Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 30, 2016

Song of Roland

By David Reiss

photo by Archimatth

A statue of Roland at Metz railway station, France

In commemoration of Memorial Day, a selection from The Song of Roland, an epic poem from the days of Charlemagne:

The Horn


As Roland gazed on his slaughtered men, He bespake his gentle compeer agen: “Ah, dear companion, may God thee shield! Behold, our bravest lie dead on field! Well may we weep for France the fair, Of her noble barons despoiled and bare. Had he been with us, our king and friend! Speak, my brother, thy counsel lend, How unto Karl shall we tidings send?” Olivier answered, “I wist not how. Liefer death than be recreant now.”


“I will sound,” said Roland, “upon my horn, Karl, as he passeth the gorge, to warn. The Franks, I know, will return apace.” Said Olivier, “Nay, it were foul disgrace On your noble kindred to wreak such wrong; They would bear the stain their lifetime long. Erewhile I sought it, and sued in vain; But to sound thy horn thou wouldst not deign. Not now shall mine assent be won, Nor shall I say it is knightly done. Lo! both your arms are streaming red.” “In sooth,” said Roland, “good strokes I sped.”


Said Roland, “Our battle goes hard, I fear; I will sound my horn that Karl may hear.” “‘Twere a deed unknightly,” said Olivier; “Thou didst disdain when I sought and prayed: Saved had we been with our Karl to aid; Unto him and his host no blame shall be: By this my beard, might I hope to see My gentle sister Alda’s face, Thou shouldst never hold her in thine embrace.”


“Ah, why on me doth thine anger fall?” “Roland, ’tis thou who hast wrought it all. Valor and madness are scarce allied, Better discretion than daring pride. All of thy folly our Franks lie slain, Nor shall render service to Karl again, As I implored thee, if thou hadst done, The king had come and the field were won; Marsil captive, or slain, I trow. Thy daring, Roland, hath wrought our woe. No service more unto Karl we pay, That first of men till the judgment day; Thou shalt die, and France dishonored be Ended our loyal company A woful parting this eve shall see.”


Archbishop Turpin their strife hath heard, His steed with the spurs of gold he spurred, And thus rebuked them, riding near: “Sir Roland, and thou, Sir Olivier, Contend not, in God’s great name, I crave. Not now availeth the horn to save; And yet behoves you to wind its call, Karl will come to avenge our fall, Nor hence the foemen in joyance wend. The Franks will all from their steeds descend; When they find us slain and martyred here, They will raise our bodies on mule and bier, And, while in pity aloud they weep, Lay us in hollowed earth to sleep; Nor wolf nor boar on our limbs shall feed.” Said Roland, “Yea, ’tis a goodly rede.”


Then to his lips the horn he drew, And full and lustily he blew. The mountain peaks soared high around; Thirty leagues was borne the sound. Karl hath heard it, and all his band. “Our men have battle,” he said, “on hand.” Ganelon rose in front and cried, “If another spake, I would say he lied.”


With deadly travail, in stress and pain, Count Roland sounded the mighty strain. Forth from his mouth the bright blood sprang, And his temples burst for the very pang. On and onward was borne the blast, Till Karl hath heard as the gorge he passed, And Naimes and all his men of war. “It is Roland’s horn,” said the Emperor, “And, save in battle, he had not blown.” “Battle,” said Ganelon, “is there none. Old are you grown – all white and hoar; Such words bespeak you a child once more. Have you, then, forgotten Roland’s pride, Which I marvel God should so long abide, How he captured Noples without your hest? Forth from the city the heathen pressed, To your vassal Roland they battle gave, He slew them all with the trenchant glaive, Then turned the waters upon the plain, That trace of blood might none remain. He would sound all day for a single hare: ‘Tis a jest with him and his fellows there; For who would battle against him dare? Ride onward – wherefore this chill delay? Your mighty land is yet far away.”


On Roland’s mouth is the bloody stain, Burst asunder his temple’s vein; His horn he soundeth in anguish drear; King Karl and the Franks around him hear. Said Karl, “That horn is long of breath.” Said Naimes, “‘Tis Roland who travaileth. There is battle yonder by mine avow. He who betrayed him deceives you now. Arm, sire; ring forth your rallying cry, And stand your noble household by; For your hear your Roland in jeopardy.”


The king commands to sound the alarm. To the trumpet the Franks alight and arm; With casque and corselet and gilded brand, Buckler and stalwart lance in hand, Pennons of crimson and white and blue, The barons leap on their steeds anew, And onward spur the passes through; Nor is there one but to other saith, “Could we reach but Roland before his death, Blows would we strike for him grim and great.” Ah! what availeth! – ’tis all too late.


The evening passed into brightening dawn. Against the sun their harness shone; From helm and hauberk glanced the rays, And their painted bucklers seemed all ablaze. The Emperor rode in wrath apart. The Franks were moody and sad of heart; Was none but dropped the bitter tear, For they thought of Roland with deadly fear. Then bade the Emperor take and bind Count Gan, and had him in scorn consigned To Besgun, chief of his kitchen train. “Hold me this felon,” he said, “in chain.” Then full a hundred round him pressed, Of the kitchen varlets the worst and best; His beard upon lip and chin they tore, Cuffs of the fist each dealt him four,

Roundly they beat him with rods and staves; Then around his neck those kitchen knaves Flung a fetterlock fast and strong, As ye lead a bear in a chain along; On a beast of burthen the count they cast, Till they yield him back to Karl at last.


Dark, vast, and high the summits soar, The waters down through the valleys pour, The trumpets sound in front and rear, And to Roland’s horn make answer clear. The Emperor rideth in wrathful mood, The Franks in grievous solicitude; Nor one among them can stint to weep, Beseeching God that He Roland keep, Till they stand beside him upon the field, To the death together their arms to wield. Ah, timeless succor, and all in vain! Too long they tarried, too late they strain.

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