The Fall of the Nibelungs

Date: 1908

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Chapter XLI Three Medieval Epics

1

204.

The Song of Roland

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Then said Marsile, "In truth I tell thee, Ganelon, that right willingly would I love thee and well it beseems us to be in friendly counsel. And now I wish greatly to hear thee speak of Charlemagne. Old he is and devoid of strength, for well I know that two hundred summers have passed over him.1 Many are the lands through which his feet have borne him, and many a noble king has he brought to beggary. Now is it high time that he return to Aix2 in France, that there he may take repose for awhile."

But Ganelon made answer, "By no means such a one is Charlemagne. Not a man is there that hath seen him or known him but full well he must confess that he hath seen a warrior. With very great virtue hath God endowed him. Who, indeed, can recount all his acts of valor? Far rather would I die than cease to be his baron."

Then spake the heathen again, "Much, indeed, it marvels me concerning Charlemagne, that old and hoary monarch. Full well I know that more than two hundred years have passed over him. Through many lands have his feet carried him, and many are the blows of lance and spear which he hath given and the kings whom he hath brought to beggary. When will it come to pass that he grow weary of fighting?"

"That will not be," quoth Ganelon, "while his nephew Roland is still alive, for under the whole vault of heaven is no such warrior as he. Exceeding valiant, too, is his comrade Oliver, and the twelve peers, whom the king so much cherishes, are but the leaders of twenty thousand noble Frenchmen. So secure is Charlemagne that he knows not fear, and great would be his anguish should his knights receive dishonor. Then, indeed, would his right arm be smitten, and no longer would he be a valiant warrior."

"Sir Ganelon," quoth Marsile, "I too have an army, and a finer hast thou never seen. Four hundred thousand knights are ever ready at my call, and can I not therewith make a stand against the Frenchmen?" And Ganelon made answer, "Not this time shalt thou conquer. Exceeding great shall be the loss of thy barons, if now thou shalt not submit thee to the law of the Christians. Leave now thy folly and abide fast by wisdom; then shall the emperor give thee many gifts, so that all those who hear it shall marvel. Nought hast thou to do but to send thither twenty hostages; then will the king forthwith retire to France, and only a rearguard shall he leave in Spain behind him. And here I doubt not will be left Count Roland, and with him his comrade Oliver, the courteous and valiant. Dead are both the counts if thou but trust my words, and therewith is the king’s pride fallen, and never more shall he desire to come up against thee."

Marvelous was the battle and fearful to behold, and wonderful were the blows of Roland and Oliver. And the good Archbishop Turpin rendered many blows, and the twelve peers were foremost in the fray. And all the men of France struck as a single man, till the heathen lay dead in heaps around them. . . . Many a trusty lance of keenest edge have they left upon the field, and shattered all to fragments are the blades of their broadswords. Alas! how many a valiant warrior has perished — never more shall he behold his father, nor his kinsmen, nor Charlemagne, the noble king who awaits them on the borders. But all the while in France there is marvelous disorder. Tempests of wind mingled with storms of rain and hail such as no man had ever witnessed, and fearful bolts of thunder rushed without ceasing downwards. There, too, in very truth was the earth all cleft asunder; from St. Michel to Xanten, from Besançon to Wissant, there was not a dwelling but the walls thereof were shaken. And at midday there was very great darkness over all the land, and unless the heavens were rent, there might not a ray of light be seen. Not a living being but was sore affrighted, and many said, "Of a certainty the end of the world is come, and the consummation of all things is at hand." Little they knew it was the mourning for the death of Roland.

And straightway has he raised the horn to his mouth. Firmly has he grasped it and sounded it with vigor. Lofty are the hills and very loud the echo, and the sound can be heard full fifteen leagues away. And Charlemagne has heard it, and all his host of vassals, and the king spake, "Our men are giving battle." But Ganelon said, "Had another man said this, it would have seemed a fearful falsehood."

With pain and in sore torment has Roland sounded his horn, and the bright blood is streaming from his mouth, and both his temples has he broken in the endeavor. But exceeding great and loud is the noise, and Charlemagne has heard it as he passed across the border; and now the Frenchmen listen. Then spake the king, "I hear the horn of Roland; and never would he blow it unless in conflict." But Ganelon made answer, "Of battle is there nought. Old thou art, and white, and hoary, and by thy words thou makest thyself like to a child. For well indeed thou knowest the pride of Roland, and wonder is it in truth that God has suffered it so long. . . . Verily for a hare would he sound his horn all day, and even now, I wager, he is joking with his peers. And who, O king, on all this earth would dare to challenge him? Fare onward then in safety, and tarry no longer, for it will be long yet ere we reach the land of France."

Now is Count Roland all bleeding at the mouth, and his temples broken with the sounding of his horn. But Charlemagne has heard and all his host of Frenchmen. "Very long must be the breath of that horn," quoth Charlemagne, and Naimes, duke of Bavaria, made answer, "Verily in pain must be the baron who sounds it, and right well I know that battle is waging. And the traitor knows it, who would dissuade thee from going. Now don thine armor, and cry thy note of battle, and quickly bring help to the noblest of thy vassals. For well mayst thou hear that Roland is sore beset."

