the feet of the emperor, and behind him walked a company of warriors who were burdened by their ill-fitting armor. Ogier knelt before Charlemagne, who embraced him, calling him Alary, from his armor, and thanked him for his aid in the moment of danger. But Roland, his nephew, could no longer abide this error. He threw off his helmet and unfastened that of Ogier, and all the young esquires that stood with them did likewise.
No chronicler has ever been able to picture the astonishment and joy of the great emperor as he looked upon these youthful warriors. There on the battle field he had the soldiers lay a rude altar, whereon were placed two shining swords. The archbishop blessed the weapons, and the emperor bade Ogier and Roland kneel before him. With his famous sword, Joyeuse, Charlemagne dealt them each the accolade, which is to say, three blows on the shoulder.
Then Charlemagne called: "Rise, Sir Ogier; rise, Sir Roland, henceforth my loyal knights."
With his own hands he girt on their swords. That was a great honor for these knights.
The name of the sword of Ogier was Cortana, and of Roland, Durindana. In a dream Charlemagne had been told of this sword Durindana which should come to him, how it had once belonged to Hector, prince of Troy, and had been carried by a long line of valiant heroes since that day. And the closing words of that message were: "This sword belongs only to a right valiant captain. See that it goes to him." Now the emperor deemed Roland worthy to carry it.
Then Duke Namo fastened silver spurs on both knights, for they had already won them by their service on their first battle field.
So were Roland and Ogier made knights.
"A Roland for an Oliver"
There was a custom in the olden days that when there was cause to war between two kingdoms each might choose, if they both so willed, a champion who should meet in single combat the knight chosen by the enemy. Thus would the honor of both parties be satisfied, and long and bloody war be averted.
Such a combat was agreed upon to settle the dispute which had arisen between Charlemagne and one of his Italian vassals; and Roland, who was by this time a full-fledged warrior, was so fortunate as to be chosen for Charlemagne, while one of the Italian lord's grandsons drew the lot to fight for his province. The meeting place was to be an island in a river that ran between Italy and France.
When the appointed day came, Roland was escorted by the knights of Charlemagne to the bank of the river, and rowed out to the island amid the shouts and cheers of the throng that lined the shores. From the other side of the stream came the Italian champion, and there on that island they met. When those two knights faced each other, clad in the heavy armor that covered them from head to foot, the crowds that lined the shores could not have told, save for the color of the pennons that waved from their lances, which was the French champion and which the Italian, so nearly matched were they in size.
The trumpet sounded, and before the sound of that blast had died away the champions had dashed forward on their steeds, with lances in position, clashed together with a force that shivered both lances and made their horses reel, and passed each other. The first great test of knightly combat had been passed, and neither champion had been unhorsed.
Now they dismounted and drew their swords. For two long hours and more they fought, and neither missed a stroke nor failed to parry a thrust. Those who watched on the shore had never seen such sword play, nor two champions so equally matched. One would think they would be weary, but they leaped to their blows as though they were fresh to the combat. While they marveled at Roland's skill, the men of France trembled lest some blow from the sword of this stranger knight should throw the fair pennon of Charlemagne in the dust. And the Italians, as they cheered, whispered one to another in fear lest their hero had met his match.
Suddenly Roland drove forward with so mighty a stroke that he buried his sword Durindana in the shield of his opponent. It went so deep that he could not withdraw it. At the same moment his antagonist struck so fiercely against Roland's breastplate that his sword snapped off at the hilt. Thus were both warriors left weaponless.
Without a pause they rushed upon each other, each striving to throw the other to the ground. Long they struggled, and neither could down the other. Those who watched scarce moved or breathed as they saw that combat. Finally each snatched at the other's helmet to tear it away. Both succeeded, and the two champions stood bareheaded. Then the men of France and of Italy saw a sight that they could scarce credit. Those two knights, who had fought with all their might for two long hours and more, rushed into each other's arms and embraced. The watchers thought it was some new and deadly move; but no! they stood off and gazed into each other's eyes, and once more they embraced.
Then the knight of Italy shouted in ringing tones, "I yield me to Roland."
And Roland called even more loudly, "I am conquered by Oliver."
And so it was! The stranger knight was Oliver, the friend of Roland's boyhood, from whom he had been separated since that winter day when Charlemagne had passed through the little Italian village and found there his nephew. Now they had fought with one another in deadly combat for nearly three hours.
The knights of France and Italy came with haste to see wherefore the battle had ceased. Some urged that it was the duty of the two champions to renew their strife to settle their countries' quarrel; but neither would hear to it.
"Not for country, nor cause, nor king will I fight the friend of my life," said Roland, and Oliver was with him.
A truce of four days was declared, in which Charlemagne and his rebellious lord should confer through their knights and see whether other champions should be chosen; but in that time, by the efforts of Roland and Oliver, the dispute was peacefully settled. The two friends refused to part, and Charlemagne took Oliver as one of his peers, for he had proven himself worthy of the highest honors of knighthood. Henceforth Roland could not hold his proud place as the best of Charlemagne's knights, but he cared not for that, since he and his beloved Oliver were but equally matched, and neither could do better than the other. So well matched were they that when people of the court would tell that one thing was the equal of another, they said: "They are the same. It matters not which it is. 'Tis but a Roland for an Oliver." And it is from those days that the saying has come down to us.