Throughout history, famous figures and legendary heroes were said to possess magical swords. Excalibur, for instance, is the famous sword of King Arthur of Camelot, whilst the Zulfiqar is said to have been sent from the Heavens to the Prophet Muhammad, who subsequently handed the weapon to his cousin and son-in-law. Another famous sword (though perhaps less well-known in the English speaking world) is Durandal, the sword of the paladin Roland.
Although little is known about the historical Roland, he is a prominent figure in medieval European tales. In a number of legends, Roland is said to be the nephew of the famous Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Roland is also considered to be the greatest of the Twelve Peers, the best warriors of the emperor’s court. The best-known legend regarding Roland is probably that of his last stand at the Battle of Roncevaux, an actual historical battle that was later romanticised into a major battle between Christians and Muslims.
The story of Roland’s last stand at the Battle of Roncevaux is most notably recounted in the epic poem La Chanson de Roland (‘The Song of Roland’). In the epic, Durandal was said to have been given to Charlemagne by an angel of God, who instructed the emperor to give the sword to one of his counts. In contrast, the Italian epic Orlando Furioso (‘Orlando Enraged’) by Lodovico Ariosto, notes instead that Durandal was once the sword of the Trojan hero Hector, and was given to Roland by the enchanter Malagigi. Regardless of its origins, Durandal was a valuable and powerful sword. In fact, in Orlando Furioso, the primary objective of invasion of France by Gradasso, the heathen king of Sericena, is said to be the retrieval of Durandal from Roland.
One of the significant features of Durandal is that it contained a number of sacred Christian relics. In the La Chanson de Roland, it is written that “Relics enough thy golden hilt conceals: / Saint Peter’s Tooth, the Blood of Saint Basile, / Some of the Hairs of my Lord, Saint Denise, /Some of the Robe, was worn by Saint Mary.” Durandal is also depicted as an indestructible weapon. When all was lost, Roland attempted to destroy Durandal in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy, though to no avail, “Rollant his stroke on a dark stone repeats, / And more of it breaks off than I can speak. / The sword cries out, yet breaks not in the least, / Back from the blow into the air it leaps.” According to legend, Roland’s endeavor to destroy Durandal created the La Brèche de Roland, a natural gap measuring 40m across and 100m high in the Pyrenees.
With Durandal, Roland had accomplished many great feats for Charlemagne,
I won for him with thee Anjou, Bretaigne, / And won for him with thee Peitou, the Maine, / And Normandy the free for him I gained, / Also with thee Provence and Equitaigne, / And Lumbardie and all the whole Romaigne, / I won Baivere, all Flanders in the plain, / Also Burguigne and all the whole Puillane, / Costentinnople, that homage to him pays; / In Saisonie all is as he ordains; / With thee I won him Scotland, Ireland, Wales, / England also, where he his chamber makes; / Won I with thee so many countries strange / That Charles holds, whose beard is white with age!
At Roncesvaux, Roland was able to hold back the Muslim army, which was a hundred thousand strong from attacking Charlemagne’s main force. Using Durandal, he slayed a great amount of enemies, and even succeeding in chopping off the right hand of the Saracen king, Marsile, and decapitated the king’s son, Jursaleu.
As Roland failed to destroy Durandal, he decided to hide it beneath his body before he died. In another account, Roland flung Durandal into the air, where it magically landed embedded in a rock in Rocamadour, a pilgrimage site about 160km to the north of Toulouse. Visitors to the Chapelle de Notre-Dame in Rocamadour can see an iron sword stuck in the rock above the door leading to the chapel. Some believe that this was the actual sword belonging to Roland, and it has even been bound with a chain so as to prevent anyone from stealing it.