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A Story From: France
Read Time: ["10 to 15mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs., 12 to 14yrs.

Roland-and-Oliver-1024x687THIS STORY takes place in France over a thousand years ago when Charlemagne was king. At a high festival to celebrate his recent military victories, Charlemagne became angry with one of the most powerful barons in France, old Count Gerard. Outraged, Count Gerard renounced his loyalty to the king and declared he would no longer pay taxes. Knowing Charlemagne would likely attack his home, Count Gerard returned to his stronghold castle in Viana to fortify it and prepare for a long siege.

Indeed, King Charlemagne embarked on a great siege against Count Gerard’s stronghold castle of Viana. The king vowed he would never leave until the proud Count Gerard was humbled in the dust before him. For nine weeks Charlemagne besieged the castle and allowed no one to come in or to go out. Yet so well supplied was the garrison with all food, drink, and comforts needed for life that they cared but little for the blockade.

Both the besiegers and the besieged took every opportunity to annoy one another. If Charlemagne’s warriors dared approach too near the walls, they were driven back by a shower of arrows from crossbows. If the men of Viana ventured outside the gates or beyond the moat, a troop of Charlemagne’s horsemen drove them back at the point of the lance.

Weeks passed. Still the wearisome siege continued. Some say that Charlemagne was encamped around Viana for seven months; others say it was seven years. In any event, during the siege the whole country for miles on every side was laid waste. What had once been blooming meadows, fields and gardens was now trodden into a desert. The vineyards were destroyed, the orchards cut down, the houses of the country folk burned and destroyed. Great indeed was the distress caused by this quarrel between the king and the count.

Yet both the king and Count Gerard remained steadfast. All winter long Charlemagne’s men sat by their campfires and guarded the approaches to Viana. By spring, the woods began to brighten with greenish hues and flowers sprang up in the meadows and birds sang soft and sweet. Many knights thought of how their time was being wasted in this fruitless war against one of their own countrymen, and they longed to ride away in quest of other, more worthy adventures. The king tried hard to press the siege and to bring it to a speedy close, but in vain.

One day a party of strange knights rode into the camp and brought stirring news to the king. The king of Spain, they said, had crossed the Pyrenees and was carrying fire and sword and dire distress into southern France. Unless Charlemagne left quickly, the rich provinces of Aquitaine and Gascony could be lost!

The king was much troubled when he heard this news and he called his advisors together to ask their advice. All declared at once in favor of ending the siege of Viana, finding some sort of peace with Count Gerard, and marching without delay against the invaders. But Charlemagne could not abandon his vow.

“Which is better,” cautiously said one duke, “to forsake a vow which may have been made too hastily, or to sit here helpless and surrender a precious part of our homeland to invaders?”

“It seems to me,” said another duke, “that the present business might be brought to a close another way. Let two knights be chosen, one from each side, and let the combat between them decide the question between you and Count Gerard.”

Charlemagne and his advisors were much pleased with this plan. A messenger with a truce flag was sent into the fortress to propose the plan to Count Gerard. On the other side, the men inside the castle of Viana were likewise arguing with one another how best to end the stalemate. They, too, were tired of fighting against the king, and knew that their food supplies and provisions would run out, indeed, they were already beginning to run low. So they very gladly agreed to the terms.

Charlemagne and his advisors selected Charlemagne’s valiant nephew Roland to represent the side of the king. Count Gerard selected his grandson, the formidable Oliver, to represent his interests.

Early the following morning, King Charlemagne’s nephew Roland was ferried over to an island in the river Rhône where Oliver was already waiting. The signal was given. The two knights put spurs to their steeds and dashed toward each other with the fury of tigers and the speed of the wind. The lances of both were shivered in pieces against the opposing shields, but neither was moved from his place in his saddle. Quickly they dismounted and drew their swords.

For more than two hours the two knights thrusted and parried, warding and striking, but neither gained an advantage over the other. At last, however, Oliver’s sword broke after striking Roland’s helmet with a too-hearty blow; his shield, too, was split from top to bottom. Left with no weapon to defend himself, Oliver made up his mind to die fighting, and he stood ready to fight with his fists. Roland was pleased to see such pluck.

“Friend,” he said, “great is your pride, and I love you for it. I may be the nephew to the king of France and his champion today, but great shame would be upon me were I to slay an unarmed man. Choose for yourself another sword and a more trusty shield, and meet me again as my equal.”

