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The Harvard Classics, Volume 49, Epic and Saga - With Introductions And Notes by Various
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_In the year 778 A.D., Charles the Great, King of the Franks, returned
from a military expedition into Spain, whither he had been led by
opportunities offered through dissensions among the Saracens who then
dominated that country. On the 15th of August, while his army was
marching through the passes of the Pyrenees, his rear-guard was attacked
and annihilated by the Basque inhabitants of the mountains, in the
valley of Roncesvaux About this disaster many popular songs, it is
supposed, soon sprang up; and the chief hero whom they celebrated was
Hrodland, Count of the Marches of Brittany.

There are indications that the earliest of these songs arose among the
Breton followers of Hrodland or Roland; but they spread to Maine, to
Anjou, to Normandy, until the theme became national. By the latter part
of the eleventh century, when the form of the "Song of Roland" which we
possess was probably composed, the historical germ of the story had
almost disappeared under the mass of legendary accretion. Charlemagne,
who was a man of thirty-six at the time of the actual Roncesvaux
incident, has become in the poem an old man with a flowing white beard,
credited with endless conquests; the Basques have disappeared, and the
Saracens have taken their place; the defeat is accounted for by the
invention of the treachery of Ganelon; the expedition of 777-778 has
become a campaign of seven years; Roland is made the nephew of
Charlemagne, leader of the twelve peers, and is provided with a faithful
friend Oliver, and a betrothed, Alda.
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