The best kinds are the intelligent ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife’s worth of special powers (yes, when I was a teenager I spent some quality time with the Intelligent Weapon creation table in the DMG), but a good second choice is the Holy Avenger, the sword that can only be wielded at full power by a Paladin, the Lawful Good holy warriors of D&D cannon.
The Real Paladins
In this case ‘real’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t usually make this distinction, but there’s a great deal of mythology coming up that glamourises holy war, particularly war in the Middle East, which is something I want to be clear I don’t endorse.
The above disclaimer aside, there were real people behind the Paladins, or at least some of them. The word Paladin might come from the Latin word Palatinus, via the archaic French word Palatine, which was a word for imperial officials in the Roman Empire.
The Mythological Paladins were the twelve companions of Charlemagne’s steward Roland. Rather than doing all the hero-ing himself, Charlemagne delegates a fair share of it to Roland, acting as a medieval Charlie to his armoured, male angels.
While many of the Twelves Peers of Charlemagne, or Paladins, aren’t real (you have a cool Saracen warrior, a Ranger who uses fairy magic, a Danish warrior, and a treacherous Mordred-like turncoat) both Roland and the Archbishop Turpin were almost certainly based on real people.
In the case of Roland, he was almost certainly based on the real Hruodland, one of Charlemagne’s commanders in the Breton Marches in the 8th century, who died when his forces were cut off during a rear guard action at the Roncevaux Pass in Iberia, scattering the rebels so widely that their offensive couldn’t recover.
Turpin was a real Archbishop of Reims at roughly the same time as Roland was a Baron in the Breton Marches, although the myth of Turpin is almost certainly a conflation of Turpin, a monk from St. Dennis Bascilica, and his predcesessor Milo. Milo was a less holy, but more violent figure, with a strong military career who Turpin replaced after corruption and sins of the flesh had driven him out of office.
(Interestingly, former TSR Editor Mike Carr claims that Gary Gygax and his team came up with the idea of the D&D Cleric class not using edged weapons from reading the myths of Turpin, who apparently used a mace to avoid spilling blood, although The Song of Roland portrays him using a sword).
The Mythical Paladins
The mythical Paladins are much more badass than the ‘real’ Paladins. Huon of Bordeaux is a knight who successfully completes an impossible series of tasks with the assistance of Oberon, King of the Fairies (who appears as a villain in the Roland myths more often than as a helper), including getting three handfuls of the Sultan’s hair and stealing three kisses from his daughter’s lips.
Ogier the Dane is another member of the super team. At birth, ‘six women of ravishing beauty’ appear over his crib and give him the gifts to be the bravest of warriors, have abundant chances to show his valour, the boon of never being vanquished, the ‘gift of pleasing’ (whatever that is), sensitivity to return the love he inspires, and finally that he shan’t die until he has visited his sixth benefactress on the Isle of Avalon. As a young man, he is caught up in a battle where the Emperor is almost killed by his Saracen enemies.
He saves the life of the Frankish monarch and prevents the magical sword Joyeuse from falling into enemy hands. As a reward, Charlemagne himself ties on their swords. Morgana, a good fairy in this particular myth cycle, replaces Ogier’s weapon with a magical weapon engraved with the words, “My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durandal”.
And there are other Paladins: the Saracen giant Fierabras, who converts to Christianity after the Paladin Oliver defeats him in battle, bringing two barrels of healing balm; Renaud, who accidentally kills one of Charlemagne’s nephews and flees to the holy land, finding a magical horse that can carry immense weight, not to mention the magical sword Froberge; the treacherous Ganelon, who resents Roland, the leader of the Paladins, and betrays him to his death.
The Greatest of all the Paladins, though, is Roland. Mythologised as Charlemagne’s nephew, he is betrayed by his stepfather Ganelon, who strands him at the Roncevalles pass. Stuck at the pass with his rival Oliver and his friend the warrior-cleric Turpin, they fight a sterling rearguard that allows Charlemagne to escape, but Roland refuses to blow his magical horn to summon aid until it is too late: when he finally does blow the blast is powerful enough to burst the veins in his neck and break the horn in two.
Finally Roland dies, but he has allowed Charlemagne to escape, and acocrding to the myth, Roland and his warriors have killed 100,000 Saracens to their 20,000, and only 50 remain alive. By the time Charlemagne’s forces had regrouped at St. Jean Pied de Port and rushed back to the rescue, it is too late.
The Magic Swords
Ogier the Dane’s (and the Arthurian knight Tristan’s) magical sword Cortana has a real-world counterpart in Curtana, the Sword of Mercy, which has been used in the coronation of British monarchs since the reign of Henry III in the 13th century. The real blade has a square end, relevant to tales that Ogier inherited the sword from the Arthurian knight Tristan, shortening it for his own use.
The inscription “My name is Cortana, of the same steel and temper as Joyeuse and Durandal” suggests that Cortana has the equivalent powers to the other two, and that the three are of comparable power (again, Joyeuse has a physical counterpart, held in the Louvre, although it is felt that the sword has been modified so much that if it ever was the sword of Charlemagne, it isn’t anymore).
Still, the sword of Roland, Durandal, gets the best stories. Said to have been brought to Charlemagne by an angel and then given to Roland, the sword has four holy relics at its hilt – a thread from the Virgin Mary’s cloak, a tooth of St. Peter, one of St. Denis’ hairs and a drop of St. Basil’s blood. It was made by the legendary smith, Weyland, who also made Cortana and Turpin’s sword Almace (which does look a bit like the word ‘mace’, which might have caused all that confusion that resulted in D&D Clerics only using maces).
In the Norse Karlamagnus Saga Emperor Charlemagne tests the three swords (which are presumably related to his sword Joyeuse) by seeing how far they would cut into a steel block. Cortana cuts in “a hair’s breadth” but is notched or possibly broken (leading to it being cut off at the end), Almace cuts in a hand’s breadth, and finally Durandal cuts in ‘half the length of a man’s foot’.
Durandal’s powers are immense: in the Charlemagne window at Chartres Cathedral, the indestructible giant Fierabras is shown being defeated and brought to the Christian faith by a stomach wound from Durandal; and when Roland decides that he must destroy his sword rather than let it fall into enemy hands, he manages to cleave a new pass in the mountain while trying to break the blade against the rocks.
The eventual fate of the sword is uncertain: some say it was hidden under Roland’s body, other say he stuck it in the cliff wall at Rocamadour, where it remains to this day (or so says the local tourist office). Others still say that he threw it into a poison river, where the sword waits for someone worthy to reclaim it…