May 10, 2012

Durendal: The Holy Sword of Roland

The alleged fragment of Durendal in Rocamadour, France
Durendal was a legendary sword wielded by Roland, a heroic knight serving under King Charlemagne in the 8th century. Nearly as majestic as the fabled Excalibur, its blade shone white and stainless, and within its golden hilt were concealed four sacred relics: a tooth from Saint Peter, the blood of Saint Basil, strands of hair from Saint Denis, and a piece of the robe worn by Saint Mary.

In The Song of Roland, Durendal is shown to be preternaturally sharp and indestructible. The poem describes how Roland cleaved an armored Saracen soldier in half head to groin, with only a single swing of the holy sword. The strike even cut into the spine of the soldier’s horse. Later, Roland attempted to break the sword by striking it against a rock, but no amount of effort would even scratch it. He only succeeded in breaking off pieces of the stone itself.

Durendal’s origin is somewhat mysterious. One version of its legend claims that it once belonged to the greatest warrior of Troy, Hector, and was given to Roland by the great enchanter Maugris. Other works say that the sword was forged by Wayland the Smith, the legendary master blacksmith of Norse mythology and creator of the magical sword Gram. It was then brought by an angel of the Lord to Charlemagne, who gave it to Roland.

Roland and Durendal went on to conquer numerous territories for Charlemagne, from the shores of Italy to the hills of Scotland. Their story came to an end when Roland suffered a defeat at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass at the border of France and Spain, after a fierce battle to delay a Muslim army 400,000 strong with only 20,000 men in order to cover Charlemagne’s retreat into France.

Heavily wounded from the battle and on the brink of death, Roland tried to destroy Durendal to prevent the holy sword from falling into the hands of the Muslims, creating La Brèche de Roland with his futile swings. Once he realized the blade could not be shattered by human strength, he hid it underneath his body, and died facing the direction of his enemies in Spain.

Local folklore of the Rocamadour town in France claims that Roland threw the sword instead of hiding it, and that a fragment of it still exists embedded into a cliff wall in the village (pictured). However, the local tourist office says it is a fake.

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