The disappearance of the mythical sword brings mystery to the French village

According to legend, the sword given by God to Roland, an 8th-century leader in the service of Charlemagne, was so powerful that Roland's final mission was to destroy it.

When the blade, called the Durandal, proved indestructible, Roland threw it as far as he could: it traveled over 100 miles before becoming embedded in the side of a rock face in the medieval French village of Rocamadour.

That sword, as the story goes, had been embedded in stone for nearly 1,300 years, and had become a landmark and tourist attraction in Rocamadour, a small village in southwestern France, about 110 miles east of Bordeaux. So residents and officials were stunned to discover late last month that the blade was missing, according to La Dépêche du Midi, a French newspaper.

A French national police officer in Cahors, a town 30 miles southwest of Rocamadour, said the sword disappeared shortly after sunset on June 21 and that authorities opened an investigation after a passerby reported it missing the next morning.

The officer, who declined to give his name, stressed that the sword was “a copy” but acknowledged that it had symbolic meaning.

He referred further questions to the Cahors public prosecutor's office, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The mayor of Rocamadour, Dominique Lenfant, told La Dépêche that the sword “is a public good that belongs to the State.”

“We will miss Durandal,” he said. “It has been part of Rocamadour for centuries. There is no guide who does not show it during a visit. Rocamadour has been stripped of a part of itself, even if it is only a legend. The fates of our village and this sword are linked.”

To most Americans, King Arthur's Excalibur is a more recognizable example of a sword stuck in stone. But Durandal's myths are popular in France, thanks to the famous 11th or 12th century French poem “The Song of Roland.”

The poem is partly set during the Battle of Roncesvalles Pass in 778 AD, during which Charlemagne's men, led by Roland, had been fighting against the Muslims in Spain and found themselves severely outnumbered by the enemy forces. According to the poem's fictional account, Roland and his sword fought valiantly, but he was seriously wounded and unsuccessfully attempted to destroy the blade before he died.

According to “La Chanson de Roland”, Roland hid the blade under his dying body.

But Rocamadour tour guides have encouraged visitors to head to the town, a postcard-worthy cluster of castles carved into the steep mountainside, and see the blade for themselves: It juts out of a crack in the rock face, about 30 feet high.

The story of how Durandal ended up in Rocamadour, 150 miles northeast of where Roland died, has its skeptics.

A British historian, Richard Barber, wrote in 2020 that the replica sword was placed in Rocamadour by an official who wanted to promote tourism in the 1780s. And others, including Helen Solterer, a professor of Romantic studies at Duke University, have called the sword “a copy.”

But Durandal was still a fixture in Rocamadour and his absence had repercussions throughout the area.

“I imagine this will be a huge loss for Rocamadour, as it was one of the most legendary attractions of the medieval village,” said Paola Westbeek, a travel journalist who has visited Rocamadour several times.

Adding to the mystery of the disappearance is its timing during a contentious political cycle. After President Emmanuel Macron called for early elections, France’s far-right party dominated the first round of voting.

“The far right would like to codify the sword as a distinctive element of French national identity,” Solterer said.

“La Chanson de Roland” has been cited by nationalist groups for its message that Muslims are the enemy and that Muslim immigrants are taking over France, said Ada Maria Kuskowski, an associate professor of history specializing in medieval history at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The sword, which Roland fought so hard to keep out of the hands of the Muslims to preserve honor, Christianity and Frenchness,” he said, “is now gone.”

But the theory that the sword was stolen to send a political message is just speculation. It could turn out to be a simple prank, Ms. Solterer said.

Where the sword is is a mystery to everyone. And while the police continue to turn over every stone, the mystery of Durandal continues: 1,246 years and counting.

William Lamb contributed to the reporting and Susanna C. Beachy contributed to the research.

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