In northern Spain, only a few miles from the French border, there is a mountain pass through the Pyrenees known as Roncevalles. In the year 778 the Emperor Charlemagne was returning from a campaign against Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula. His rear guard and baggage train was attacked and overwhelmed as it moved through the pass. One of those Frankish knights who died that day was known as Roland, and Frankish troubadours soon began singing of Roland’s heroic struggle against the pagan hordes. Eventually, those troubadour songs were inscribed on parchment as Le Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland), an immensely popular epic poem of the middle ages.
When a young boy, I was given a set of books entitled Junior Classics. Those old books, scuffed and torn as they are, are still on the top shelf in my library. The several volumes are filled with marvelous stories about adventures of every sort, including true accounts of discovery, exotic writings from the mysterious Far East, abbreviated versions of the Greek legends, and fascinating tales such as the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp. Among many stories, The Song of Roland was one of my favorites.
As pictured in the epic poem, Roland was an almost perfect hero. He was incredibly skilled as a warrior, and he was brave to the point of recklessness. He was devoted to his friend Oliver, who was with him at Roncevalles; and he loved Oliver’s sister, who waited lovingly and patiently for him at home. Roland was a faithful Christian knight, and his life and character were almost above reproach. I say almost, because Roland was infected with a surfeit of stubborn pride. As the story was told, the Frankish rear guard was surrounded by an overwhelming Muslim army and in danger of defeat and death. Oliver begged Roland to sound his battle horn calling for reinforcements from the main Frankish army, but Roland believed that sounding the horn would be an act of cowardice. Finally, he is persuaded to sound the horn, but by that time it is too late. Fighting desperately to the last man, the entire rear guard perished.
In all honesty, I should inform the reader of this post that The Song of Roland is not entirely accurate. As with a cinematic production today, the poem’s creator used a bit of artistic license and made the protagonists into almost superhuman heroes. Since no Frank survived, we have no real inside information about Roland and his horn. Also, though it is true that Charlemagne advanced into Spain to fight the Muslims, it is believed that as he returned to France his rear guard was ambushed and destroyed by Basque tribesmen, not by a Muslim army. But telling the story interestingly and well was probably almost as important as getting all the details right.
Is it not somewhat amazing to realize that Christians and Muslims were fighting and contending for territory more than 1200 years ago? Will it ever end?
Stories about heroes like Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph son of Jacob, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Robert Bruce, and Roland helped me form ideas about what a good man should be like. I never managed to hit the mark, but at least I knew what I was aiming at.
Everyone could benefit from a few good heroes and heroines, which, by the way, is the title of one of the volumes in my Junior Classics.