So Oliver bade his squires to bring him another sword from the castle, and Roland sat down upon the grass and rested. Three swords were sent over to Oliver, and the knight chose one. Roland rose from the grass and the fierce fight began again. Never were weapons wielded with greater skill. The sun rose high in the heavens, and still each knight stood firmly in his place, thrusting and parrying, striking and warding, and gaining no advantage over his foe. After a time, however, Roland struck his sword with such a force into Oliver’s shield that he could not withdraw it.

Now it was Oliver’s turn to face an unarmed enemy. “My worthy foe,” said he, “it is not our fate for one of us to vanquish the other through the use of swords and shields. Let us decide this matter hand to hand.” He threw his own sword and shield aside, and the two of them rushed together to seize each other and to throw one another down.

Moved by the same thought, each snatched the other’s helmet and lifted it from his head. At that moment they stood there, bareheaded and face to face. Perhaps it was something they recognized in one another’s eyes, perhaps a ray of light settled down between them, but at once they rushed into one another’s arms.

Great was the wonder of King Charlemagne and his advisors, and equally great was the astonishment of Oliver’s kinsmen, the Vianese of Count Gerard’s castle. Knights and warriors from both sides of the river hastened to cross to the island. They were eager to know the meaning of conduct seemingly so unknightly. But when they came nearer they saw the men, who had fought each other so long and so valiantly, now standing hand in hand and pledging their faith as brothers-in-arms. And with one voice all joined in declaring that both were equally deserving of the victory.

Charlemagne’s heart was touched by the spectacle. “Count Gerard of Viana,” he cried, “all this trouble between you and me is ended and forgotten. If you have harmed me, I freely forgive you. No penny of taxes shall you pay for land or castle. I ask only that your pledge of loyalty be restored.”

Then Count Gerard ungirt his sword from his side and uncovered his head, and knelt before the king. He placed both his hands between those of the king and said, “From this day forward I become your man of life and limb, and of all worldly reverence, and unto you I will be loyal and true. To no other lord will I grant obedience.”

Then the king raised him gently from the ground and kissed him, and answered, “Count Gerard of Viana, I grant you the lands and the castle of Viana, to have and to hold without any payment of taxes, or any other service except that which is called for in an honorable war.”

Then the other knights, in the order of their rank, came and knelt likewise before the king, and each in his turn promised his loyalty. And the king forgave each one all the wrong that he had ever done him, and gave back to each all the lands and all the honors that he had held before.

“And now,” said King Charlemagne to Count Gerard, “I will sup with you tonight in your lordly castle of Viana.”

Great was the wonder of the Viannese when they saw the king enter their halls, not as the prisoner but as the friend and guest of the count. And great, indeed, was the joy when it was known that peace had been made and that the wearisome siege was at an end. In the broad feast hall a rich banquet was spread, and the night was devoted to feasting, music and merrymaking. From the moment they refused to continue fighting each other, Roland and Oliver were inseparable.

 

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Retold by Elaine L. Lindy from the story "A Roland for an Oliver" from The Story of Roland by James Baldwin (Charles Schribner's Sons: New York, 1883) pp. 114-132.

©2006.  All rights reserved.


FOOTNOTE:


According to legend, the reason why Count Gerard had originally become angry with Charlemagne was because of an incident that had hapened at court. Grard had visited Charlemagne to pay his taxes for Viana and had hoped that the king, as a reward for his lifelong service at Viana, would grant him the land of Burgundy in addition to govern. As was the custom in those times, the count stooped to kiss the king's foot. Unfortunately, he stumbled and his lips instead touched the foot of the queen, who was at that time sitting by Charlemagne's side. The knights who stood around burst into laughter. The king, in anger, told Gerard that the land of Burgundy had already been granted to a younger and more courteous knight, and that he must content himself with Viana until he had learned better manners. Count Gerard, boiling with rage, turned on his heels and strode out of the palace. He soon after declared that he would no longer be loyal to the king nor pay him any more taxes. He then returned to his castle at Viana, strengthened it greatly and prepared for a long siege.

Roland- The nephew and right-hand-man of Charlemagne, Roland is immortalized in The Song of Roland (Le Chanson de Roland), the oldest major work of French literature. His death scene, at the hands of the Saracens in 778 AD, is one of the most powerful and memorable scenes in French literature.

Oliver- Roland's closest friend, brother-in-law, advisor, and stalwart companion-in-arms. In The Song of Roland, Oliver is portrayed as more insightful and prudent than the rash Roland. It is not known if Oliver, unlike Roland, is based on a real historical figure.