Now has the king bidden that the trumpets be sounded, and the Frenchmen have dismounted and donned their hauberks, their helmets, and their golden swords. Fair are their shields and their lances long and well proven, and the pennons are blue and white and vermilion. And now once more they mount their steeds, and right swiftly they spur them till they have crossed the passes. And not a man there was but said to his neighbor, "Could we but see Roland before the heathen slay him, exceeding grievous blows would we deal at his side." But in vain they spake, for too long have they tarried.

Roland felt already that death was upon him, and he rose to his feet, and very great was the effort he made. And all the color departed from his face, but he still held in his hand his naked sword, Durendal. And there before him was a dark rock, and ten times he struck upon it in anger and in grief. And the steel but grated on it, nor did it break or splinter. Then quoth the count, "Alas! holy Mary, come hither to my aid! My good sword, Durendal, how do I regret thee. When I am dead I shall need thee no longer. Many are the battles that I have won through thee, and many the broad lands which I have conquered for the hoary-headed king. May no man ever own thee who would flee his fellow! Never in my life have I been parted from thee, and a right good vassal has thine owner ever been. Never will be such another in the free land of France."

Then did Roland strike once more upon the stonework of sardonyx, and the steel but grated, and neither broke nor splintered. And now, when he saw that he certainly could not break it, thus within himself did he begin to lament, "Ah, Durendal of mine, how fair thou art and glistening! How thou gleamest in the sunlight and throwest back its rays. . . . Many are the lands and countries that I have conquered with Durendal for my hoary-bearded master, and exceeding great is the grief and anguish that I feel for this sword; far rather would I perish than that it should fall into the hands of the heathen. May the God of glory grant that France shall never be thus dishonored."

Then did Roland strike for the third time upon a rock of gloomy hue, and beyond the power of words was the havoc that he wrought therein. Yet did the steel but grate, and neither broke nor splintered; and back again it sprang right up toward the heaven. And when now the count perceived that he should never break it, softly within himself did he begin to lament over it. "Ah, Durendal of mine, how good thou art and holy! Within thy golden pommel there are many relics. There is St. Peter’s tooth and the blood of St. Basil; there are the hairs of my lord, St. Denis, and the garments of holy Mary. In truth it is not right that the heathen should possess thee. Never shouldst thou be wielded but by the hands of Christians. Many are the battles and the lands that I have won with thee for Charlemagne, the waving-bearded, and richer and more powerful is the king become thereby. Never shalt thou be borne by a man that is a coward. May God grant that France may never be thus dishonored."

And when Roland felt that death had really seized upon him, and that it had traveled downwards from his head and reached his very heart, then did he hastily betake himself beneath a pine tree, and he laid him on his face, and beneath him he placed both his horn and his broadsword. Toward the land of Spain he turned his face, so that Charlemagne and all his army might perceive that he died as a valiant vassal, with his face toward the foe. Then did he confess himself right zealously and held forth his glove toward heaven for his transgressions.

So Roland perceived that his life was ended in very deed. And there as he lay upon the summit of a hill, looking over the land of Spain, he beat his hand upon his breast, and thus he spake, "Ah, God! grant me thy pardon for the sake of thy great mercy! Absolve my sins, both small and great, which I have ever committed from the hour that I was born till this day on which I perish." And he extended his right glove toward the God of heaven. And lo, the angels from heaven descended to where he lay.

And as he lay beneath the pine tree with his countenance toward the land of Spain, many things came back to his remembrance. He bethought him of the many lands which he had conquered; of the fair land of France and his many kinsmen there; and of Charlemagne, his lord, who had trained him from his youth; and of all the men of France who trusted in his valor. And he could not stir but the tears flowed from his eyelids, and deeply did he sigh within himself. But ever he bethought himself of his need, and confessed his sins, nor did he cease to pray God for his mercy. And thus he spake again, "O holy Father, who speakest nought but truth, thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead and rescue Daniel from the jaws of lions. Save now my soul, I pray thee, from all the dangers which my transgressions have brought upon me." And his right glove he held ever extended toward heaven, and the angel Gabriel received it from his hand. Beneath his arm he held his trusty helmet, and with clasped hands has he met his end at last. For God sent down his cherubim and St. Michael of the Seas, and together with them came the holy angel Gabriel, and straightway they bore the soul of the count to paradise.

1 , translated by Jessie Crosland. London, 1907. Chatto and Windus. , translated by J. R. C. Hall. London, 1901. George Allen and Unwin. , translated by Margaret Armour. London, 1908. J. M. Dent and Sons.

2Chanson de Roland, ll. 520–578, 1412–1437, 1753–1806, 2297–2396.

3 See page 277.

1 Charlemagne, born about 742, was in reality a young man at the time of his invasion of Spain.

2 Aix-la-Chapelle, or Aachen.

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Chicago: Margaret Armour, trans., The Fall of the Nibelungs in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 429–435. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K4C7YVIG9PTV1DW.

MLA: . The Fall of the Nibelungs, translted by Margaret Armour, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 429–435. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K4C7YVIG9PTV1DW.

Harvard: (trans.), The Fall of the Nibelungs. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.429–435. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=K4C7YVIG9PTV1DW.