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Roland At Roncesvalles
by [?]

From the long, straight ridge of the Pyrenees, stretching from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean, and dividing the land of France from that of Spain, there extend numerous side-hills, like buttresses to the main mountain mass, running far into the plains on either side. Between these rugged buttresses lie narrow valleys, now spreading into broad amphitheatres, now contracting into straightened ravines, winding upward to the passes across the mountain chain. Dense forests often border these valleys, covering the mountain-sides and summits, and hiding with their deep-green foliage the rugged rocks from which they spring. Such is the scene of the celebrated story which we have next to tell.

All these mountain valleys are filled with legends, centring around a great event and a mighty hero of the remote past, whose hand and sword made famous the little vale of Roncesvalles, which lies between the defiles of Sizer and Val Carlos, in the land of the Basques. This hero was Roland, the nephew of the great emperor Charlemagne, who has been given by romantic fiction the first place among the legendary Paladins of France, and made memorable in epic poetry as the hero of the celebrated “Orlando Furioso” of Ariosto, and the less notable “Orlando Innamorato” of Boiardo.

All these stories are based upon a very slender fabric of history, which would have been long since forgotten had not legend clung to it with so loving a hand, and credited its hero with such a multitude of marvellous deeds. The history of the event is preserved for us by Eginhard, the secretary and annalist of Charlemagne. He takes few words to tell what has given rise to innumerable strophes.

In the year 778, Charlemagne invaded Spain, then almost wholly in the hands of the Saracens. His march was a victorious one until Saragossa was reached. Here he found himself before a well-supplied, strongly-fortified, and fully-garrisoned city, while his own army was none too well provided with food. In the end he found it expedient to retreat, leaving Saragossa still in Saracen hands.

The retreat was conducted without loss until the Pyrenees were reached. These were crossed by the main body of the army without hostile disturbance, leaving to follow the baggage-train and a rear-guard under the king’s nephew Roland, prefect of the Marches of Brittany, with whom were Eginhard, master of the household, and Anselm, count of the palace; while legend adds the names of Oliver, Roland’s bosom friend, the warlike Archbishop Turpin, and other warriors of renown.

Their route lay through the pass of Roncesvalles so narrow at points that only two, or at most three men could move abreast, while the rugged bordering hills were covered with dense forest, affording a secure retreat for an ambushing foe. It was when the main body of the army was miles in advance, and the rear-guard struggling up this narrow defile, that disaster came. Suddenly the surrounding woods and mountains bristled with life. A host of light-armed Basque mountaineers emerged from the forest, and poured darts and arrows upon the crowded columns of heavily-armed Franks below. Rocks were rolled down the steep declivities, crushing living men beneath their weight. The surprised troops withdrew in haste to the bottom of the valley, death pursuing them at every step. The battle that followed was doubtless a severe and hotly-contested one; the prominent place it has gained in tradition indicates that the Franks must have defended themselves valiantly; but they fought at a terrible disadvantage, and in the end they were killed to a man. Then the assailants, rich with the plunder which they had obtained from the baggage-wagons and the slain bodies, vanished into the forests whence they came, leaving to Charlemagne, when he returned in search of Roland and his men, only the silence of death and the livid heaps of the slain in that terrible valley of slaughter.