I've been reading Cees Nooteboom's Roads to Santiago, which chronicles the Dutch writer's circuitous pilgrimage (by car) through Spain, less in search of spiritual favors than for the spirits of Cervantes, Zurbarán, Velasquez, Romanesque churches and Cistercian monasteries, tiny villages hung in mountain valleys, virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. One of the places he visits is the town of Roncesvalles, home of the Abbey of Roncevaux. I love both of those words, which you just have to say aloud: -- Roncevaux, Roncesvalles -- but it took me a while to remember that this is the place where, in 778, the Moors attacked and destroyed the rear guard of Charlemagne's army, while the king and the rest of his army went on ahead bearing treasure and promises of fialty and Christian conversion they had received from the last Moorish stronghold, Saragossa. The promises were a trick, and all the remaining French were lost, partly because the knight Roland refused to signal Charlemagne in time. The great battle was commemorated in one of the earliest works of French literature, The Song of Roland.
Then, a few mornings ago, I was catching up on Lucy's blog, Box Elder, and saw that she had just been there, in Basque country! That was too much of a coincidence, so today I did some research, and downloaded The Song of Roland to read, as well as some of the best images that have been painted of the battle. I haven't yet read the whole thing, but in spite of the power of the epic I found myself aghast at its blatant, Crusader-like message of "Christians are right, Muslims are wrong -- and pagan -- and therefore deserve to die." Of course, the battle took a different course on that day, but one wonders if the world has advanced very much.
My favorites illustrations of the story, though, -- and this is probably what jogged my memory -- are those from The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, one of my most-beloved books from childhood, by Alice and Martin Provensen, whose work is much admired by me and by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. I can still remember my mother reading me this story at my bedside, and hear her repeating, "Roland! Blow your horn!" As a fledgling musician, I think I was particularly struck by the idea that someone could blow a horn until their temples burst. But such is the stuff of legend.
Li quens Rollant, par peine e par ahans,
Par grant dulor sunet sun olifan.
Par mi la buche en salt fors li cler sancs.
De sun cervel le temple en est rumpant.
Del corn qu'il tient l'oiïe en est mult grant:
Karles l'entent, ki est as porz passant.
Naimes li duc l'oïd, si l'escultent li Franc.
The Count Rollanz, with sorrow and with pangs,
And with great pain sounded his olifant:
Out of his mouth the clear blood leaped and ran,
About his brain the very temples cracked.
Loud is its voice, that horn he holds in hand;
Charles hath heard, where in the pass he stands,
And Neimes hears, and listen all the Franks.