Legendary Swords of History
Updated: Aug 30
Excalibur, Durandal, Hrunting, Joyeuse: the names of the world’s most famous swords carry a mystique that rings down through the ages.
by Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald
The names of the world’s most famous swords carry a mystique that rings down through the ages. To this day, a 17th-century sword called Curtana (which succeeded the original Courtain, sword of Ogier the Dane), is still used in the British coronation ceremony as a symbol of power and royalty. But four swords dominate the annals of the Middle Ages, standing out in legend and myth: King Arthur’s Excalibur, Roland’s Durandal, Beowulf’s Hrunting, and Charlemagne's Joyeuse.
King Arthur’s Excalibur
Excalibur was not, as many believe, the sword King Arthur drew from the stone and made him king; that sword actually broke in battle. Rather Merlin, with the help of the Lady of the Lake (the reputed foster-mother of Sir Launcelot) fashioned Excalibur to protect Arthur from death in battle.
Excalibur and its scabbard, which was said to have the power to protect Arthur as long as he wore it, were reputably forged by the elf smith Wayland of Avalon. Given to Arthur out of the waters of the Lake by the Lady, Excalibur and its scabbard carries Arthur through all his battles unscathed until Mordred’s rebellion. (Mordred was not, as claimed by Malory, the offspring of an incestuous relationship between Arthur and his half-sister Morgan le Fay but the son of Morgan’s sister Morgause.)
According to legend, during the rebellion, Morgan, who hates her half-brother Arthur for his purity and goodness, replaces Excalibur with a counterfeit. She then devises a plot whereby her lover, Sir Accolan, will challenge Arthur to a duel. Arthur nearly loses the duel until the Lady of the Lake knocks Excalibur from Accolan’s hand. When Arthur manages to retrieve his sword and scabbard, he kills Accolan.
Later, Morgan steals the scabbard from Arthur as he sleeps at a monastery, flings it into another lake, and then turns herself and her entourage into stone to foil her half-brother’s attempt to exact retribution.
Without the scabbard’s protection, Arthur is mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann. When he realizes that death is imminent, he instructs Sir Bedivere to return Excalibur to the lake from whence it came, as required by the Lady of the Lake upon his death. As Malory relates, Bedivere is twice sent on this errand, but each time, when Arthur asks him to describe the event, Bedivere says that nothing untoward had occurred.
Considering the magical origins of Excalibur, Arthur finds an uneventful end to his magical sword suspicious and soon determines that Bedivere is lying to him about disposing of the sword. When Arthur threatens him with death if Excalibur is not returned to the lake, Bedivere finally does as he is bidden.
As he hurls the sword toward the surface of the lake, a hand rises out of the murky waters, catches the sword in midair and, according to Le Morte d’Arthur, “so shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.”
Another sword of renown is the lesser known but fascinating Durandal, which belonged to Roland (or Orlando, as he is known in Italian versions), Charlemagne’s right-hand man. Durandal (meaning “the inflexible”) purportedly took the smith Munifican three years to make. Others say it was first given to Charlemagne by an angel and contained the tooth of St. Peter, the blood of St. Basil, a hair from St. Denis, and a piece of the raiment of the Virgin Mary. It was also supposedly the sharpest sword ever made.
In the famous 11th-century Song of Roland, the nobleman Roland was said to have been ambushed by the Saracen army in the pass at Roncesvalles. According to legend, although he and his 20,000 troops slayed 100,000 Saracens and believed the day won, another 50,000 Saracens appeared in the pass.
When Roland blows his horn to bring Charlemagne to his rescue, Roland’s stepfather Ganelon treacherously convinces the emperor that the sound he had heard was just Roland’s hunting horn. Charlemagne, thus delayed, does not arrive in time to save his troops… or save Roland from being fatally wounded.
As Roland lies dying, he hurls Durandal into a poisoned stream so none can retrieve it. Others say it became wedged in the face of a cliff in the French town of Rocamadour (below), where a replica of the sword remains to this day.
But much of Roland’s story is romanticized. In reality, Roland only held Charlemagne’s command on the Breton border, and was killed in a pass in the Pyrenees when his retreat was cut off by the Basques—not the Saracens—as they returned in 778 AD from invading Spain.
Hrunting of Beowulf
The earliest surviving epic poem in English literature, Beowulf chronicles the adventures of the Swedish hero and his prowess against such evil-doers as Grendel, the bane of the Danes, and the wicked dragon who, in his own death, fatally wounded the now-aged king. Though the setting of Beowulf is historically traceable and accurate, the main character has never been proven to have existed.
As to Beowulf’s sword, it oddly proved least effective in his hour of greatest need.
The mythic Beowulf purportedly came to the aid of King Hrothgar of the Danes when Grendel the monster was terrorizing the kingdom. Grendel, having lost an arm in battle, fled to his mother’s underwater lair. To avenge her son, Grendel’s mother retrieved his arm then kidnapped a nobleman from Hrothgar’s court.
Enraged, Beowulf dives into the watery depths to destroy Grendel and his mother and save the Danish courtier. Unable to face such a challenge himself, King Hrothgar’s spokesman Unferth gives Beowulf the magic sword Hrunting which, “hardened in blood, had never failed a man who grasped it in hand and dared a terrible journey or battles in a hostile place.”
Unfortunately, when Beowulf attempts to kill the monster’s mother in her undersea dwelling, the sword’s magic ceases to work. In a fury, Beowulf throws the sword to the ground and instead enters hand-to-hand combat with Grendel’s mother, only to be saved from a mortal dagger wound by his chainmail and armor.
Escaping, he finds on a pile of weapons an ancient “victory-blessed” sword made by the giants, which he uses to kill Grendel’s mother and behead Grendel.
Upon his return to the Danish court, Beowulf returns Hrunting to Unferth, an ignominious way for a sword to make its name. There is no further mention of the sword in Beowulf, and its ultimate fate is unknown.
The final sword of legend is Charlemagne’s Joyeuse, a sword now housed in the Louvre in Paris (see below).
Historians differ on whether this is the true Joyeuse, as some believe real the sword was actually buried with Charlemagne while others believe that the legend of Joyeuse may have become mixed up with the legends of King Arthur’s Excalibur.
Said to have been created by the smith Galas, like Excalibur, Joyeuse was the gift of a lady. As a young man, Charlemagne had escaped the murderous plots of his evil half-brothers (who succeeded in poisoning their father and stepmother, King Pepin and Queen Berthe), by fleeing to Toledo, Spain. There he fought on behalf of the Emir of Toledo, and his courage and prowess gained such renown that he earned both a knighthood and the hand of the Emir’s daughter Galienne.
Joyeuse was a gift from his betrothed, a sword he used to smite the foes of the Emir. Despite Charlemagne’s contribution to the safety of Toledo, gratitude was undermined by jealousy.
According to legend, Galienne saw via a magical mirror that her brother was plotting to kill Charlemagne. The engaged couple fled to France where Charlemagne re-captured the throne from his stepbrothers.
Joyeuse remained his sword of choice in the battles that followed and he eventually became the first Holy Roman Emperor.
Whatever the truth of these magical stories of famous medieval swords, Excalibur, Durandal, Hrunting, and Joyeuse will live in our memories as long as King Arthur, Beowulf, and the Song of Roland continue to find an audience. If we honor the rituals of the past, we may find continuity for the present and, in some faintly mystic way, courage and hope for the future.
Anjuli McDonald of Clanranald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, two sons, and their dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine and was reworked for Mystorical.