Excerpt from the Song of Roland (11th century)


Introductory Note: Oliver and Roland are counts [high-ranking lords] in the service of Charlemagne (9th century [referred to in this translation as Charles, King or Emperor].  Charlemagne led the Franks on an invasion of Spain, but retreated after making little progress against the powerful Muslims  (Saracens) that ruled the region. Roland volunteered to protect Charlemagne's retreat by leading the rearguard forces. Roland and Oliver's small force was soon surrounded and destroyed by a much larger army after a valiant battle to the last man. Their heroic and doomed resistance acquired the same mystique as the last stand of the Spartan 300 had for the Greeks, or the Alamo has for Americans. This poem was written centuries after the battle, and presents Roland as a model of chivalry. Roland's sword has a name, "Durendal." The olifant is a great horn Oliver wants Roland to blow to call for help from the main part of Charlemagne's army.




     Upon a peak is Oliver mounted,

     Kingdom of Spain he sees before him spread,

     And Saracen, so many gathered.

     Their helmets gleam, with gold are jewelled,

     Also their shields, their hauberks orfreyed,

     Also their swords, ensigns on spears fixed.

     Rank beyond rank could not be numbered,

     So many there, no measure could he set.

     In his own heart he's sore astonished,

     Fast as he could, down from the peak hath sped

     Comes to the Franks, to them his tale hath said.




     Says Oliver: "Pagans from there I saw;

     Never on earth did any man see more.

     Against us their shields a hundred thousand bore,

     That laced helms and shining hauberks wore;

     And, bolt upright, their bright brown spearheads shone.

     Battle we'll have as never was before.

     Lords of the Franks, God keep you in valor!

     So hold your ground, we be not overborne!"

     Then say the Franks "Shame take him that goes off:

     If we must die, then perish one and all."               




     Says Oliver: "Pagans in force abound,

     While of us Franks but very few I count;

     Comrade Rolland, your horn I pray you sound!

     If Charles hear, he'll turn his armies round."

     Answers Rolland: "A fool I should be found;

     In France the [tale] would perish my renown.

     With Durendal I'll lay on thick and stout,

     In blood the blade, to its golden hilt, I'll drown.

     Felon pagans to the pass shall not come down;

     I pledge you now, to death they all are bound.





     "Comrade Rolland, sound the olifant, I pray;

     If Charles hear, the host he'll turn again;

     Will succor us our King and baronage."

     Answers Rolland: "Never, by God, I say,

     For my misdeed shall kinsmen hear the blame,

     Nor France the Douce fall into evil fame!

     Rather stout blows with Durendal I'll lay,

     With my good sword that by my side doth sway;

     Till bloodied o'er you shall behold the blade.

     Felon pagans are gathered to their shame;

     I pledge you now, to death they're doomed to-day."





    "Comrade Rolland, once sound your olifant!

     If Charles hear, where in the pass he stands,

     I pledge you now, they'll turn again, the Franks."

     "Never, by God," then answers him Rolland,

     "Shall it be said by any living man,

     That for pagans I took my horn in hand!

     Never by me shall men reproach my clan.

     When I am come into the battle grand,

     And blows lay on, by hundred, by thousand,

     Of Durendal bloodied you'll see the brand.

     Franks are good men; like vassals brave they'll stand;

     Nay, Spanish men from death have no warrant."




Says Oliver: "In this I see no blame;

I have beheld the Saracens of Spain;

Covered with them, the mountains and the vales.

The wastes I saw, and all the farthest plains,

A muster great they've made, this people strange;

We have of men a very little tale."

Answers Roland: "My anger is inflamed.

Never, please God His Angels and his Saints,

Never by me shall Frankish valor fail!

Rather I'll die than shame shall me attain.

Therefore strike on, the Emperor's love to gain.




Pride hath Roland, wisdom Oliver hath;

And both of them show marvelous courage;

Once they are horsed, once they have donned their arms,

Rather they'd die than from the battle pass.

Good are the counts, and their lofty language.

Felon pagans come cantering in their wrath.

Says Oliver: "Behold and see, Rolland,

These are right near, but Charles is very far.

On the olifant deign now to sound a blast;

Were the King here, we should not fear damage.

Only look up towards the Pass of Aspre.

In sorrow there you'll see the whole rereward.

Who does this deed, does no more afterward."

Answers Rolland: "Utter not such outrage!

Evil his heart that in thought a coward!

We shall remain firm in our place installed;

From us the blows shall come, from us the assault.




When Rolland sees that now must be combat,

More fierce he's found than lion or leopard;

The Franks he calls, and Oliver commands:

"Now say no more, my friends, nor thou, comrade.

That Emperor, who left us Franks on guard.

A thousand score stout men he set apart,

And well he knows, not one will prove coward.

Man for his lord should suffer with good heart.

Of bitter cold and great heat bear the smart.

His blood let drain, and all his flesh be scarred.

Strike with thy lance, and I with Durendal.

With my good sword that was the King's reward.

So, if I die, who has it afterward,

A noble vassal's he well may say it was."




From the other part is the Archbishop Turpin,

He pricks his horse and mounts upon a hill;

Calling the Franks, sermon to them begins:

"My lords barons, Charles left us here for this;

He is our King, well may we die for him:

To Christendom good service offering.

Battle you'll have, you all are bound to it.

For with your eyes you see the Saracens.

Pray for God's grace, confessing Him your sins!

'For your souls' health, I'll absolution give

So, though you die, blest martyrs shall you live.

Thrones you shall win in the great Paradise."

The Franks dismount, upon the ground are lit.

That Archbishops God's Benediction gives,

For their penance, good blows to strike he bids.




To Spanish pass is Rolland now going

On Veillantif, his good steed, galloping;

He is well armed, pride is in his bearing,

He goes, so brave, his spear in hand holding,

He goes, its point against the sky turning;

A gonfalon [banner] all white thereon he's pinned,

Down to his hand flutters the golden fringe:

Noble his limbs, his face clear and smiling.

His companion goes after, following,

The men of France their warrant find in him.

Proudly he looks towards the Saracens,

And to the Franks sweetly, himself humbling;

And courteously has said to them this thing:

"My lords barons, go now your pace holding!

Pagans are come great martyrdom seeking;

Noble and fair reward this day shall bring,

Was never won by any Frankish King."

Upon these words the hosts are come touching.