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CHARLEMAGNE has had the fortune, unique so far as I know, of being a hero both of history The legenand of fable. The one character seems
Charlein general to exclude the other. Achilles, magne. Odin, the Cid, King Arthur, Cuchullin, whose achievements are unknown, whose existence has been questioned, have been the centres of the greatest cycles of legendary romance. On the other hand, it is not at first thought surprising that a figure so dazzling and romantic as Alexander the Great, whose recorded exploits may vie with those of the hero of the Iliad, whom he envied, never became the theme of popular song ?* The same may be said of Hannibal, of Julius Cæsar, and Napoleon. Charlemagne, the conqueror and king, the legislator and civilizer, the founder of the new Roman Empire which lasted a thousand years, is also the source and centre of a legendary cycle of enormous and far-spreading growth, forming for centuries the delight of the nations of Central Europe, and as its latest expression giving birth to the masterpieces of Italian poetry.
* That is, in Europe. The fact that Alexander became a hero of Eastern legend tends to confirm the view I put forward here.
So much has been written on the origin and growth of legend, that it would be unpardonable to dwell upon the subject. Its cradle is the imagination of an unlettered people. Their minds, like those of children, delight in marvels, and yield them an eager credence. First come ballads of rude and simple structure; new incidents, new personages are added year
after year by the fancies of a hundred unknown bards, until it may come to pass, possibly after centuries, that this floating ballad-lore is seized on by the genius of some great poet, and, while faith in the legend as yet survives, is embodied in some immortal poem. Thus the ballad is crystallized into the epic. So was it with the Iliad; so, in their degree, was it with the early ballads concerning Charlemagne and his heroes.
The “ Chanson de Roland,” which I have ventured to translate, is the outcome of ruder lays which have perished. It was composed, according to all probability, about the end of the eleventh or the beginning of the twelfth century. Its hero is Roland, the Christian Achilles.
It was Charlemagne's fortune to come between two civilizations--the expiring civilization of Rome, and the nascent civilization of feudal Christendom. His passion for letters and science is well-known, and he gathered round him the foremost clerks of his age. But the great mass of his people were, I need hardly say, as unlettered as they were rude in manners and simple in faith, and, what is still more to the purpose, the two centuries which immediately succeeded were darker than his own. So when his towering figure and
marvellous exploits struck full upon the hearts of his contemporaries, there existed all the elements for the growth of a sylva of legends. If he had lived in, still more if he had been followed by, a time of literary cultivation, this could hardly have taken place. The beginnings, the early germs, might have come into existence, for at all times the great mass of mankind are ignorant and imaginative; but those germs would have withered and died in face of the facts. At such a time mere fiction, the conscious falsification of the known facts of history (unless done in sport and playfulness), would have been abhorrent to creative genius, which, by its very nature, lives in what it believes to be true. This may be illustrated by reverting for a moment to Napoleon. A good deal has been said of late of the Napoleonic legend. But the songs of Béranger are in no true sense legendary, any more than the prose of Thiers. The incidents told with such simple pathos in “Les Souvenirs du Peuple,” might have actually happened without violation of probability during the war of 1814. Yet there were unquestionably in France the beginnings and sproutings of a genuine Napoleonic mythus. A lamented friend of mine, years ago, heard among the peasants of Picardy that Wellington had been a pupil and officer of Napoleon, and had learned from him the secret of success in war, which he afterwards turned treacherously against his master. Give ideas of this kind two or three illiterate centuries to grow and expatiate in, and one can well fancy what a wealth of legendary lore might have gathered round the name of Napoleon. His marshals would have been peers and paladins, each with his garland of ballads, and each credited with some marvellous incident of birth and with impossible adventures. Bourmont would have been as Ganelon, and the tale of Waterloo would have rivalled the tale of Roncesvalles. But the growth of such a legend is impossible in our time, simply because the germs of it are destroyed in the mind of every Frenchman who learns to read. The legends concerning Charlemagne and his peers ran little risk of being thus nipped in the bud. His actual achievements are given to us in the admirable biography written by his secretary, Eginhard, and in the later and less authentic narrative of the Monk of St. Gall. But these histories, enshrined in a language read by clerks alone, had no influence on the wild ballad-lore of the people, which went its own way. Thus, the double part which Charlemagne fills may be accounted for.
The earlier ballads—all, in fact, anterior to this “Song of Roland"-have perished. The very language in which they originally existed has been a subject of controversy. It has been insisted with good show of Was the reason that, as Charlemagne was a Frankish legend
king of the Austrasian race of Pepin of originally Teutonic Heristal, speaking, he and his warriors, a or Gaulish? Teutonic dialect, it must have been in that language that the admiration for him first broke forth in song. This is, of course, highly probable, though not a fragment remains to attest it. On the other hand, the Franks had been conquerors of a great part of Roman Gaul for more than three hundred years. Multitudes of Charlemagne's soldiers and servants
must have spoken one of the dialects of the lingua Romana, and as we find that language so to speak in possession, as being the vehicle of all the succeeding poetry, there is no reason to suppose any transfusion of the ballads from the Teuton into Gaulish Latin. The probabilities are that they existed in both languages, possibly even in the lifetime of Charlemagne.
But whether Teuton or Roman, or both, no remains of these primitive chants are now known to exist. They must have been almost wholly unwritten ; and their very memory would have perished if it had not been preserved both in the allusions of contemporary Latin writers, and in the larger chansons de geste—the quasi epics-into which they became fused. Of these, as I said, the earliest in date, and confessedly the first in merit, is the “Chanson de Roland.” Of the others the name is literally legion, and I need but refer my readers to the interesting, and almost exhaustive work of M. Gaston Paris, “L'Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne." *
Most singular, too, is the point in the history of Charlemagne which became the theme of The disthe deepest interest—the disaster which aster of befell his rear-guard at Roncesvalles. valles. There is no doubt of the reality of the occurrence. It is told briefly, and almost baldly, but with an obvious fidelity to fact, by Eginhard. It came to pass in this way :-In the year 777 Charlemagne had convoked at Paderborn an assembly of the various
*“Histoire Poétique de Charlemagne,” par Gaston Paris. Paris, A. Franck, 1865.