“Rollánd is brave and Olivier is wise;
Both knights of wond’rous courage—and in arms
And mounted on their steeds, they both will die
Ere they will shun the fight.”
Four times Olivier asks Count Rollánd to breathe the horn and recall Charles’ army. Without his help the battle will be lost, the enemy forces are overwhelming. Four times Rollánd replies to him that his honor is at stake, that of Carlo’s peers, and of all the Franks and he will not.
The battle unleashes unparalleled. But fate does not surrender to the brave Franks
“Meantime in France an awful scourge prevails:
Wind, storm, rain, hail and flashing lightning bolts
Conflict confusedly, and naught more true,
The earth shook from Saint Michiel-del-Peril
As far as to the Saints, from Besançon
Unto the [sea-port] of Guitzand; no house
Whose walls unshaken stood; darkness at noon
Shrouded the sky. No beam of light above
Save when a flash rips up the clouds. Dismayed
Beholders cry:—”The world’s last day has come,
The destined end of all things is at hand!”
Unwitting of the truth, their speech is vain….
‘Tis dolour for the death of Count Rollánd!”
Taken from despair, the Franks turn to Olivier and Count Rollánd and:
“Unto them now the Archbishop speaks his mind:
“Barons, be not unworthy of yourselves!
Fly not the field, for God’s sake, that brave men
Sing not ill songs of you! Far better die
In battle. Doomed, I know, we are to death,
And ere this day has passed, our lives are o’er.
But for one thing ye can believe my word:
For you God’s Paradise stands open wide,
And seats await you ‘mid the blessèd Saints.”
These words of comfort reassure the French;
All in one voice cry out:—”Montjoie! Montjoie!”»”
The fray continues desperate. And when Rollánd decides to play the Olifante Oivier scolds him because it is too late now. His pride in certain death led them. How distant the nickname “friend” with which Olivier calls Rollánd sounds.
The end was not long in coming for Olivier, who was mortally wounded and lost his sight and could hit his friend himself:
Upon his golden-studded helm he struck
A dreadful blow, which to the nose-plate cleft,
And split the crest in twain, but left the head
Untouched. Rollánd at this, upon him looks,
And softly, sweetly asks:—”Sire compagnon!
Was that blow meant for me? I am Rollánd
By whom you are beloved so well; to me
Could you by any chance, defiance give?”
Said Olivier:—”I hear your speech, but see
You now no more. May God behold you, friend!
I struck the blow; beseech you, pardon me.”
Rollánd responds:—”I am not wounded—here
And before God I pardon you.” At this,
Each to the other bends in courtesy.
With such great tenderness and love they part.
I remember when we read this story at school. Europe of poets called it my teacher. Yes, Europe. By now adult I set out on a journey in search of it. Thus we came to the road from Pamplona to the Roncesvalles pass. The sun that had accompanied us until then vanished above the clouds and a thick fog came down to envelop the pass. As I walked I saw flying vultures hidden by the mist. I was kidnapped by that lugubrious air that smelled of death and as thrown on that ancient battlefield where I came to the small chapel built in 1965 and which took the place of the oldest one. I entered it. It was bare with an altar illuminated by two inlaid windows and a statue that was Christ (?). I read that the inhabitants of the place wanted the old chapel for the sound of its bell to guide those who walked the path of Santiago in the fog.
Now that I think back to that late afternoon, on days when counts and barons of Europe of a completely different kind invade my house from phantasmagoric screens, the prophetic verses of a modern poet come back to me:
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD , help us.
Yes, what Don Abbondio says is true: ‘Courage, if you don’t have it, you can’t give it’. In these hours I would like to go up to that chapel and join the singing of Eliot:
Let us therefore make perfect our will. O GOD, help us.