"I will never forgive Roland for this, never!" Ganelon muttered as he spurred his horse away from the camp of his commander, the Frankish King Charlemagne. Ganelon felt an enormous desire for revenge. He had always hated Roland, his stepson and the nephew of Charlemagne. Now he hated him more than ever. Because of Roland, Ganelong was riding into great danger, perhaps to his death.
After seven years of victorious war against the Muslims in Spain, Charlemagne had grown weary of fighting. He wanted to make peace Marsilion of Saragossa, the only Muslim king he had not overcome.
Charlemagne decided to send an ambassador to Marsilion and Roland had suggested Ganelon. Charlemagne agreed.
Ganelon was furious, but he had to obey Charlemagne. It was a dangerous mission, for the Muslims were very violent and unpredictable people.
The more Ganelon thought about it, the more he realised that perilous or not, this mission could give him the chance to get his revenge. "If I can persuade King Marsilion to help me," Ganelon mused, "I could get rid of Roland forever."
Despite his fears about the dangers of his journey, Ganelon reached Saragossa safely. At first, Marsilion and the Muslims were very suspicious of Ganelon, but eventually, they agreed to cooperate with him. In any case, the Muslims, too, wanted revenge, for they had suffered many dreadful defeats at the hands of the Franks.
"You must send hostages to Charlemagne, to show that you truly mean to make peace," Ganelon advised Marsilion.
Marsilion agreed to do so, and Ganelon went on: "When Charlemagne has your hostages, he will take his army home. However, he will not leave himself unprotected as he marches through the narrowest passes of the mountains of the Pyrenees. The pass at Roncevaux is particularly dangerous. I am sure that Charlemagne will leave a force of his soldiers there to guard it."
"How will that help you get rid of your stepson Roland?" King Marsilion asked curiously.
"You will see," Ganelon replied with a wicked smile. "Just make sure your men are well hidden behind the rocks around the pass. I will do the rest."
When Ganelon returned with the Muslim hostages and the news that Marsilion was willing to make peace, Charlemagne at once made preparations to return home. Charlemagne's great army set off, and moved slowly through the Pyrenees. There were great, soaring peaks on either side and only narrow, winding mountain trails to follow. Their progress was slow, and the rumblings and clattering's of their carts could be heard a long way off. Marsilion's men heard the noise as they raced ahead to Roncevaux. As long as they kept the noise behind them, they knew they would reach Roncevaux before the Franks got there.
So it proved. When the Frankish army reached Roncevaux, Marsilion's force lay concealed from view behind the rocks and in the crevices of the surrounding mountains.
This is a perilous place," Charlemagne announced, just as Ganelon had "I will leave twenty thousand knights to guard the pass as through." Charlemagne looked round. "Who will command this rear-guard?" he asked.
At once, before anyone else could speak, Ganelon came forward and said, "Roland, Sire. Put Roland in command. He well deserves so important a task."
Out of the corner of his eye, Ganelon saw Roland's face light up with excitement at his stepfather's suggestion.
However, Charlemagne did not agree at first.
"Roland is a splendid soldier, but he is too young and rash," the King replied. "It needs an older, more experienced man."
At this, Roland threw himself to his knees in front of Charlemagne.
"I beg you, Sire," Roland cried. "Give me this command. I swear I will prove worthy of it. I will defend the pass here at Roncevaux with my very life if I must."
Ganelon begged Charlemagne, "Heed my stepson's request, gracious sire. After all, Roland honoured me with a great task, as ambassador to King Marsilion. I would return the favour."
Confronted by Ganelon's insistence and Roland's eagerness, Charlemagne, at last, gave in.
"Very well, then," he said, "but Oliver and the Twelve Peers will remain behind with Roland."
Oliver was Roland's sensible and stout-hearted friend. The Twelve Peers were the bravest and most experienced Frankish knights. Charlemagne hoped that between them they could stop Roland from doing anything foolish. And if they were in danger, Roland could always blow his horn and summon Charlemagne and his army to his aid.
When Charlemagne and his army had moved off, Roland set about dispatching his forces. Some he set to guard the pass itself, others he sent to watch on the mountain ridges above.
The Muslims lay low until they were sure Charlemagne was some distance away. Then, all at once, Roland and Oliver were startled to hear the sound of a thousand trumpets echoing through the mountains. The sound echoed back and forth between the peaks, and before the echo had died away, there came the sound of horses galloping and the fearful war cries of the Muslim hordes.
Oliver scrambled up a steep rise by the side of the path, to a point where he could scan the ground on the other side.
There, to his horror, he saw the great mass of Marsilion's warriors. Thousands of burnished helmets gleamed in the mountain sunshine. Thousands of spears, shields and swords glinted menacingly in the clear bright light. All of them were moving rapidly towards the pass at Roncevaux. Oliver hurried down to t is where Roland was standing.
"There are at least one hundred thousand of them," he told Roland fearfully "We will be overwhelmed. I beg you, Roland, sound your horn now. Summon Charlemagne back!"
Oliver was appalled when Roland refused. "I will summon no aid," Roland maintained stubbornly. "If we cannot throw back the Muslims ourselves, we deserve to die as cowards!"
