From History to Legend to Literature



The trails of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela are rife with centuries worth of stories, and I intend to experience as many of them as I can. Reimagining how events may have taken place and then reconstructing them is the aspect of writing fiction that I find most rewarding. That is why I chose the Valcarlos route — by far the less popular — to cross the Pyrenees.

When I was a graduate student in Spanish literature, in one class we studied the Romancero, ballads of old, unknown authorship and date of origin. These had been passed down through generations. In the beginning of the 20th century, a handful of wise scholars had the foresight to write them down before they vanished forever.

The set of ballads that at once caught my attention were those devoted to the deeds of Bernardo del Carpio — a Spanish hero, more myth than reality, whose greatest feat, according to the ballads, was to defeat and kill the French knight Roland in the Battle of the Roncesvalles Pass.

Camino Roncesvalles

There are two verses in particular in the Bernardo del Carpio cycle that I love. The verses appear in the last poem in which a grandmother tells her grandaughter the sad circumstances that forced Bernardo to slay the heroic Roland in battle. The verses are repeated at the end of each stanza, and they state:

¡Mala la hubisteis, franceses,
en esa de Roncesvalles!

(It didn’t go well for you, French folk,
in that battle of Roncesvalles!)

The first time I read this ballad, the name Roncesvalles became engraved in my mind.

Thirty years later, as I started to research the Camino in preparation for this pilgrimage, I was happy to learn that both routes that lead from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port over the Pyrenees end in Roncesvalles. And then I was surprised to learn that the community that was gigantic in my heart had only 20 inhabitants.

Monument to Roland at Ibañeta Pass

Monument to Roland at Ibañeta Pass

What I find fascinating is that in spite of its size, Roncesvalles played a crucial role in the birth of chivalric literature, that is, tales of knights. Roland’s heroic death, while commanding Charlemagne’s rear guard as the troops returned from a six-year military campaign in Spain, resulted in Le Chanson de Roland. This French epic poem inspired medieval and renaissance authors to write about great tales of chivalry, such as those of King Arthur and his knights, Amadis de Gaula and, my personal favorite, Don Quijote de la Mancha.

And so, my personal pilgrimage, in addition to having a spiritual context, is also a journey into the origins of western European epic literature, which was also born on the Camino, near a small village named Roncesvalles.


Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and The Saint of Santa Fe. You can follow him on Twitter @silviosirias.

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rikimaru says:

The Talmud must not be regarded as an ordinary work, composed of twelve volumes; it posies absolutely no similarity to any other literary production, but forms, without any figure of speech, a world of its own, which must be judged by its peculiar laws.
The Talmud contains much that is frivolous of which it treats with great gravity and seriousness; it further reflects the various superstitious practices and views of its Persian (Babylonian) birthplace which presume the efficacy of demonical medicines, or magic, incantations, miraculous cures, and interpretations of dreams. It also contains isolated instances of uncharitable “ judgments and decrees against the members of other nations and religions, and finally it favors an incorrect exposition of the scriptures, accepting, as it does, tasteless misrepresentations.

The Babylonian” Talmud is especially distinguished from the Jerusalem or Palestine Talmud by the flights of thought, the penetration of mind, the flashes of genius, which rise and vanish again. It was for this reason that the Babylonian rather than the Jerusalem Talmud became the fundamental possession of the Jewish Race, its life breath, its very soul, nature and mankind, powers and events, were for the Jewish nation insignificant, non- essential, a mere phantom; the only true reality was the Talmud.” (Professor H. Graetz, History of the Jews).
And finally it came Spain’s turn. Persecution had occurred there on “ and off for over a century, and, after 1391, became almost incessant. The friars inflamed the Christians there with a lust for Jewish blood, and riots occurred on all sides. For the Jews it was simply a choice between baptism and death, and many of them submitted to baptism.
But almost always conversion on thee terms was only outward and false. Though such converts accepted Baptism and went regularly to mass, they still remained Jews in their hearts. They were called Marrano, ‘ Accursed Ones,’ and there were perhaps a hundred thousand of them. Often they possessed enormous wealth. Their daughters married into the noblest families, even into the blood royal, and their sons sometimes entered the Church and rose to the highest offices. It is said that even one of the popes was of this Marrano stock.