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Regular readers of Outtakes will notice that I emphasize the eighth-century history of Charlemagne and Roland rather than the legend. Or to be more accurate, legends that have spanned centuries and countries.

The only historical account of Roland, called Hruodland in my novel The Cross and the Dragon, is in part of a sentence in Einhard’s ninth-century biography of Charlemagne in which he details the 778 ambush at the Pass of Roncevaux by the Christian Basques. In reality, the battle was a disaster for the Franks, so traumatic that apparently no one wrote about it while King Charles was alive. (See my post in Unusual Historicals for accounts about the actual events.)

I will talk more about the real world of The Cross and the Dragon in person at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, December 15, at the New Castle-Henry County Public Library in New Castle, Indiana. Today, I will touch on a handful of the fictional accounts.

Hruodland most often goes by Roland and Orlando in legend. The best known is the 11th century anonymous Old French epic, The Song of Roland. Here, he is the stubborn hero facing overwhelming odds in his fight against the Muslim Saracens.

The legend spreads even further. The German story that inspired The Cross and the Dragon (spoiler alert) has the character building a castle on the Rhine just to get a glimpse of the bride who thought he was dead and committed herself to a convent on a nearby Rhineland island (end spoiler).

In the late 13th century, the story has travelled north and become part of the Norse Karlamagnus saga, in which Roland and Oliver kill the Saxon Vitakind (a variant of the historic Saxon leader Widukind, and like the other legends, it’s very different from actual events).

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Italian poets take the legend into the fantastic with Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso.  And legend still lives on in marionettes.

“Even today, the main subject matter in the famous puppet shows of Sicily is the story of Carlo Magno, Orlando, and the other French knights,” says Tinney Sue Heath, author of A Thing Done. “These tales are presented in episodes, one short part of the story at a time, at puppet theatres throughout Sicily and the southern mainland – rather like watching episodes of Flash Gordon’s adventures each week in movie theatres in the 1930s. The puppet characters and their noisy sword battles continue to entertain audiences of locals and tourists alike.”

Tomorrow and Wednesday, Tinney will discuss how the legends of Roland and Charlemagne affected 13th century Florence, the setting of her novel, and its most famous poet, Dante.

Sicilian marionettes depict one of the Roland legends (photo by Tim Heath).

Sicilian marionettes depict one of the Roland legends (photo by Tim Heath).

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