The other day I was reading to my son about Roland and the Battle of Roncesvalles from our old copy of The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends. I grew up with this book. It gave me my first taste of the Greek myths, the tales the Niebelungs, of Beowulf, and the Arthurian sub-plot of Tristram and Iseult. The angular, stylized illustrations of dueling heroes and rabid monsters made fuel for fantasy and nightmare alike. My son refuses to look at the picture of the Minotaur.
Of all the heroes and kings mentioned in the Golden Treasury, Charlemagne is, of course, the most solidly historical. My son took a special interest in him, specifically in his name. It has a magnificent ring to it, which is perhaps why we’ve never permanently anglicized it. He is ‘Charlemagne’ to us just as he is to the French. ‘Charles the Great’ isn’t saying enough.
Patrick Leigh Fermor in Between the Woods and the Water gives perhaps the best short description of the mytho-poetical-historical space that Charlemagne still holds in the western imagination:
Fireside mutterings, legends, centuries of bards and the lays of minnesingers have set him afloat somewhere between Alexander and King Arthur, where he looms, mural-crowned, enormous, voluminously-bearded, overgrown with ivy and mistletoe, announced by eagles and ravens, dogged by wolfhounds, accompanied by angels and oriflammes and escorted by a host of prelates and monks and paladins; confused with Odin and, like Adonis, akin to the seasons, he is ushered on his way by earthquakes and eclipses of the sun and the moon and celebrated by falling stars and lightning; horns and harps waft him across the plains; they carry him through canyons and forests and up to steep mountain-tops until his halo is caught up in the seven stars of his Wain.
Fermor also tells briefly of Charlemagne’s elephant, Abulahaz (“Son of the Mighty”), a gift from Harun al-Rashid, who was sent from Persia to Aix in 801 or 802 and spent most of his days tramping through the emperor’s wooded hunting grounds. He was probably the only member of his species on the continent and must have been a lonely creature. Or perhaps he was as fascinated by his fate as I am. Abulahaz died ten years later in one of Charlemagne’s campaigns against the Danes. You can be sure the anonymous Viking who gave him his death-blow had a story to tell.