is the scene every 15th August
where the cruel battle which took place on the same day in 778
took place. The rearguard of Charlemagne's army was attacked and decimated in the woods of the "Ronzesbal" on that day.
This historical event was a main feature in mediaeval chansons de geste, one of the most beautiful epic poems of the era being "La Chanson de Roland"
, which led the name of Roncesvalles ('Roncesvaux' in French) to be heard all over Europe.
After destroying the city walls of Pamplona on his return to France from Saragossa, Charlemagne placed his best warriors at the rearguard of the army, commanded by Roldán (Roland) and the 'twelve peers of France'. Ganelón, a traitor driven by envy towards Charlemagne's stepson Roland, decided to sell out to the enemy.
So it was that the gorge of Roncesvalles
was bathed in blood as a result of the fierce battle between Saracens and the French. On seeing his battalion decimated, Roland sounded his horn. Charlemagne heard the ominous sound and was full of fear, but Ganelón calmed him down and persuaded him not to join the fray. However, Charlemagne did not allow himself to be fooled and set off to defeat the enemy alongside his nephew. He arrived too late, though, and the Emperor came across a desolate scene covered with dead soldiers. With a heavy heart, Charlemagne swore revenge while he held the body of his dear Roland in his arms.
The memory of that event and the magnificent work of literature
can be read and heard every 15th August in Roncesvalles, describing how the brave Roland the twelve peers of France died.
Here are some paragraphs from the Song of Roland:
"...The dozen peers are left behind in Spain,
Franks in their band a thousand score remain,
No fear have these, death hold they in disdain.
. The felon Guenes had treacherously wrought...
Upon a peak is Oliver mounted,
Kingdom of Spain he sees before him spread,
And Sarrazins, so many gathered
-¡Comrade Rollanz, your horn I pray you sound!
If Charles hear, he'll turn his armies round.
-¡ "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;
The two armies clash. "Common the fight is now and marvellous. Then Durendal he bares, his sabre good
Spurs on his horse, is gone to strike Chemuble.
-"Culvert, false step you moved,
From Mahumet your help will not come soon.
No victory for gluttons such as you."
The battle grows more hard and harder yet,
Franks and pagans, with marvellous onset,
Each other strike and each himself defends.
So many shafts bloodstained and shattered,
So many flags and ensigns tattered;
So many Franks lose their young lustihead,
Charles the Great weeps therefor with regret.
Evil service, that day, Guenes rendered them,
To Sarraguce going, his own to sell.
Then says Rollant: "Strong it is now, our battle;
I'll wind my horn, so the King hears it, Charles."
Says Oliver: "That act were not a vassal's.
When I implored you, comrade, you were wrathful.
Were the King here, we had not borne such damage.
Nor should we blame those with him there, his army."
Says Oliver: "Now by my beard, hereafter
If I may see my gentle sister Alde,
She in her arms, I swear, shall never clasp you."
Rollant hath set the olifant to his mouth,
He grasps it well, and with great virtue sounds.
High are those peaks, afar it rings and loud,
Thirty great leagues they hear its echoes mount.
So Charles heard, and all his comrades round;
Then said that King: "Battle they do, our counts!"
And Guenelun answered, contrarious:
"That were a lie, in any other mouth."
The count Rollanz, though blood his mouth doth stain,
And burst are both the temples of his brain,
His olifant he sounds with grief and pain;
Charles hath heard, listen the Franks again.
"That horn," the King says, "hath a mighty strain!"
Answers Duke Neimes: "A baron blows with pain!
Battle is there, indeed I see it plain,
He is betrayed, by one that still doth feign.
Equip you, sir, cry out your old refrain,
That noble band, go succour them amain!
Enough you've heard how Rollant doth complain."
The count Rollanz has nobly fought and well,
Great pain he has, and trouble in his head,
His temples burst when he the horn sounded;
Sixty thousand trumpets so loud together blare,
The mountains ring, the valleys answer them.
Rollant is dead; God has received his soul in heaven. The Emperor arrives at Roncesvaux.
-Where are you, gentle nephew? Where are the twelve peers I left here?
Charlemange has arrived at Roncesvaux and cries for the dead he finds there.
-Lords -he says to his Frenchmen-, ride slowly because I need to go ahead of you, for my nephew who I yearn to find. I heard Rollant say that if he had to die in a foreign kingdom, he would go ahead of his men and peers in enemy territory and you would find him facing the adversary; thus he would have died victorious, the brave.
He recognises Rollantz's blows on three rocks and sees his nephew lying in the green grass. He gets down from his horse and runs to him. He takes his body in his hands… he was so overcome by anguish that he fainted..."