The Spanish Charlemagne Ballads 5: The Battle of Roncesvalles

Spain is home to a large number of beautiful ballads, called romances. Some of these ballads are about lovers. Many are about the Moors who ruled Spain for so many long centuries. There are a large number about the famous Cid who fought the Moors. There is also a large cycle about the Paladins of France, and about Bernardo del Carpio, who, the Spaniards say, killed the mighty Roland in the battle of Roncesvalles. While there are several collections of English translations of the Spanish ballads, scholars and translators tend to focus on the Moorish and love ballads. It is difficult to find any complete account of this branch of the Carolingian legend, which is why I decided to write a summary of every Spanish ballad related to Charlemagne. I quickly discovered that this is an impossible task. The folk tradition is still alive and well, not only in Iberia, but in every land to which the Spanish Jews moved after being exiled by Ferdinand and Isabella. New variants are constantly being recorded, and no Professor Child has yet arisen to make a complete collection of the folksongs and to standardize the titles by which they are known.
The closest thing to a definitive collection of Spanish ballads that currently exists is the Romancero General of Agustin Duran, published in 1877, which includes every ballad printed prior to the 1800’s. This means it does not include any folksongs from the Spain of his day, or, naturally, from later. These folksongs sometimes contain very interesting variants from the printed texts. Many of these later folksongs can be found at the Pan-Hispanic Ballad Project and Folk Literature of the Sephardic Jews, two confusingly arranged messes of websites which I leave it to you to sift through if my dozen posts on Duran’s ballads leave you wanting more.
Duran’s magnum opus is in two volumes, which are volumes 10 and 14 of the Biblioteca des Autores Españoles. The numbers of the ballads below are those of this collection, as are the divisions into classes, based on antiquity.
Class I ballads are pure folksongs.
Class III are productions of uneducated or scarcely educated minstrels.
Class V are early literary ballads, attempts to imitate the oral tradition.
Class VIII are Renaissance or Siglo d’Oro literary ballads, which do not attempt to imitate the oral tradition.

Also note that most of the titles were supplied by Duran. Spanish ballads are usually identified by their first lines.

The principal English translations of Spanish ballads are:
Thomas Rodd, Most Celebrated Ancient Spanish Ballads relating to the Twelve Peers of France mentioned in Don Quixote. 1812.
John Gibson Lockhart, Ancient Spanish Ballads. 1823.
John Bowring, Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain. 1824.
James Young Gibson, The Cid Ballads and other Poems and Translation from Spanish and German. 1887.
Roger Wright, Spanish Ballads, 1987.

394, BATTLE AGAINST MARSIN. Class III. “Domingo era de Ramos”
On Palm Sunday, when the Passion is read, the French met with the Moors in battle. Roldan the Paladin rallied them when they were near to fleeing. Sixty thousand died in the first battle. King Marsin went wandering through the sierras of Altamira. He curses Mahoma, then repents and promises rich offerings if he wins.
No translation.
Apparently a condensation of some lost Spanish epic. A longer version was discovered after Duran’s day, which follows.

THE FLIGHT OF KING MARSÍN. “Ya comiençan los franceses”
The French fight the Moors. Baldovinos complains to Don Beltran about his hunger, thirst, and weariness, and says they must ask Don Roldan to blow his horn and summon the Emperor. Don Roldan refuses his cousins’ request, saying he will never be so shamed, but that they may ask Don Renaldos. Don Renaldos, for his part, says he will never sound his horn for so few Moors as these. The French are heartened, and mow the Moors down like wheat. But then a Moor, born in an evil hour, rallies his countrymen, pointing out that they outnumber the French a hundred to one, saying they will shame Marsin, his queen, and themselves if they flee. The Moors rally and drive back the French. Archbishop Turpin tells the French it is better to die with honor than live with shame, and the French return to the fight. King Marsin went wandering through the Roncesvalles, riding a zebra, not a hack. His blood stains the grass. He curses Mahoma, reminding him how many offerings he had given. An idol with a golden head and silver body and seventy thousand cavaliers. His wife Abrayma gave thirty thousand, his daughter Mataleona fifteen thousand. And now Mahoma has betrayed him and let the paladin Roldan cut his right arm off. Roldan must be enchanted, or he never could have done it. Marsin threatens to turn Christian, and be baptized at Rome by Turpin, with Roldan for godfather. He repents immediately, and asks Mahoma to heal him.
Like 394, this is descended from the old Spanish Roncesvalles, the original version of which survives only in one fragment.

395, THE DEATH OF DON BELTRAN IN RONCESVALLES. Class III. “En los campos de Alventosa”
In the fields of Alventosa, they killed Don Beltran, who lay with seven wounds. They cast lots to go look for his body. Seven times a coward gives up the search. Only an old man [his father] continues, cursing Spain, the Moors, the war, and other things. He meets a Moor and asks if he has seen Don Beltran. The Moor directs him to where Beltran is lying dead under a bush.
A slightly different version, beginning “Por la matanza va el viejo” is translated by Wright.