A terrible despair took hold of Oliver. Charlemagne had been right not to want the incautious Roland to command his rear-guard. Twice more, Oliver begged Roland to summon Charlemagne. Twice more, Roland refused. It was too late now, in any case. Marsilion's Muslims were thundering closer and closer. There was nothing to do but confront them and fight to the death.
A few moments later, the Muslims were upon them. Roland and his knights plunged into the battle, slashing about them with their swords and spears.
Roland drove his spear through a Muslim's shield and helmet with one mighty thrust. Then he forced his way into a group of Muslims and brought down fifteen of them before the shaft of his spear broke into pieces. Undaunted, Roland grasped Durendal, his great sword, and flung himself towards a Muslim warrior.
He killed the man and his horse with one swift stroke.
Before long, few Muslims remained alive. The rest had fallen before the thrusting spears, slashing swords and hammering blows of the Franks. Although many of his own men had also been killed, Roland was sure that he had won a great victory. He was just about to raise Durendal to proclaim his triumph when, suddenly, the sound of trumpets reached this ears.
Instantly, Roland knew what it was. "A second Muslim army!" he gasped.
Seconds later, the slopes above the pass at Roncevaux seemed to be covered in a fresh crowd of Muslim warriors. Like a great tide, they swamped down onto Roland and the exhausted, battle-stained survivors of his force.
Roland and the Franks hurled themselves against this new, mighty enemy, but they were soon close to being overwhelmed. One Muslim killed five of the Twelve Peers, another two Peers fell and soon only sixty Frankish knights were left alive.
Roland looked around at the bodies of his men littering the ground. At last, he realised he must blow his horn and summon Charlemagne. Roland's horn was covered in gold and precious stones and its high clear note could be heard further away than any other horn in the world.
Roland put the mouthpiece of the horn to his lips, but Oliver rushed up and stopped him.
"It would be to our dishonour if you called for help now!" Oliver shouted angrily. "Better to die here than live in disgrace!"
"No, I MUST summon Charlemagne now," Roland replied. "If I had listened to you and done so before, this disaster would never have happened."
Before Oliver could say anymore, Roland put the horn to his lips and blew with all the strength he possessed. Harder and harder he blew until, suddenly, he felt a snap and a dreadful pain in his head. All at once, blood was flowing from his mouth. Roland had blown with such force that a vein on the side of his head had burst.
The sound of the horn soared up into the sky and over the mountains, echoing on and on until it reached the ears of Charlemagne, thirty leagues away. Charlemagne started up in his saddle in great alarm.
"Dear God!" he cried. "Roland has been attacked!" Charlemagne turned the head of his horse to ride back swiftly to Roland's aid. "Pray God we may reach him in time," he muttered fearfully.
Ganelon, hearing this, gave a derisive laugh. "Do not trouble yourself, Sire!" he scoffed. "It is only one of Roland's tricks. There is no attack. Come, let us get on - we are far from home."
In that moment, Charlemagne realised what Ganelon had done.
"You have betrayed Roland! You have betrayed me!" the King roared. "Seize him!" he ordered.
A group of Frankish knights, as infuriated as Charlemagne at Ganelon's treachery, leapt upon him, bound him and flung him into one of the baggage carts.
"You shall die for this foul betrayal!" Charlemagne promised Ganelon. Charlemagne kept his promise, for Ganelon was afterwards put to death.
Quickly, the whole Frankish army turned and headed back the way it had come. They rode as fast as the rocky terrain and the winding mountain paths would allow them. From time to time, the Franks heard Roland's horn echoing across the mountains. Charlemagne's trumpeters blew in reply.
A night and a day passed before they could be heard at Roncevaux.
The Muslims, seeing Charlemagne was returning, fled in panic. They left Charlemagne to discover a dreadful scene of tragedy and death.
The battlefield at Roncevaux was thickly littered with the corpses of men and horses. Oliver lay dead, his face ghostly white. A Muslim spear had struck him in the back and pierced right through his body to his chest. All twelve Peers had been killed. As he looked slowly round, Charlemagne realised that all the knights he had left with Roland were lying dead before him.
Then the grieving King of the Franks found Roland. He was lying on a grassy bank close to a rock. Upon the rock, Charlemagne saw three deep sword-cuts.
Beneath Roland's body lay his beautiful bejewelled horn and his sword Durendal. Knowing that he was dying, for he had lost so much blood from continuously blowing his horn, Roland had tried to destroy Durendal by striking it on the rock. Durendal had remained unbroken, however, and Roland had not had the strength to try a fourth time. Instead, to keep Durendal from falling into Muslim hands, Roland had placed it on the ground.
Then he had lain upon it, and there, he had died. Charlemagne tore his beard with grief. He wept and called out the names of his dead knights. He swore he would have his revenge. As it was nearly dark now, Charlemagne knelt and prayed that the sun would stand still in the sky so that he could pursue the fleeing Muslims.
Charlemagne's prayer was granted. Only when he and his army had killed all the Muslims and left their bodies strewn along the road to Saragossa or in the river nearby, did the sun set and the night fall.