396, ON THE SAME SUBJECT. Class VIII. “Un gallardo paladin”
Not a ballad, but a lyric. The dauphin of France, in Roncesvalles, laments that he and his men could not defeat Bernardo the Castillian, and that Don Beltrane is dead.
No translation.

397, ON THE SAME SUBJECT Class VIII. “Cuando de Francia partimos”
When we came from France, we lost Don Beltrane. We cast lots seven times who would go look for him, and all seven were cowards who returned having done nothing. His father curses them and laments.
No translation.

The old Charlemagne, wounded sore, flees after the men of Spain have killed eleven of his Peers. Roldan, who cannot be wounded, is standing by a cross lamenting the defeat, when he sees Charlemagne, and dies of grief.
No translation.

399, THE DEATH OF ROLDAN. Lucas Rodriguez. Class VIII. “Apartado del camino”
Orlando [sic], riding alone and wounded after the battle, holds a crucifix, and beseeches God to take his soul, since the French are lost, and El Carpio has bested him and Durindana. He sees Charlemagne, alone, sad, crownless and bloody, and dies of grief.
No translation.
The ballads of Bernardo del Carpio will be given later, following Duran’s editorial decision.

400, LADY ALDA MOURNS THE DEATH OF ROLDAN. Class III. “En Paris está Doña Alda”
Lady Alda is in Paris with her maids. She has a dream that she is standing on a mountain when a falcon takes refuge in her arms from an eagle, only for the eagle to fly at her and kill it. One maid explains that the eagle is Roldan, and the falcon the Saracens. Alda promises her a rich reward if this be true. But the next day letters come, written in blood, telling of the death of Roldan in Roncesvalles.
Gibson, Lockhart.
This is easily the most famous of the Spanish ballads of Charlemagne, outside of Spain. In Spain it has been completely forgotten. In some of the oral versions, Alda dies upon receiving the news. Others replace the falcon with a black heron and the eagle with a sparrowhawk.

401, ON THE SAME SUBJECT. Lucas Rodriguez. Class VIII. “Cuando  la triste Doña Alda”
Alda, hearing the news of Orlando’s death, throws herself on her bed, tears her clothes, and laments this at length, her brother Oliveros’ death more briefly, and then dies herself.
No translation.

402, ADMIRAL GUARINOS. Class III “Mala la visteis, franceses”
In an evil hour the French saw Roncesvalles. The twelve Peers were slain, and Admiral Guarinos taken captive. Seven Moorish kings throw lots for him, and seven times Prince Marlotes wins. He offers him much honor if he will turn Moor, besides one of his daughters as wife and the other as serving-maid. Guarinos refuses, and has a wife at him already. Marlotes, furious, throws him in the dungeon. On Saint John’s Day, which Christians and Moors alike celebrate, Marlotes holds a tournament. Guarinos asks his jailer what the noise is about. He answers. Guarinos begs him for a horse and armor to joust in the tourney. The jailer answers that Guarinos has been seven years in the dungeon that no one else has survived one year in, and that he will ask Marlotes about his request. Marlotes, thinking this will be excellent fun, agrees. Guarinos kills many Moors in the tournament, and flees to France, where he is greeted with rejoicing.
Rodd, Gibson, Lockhart.
Duran thinks the germ of the story was the youth of Ogier the Dane at Charlemagne’s court. In the Provencal Ronsavals, Garin of Anseune, who is usually one of the sons of Aymeri of Narbonne, is taken prisoner by the Saracens at Roncesvalles.
In some later versions of this ballad, from oral tradition, Guarismos is captured in an unspecified battle on Saint John’s Day [June 24]. He rejects all the Moors’ bribes to get him to convert, and is finally freed when the Pope sends criers through the city to see who can destroy the castle of San Juare. Guarismos knocks it down and thereby earns his freedom.
This ballad was translated into, of all things, Russian, in 1789 by Nikolai Michailovich Karamzin, where it passed into folklore, much to the puzzlement of nineteenth-century collectors.


Roldan urges the French to return to battle. If the grand duke/great count hears they have fled, he will stop their pay and their wives will never love them again. They return and kill a multitude of Moors.
Doubtless akin to 394.

Roldan is killed in battle, and lies in the sand with seven wounds so big that the sun shines through them, and a sparrowhawk could fly through the smallest. Seven men cast lots who shall bury him, and seven times the lot falls on Roldan’s grieving father.
This has evidently been transfered to Roldan from Beltran. Usually Roldan’s father is dead long before Roncesvalles.

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