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The taking of Excalibur by John Duncan

Where did King Arthur Acquire Excalibur, the Stone or the Lake?

Excalibur is a legendary sword found in Arthurian legends, and is arguably one of the most renowned swords in history. This sword was wielded by the legendary King Arthur, and magical properties were often ascribed to it. In some versions of the story of King Arthur, Excalibur is regarded to be the same sword as the Sword in the Stone. In most versions, however, these are in fact two separate weapons. The fascination with this sword is visible in modern pop culture, as Excalibur can be found in various films, television series and video games.

Excalibur the Sword, by Howard Pyle.

Excalibur the Sword, by Howard Pyle. ( Public Domain )

Origins of Excalibur

The story of Excalibur may be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae ( History of the Kings of Britain ), which was written around 1136. In this piece of work, Excalibur is known by its Latinised name, Caliburnus or Caliburn. Excalibur is described as “an excellent sword made in the isle of Avallon”. It may be pointed out that in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, Excalibur does not possess any magical powers. Instead, the author focuses on Arthur’s prowess as a warrior. Thus, for instance,

“… Arthur, provoked to see the little advantage he had yet gained, and that victory still continued in suspense, drew out his Caliburn, and calling upon the name of the blessed Virgin, rushed forward with great fury into the thickest of the enemy’s ranks; … neither did he give over the fury of his assault until he had, with his Caliburn alone, killed four hundred and seventy men.”

Bronze Excalibur and King Arthur Sculpture, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, UK

Bronze Excalibur and King Arthur Sculpture, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, UK ( Public Domain )

One or Two Swords of the Legends of Arthur

As was stated, it may be noted that Excalibur is sometimes equated with the Sword in the Stone, for example of this is how the story is dealt with in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, first published in 1485 .  Other versions of the legend claim that King Arthur obtained this magical sword from another source. In most versions of the story, however, these were two separate weapons. The Sword in the Stone first appears in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, in which Arthur pulls out the sword that was set by the wizard in an anvil (which was changed by later writers into a stone).

‘Then last of all Arthur tried. He took the sword by the hilt and drew it from the stone quite easily’ An island story; a child's history of England

‘Then last of all Arthur tried. He took the sword by the hilt and drew it from the stone quite easily’ An island story; a child's history of England ( Public Domain )

In another version, King Arthur is said to have received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. The sword was given to Arthur after he broke his sword during a fight with Pellinore, the king of Listenoise, famous for his hunt of the Questing Beast.

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the sword Excalibur. Tales of romance, 1906

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the sword Excalibur. Tales of romance, 1906 ( Public Domain )

The Powers of Excalibur

Whilst Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early description of Excalibur is not of a magical sword, later authors decided to make it so. Excalibur’s best known magical property is the ability of its scabbard to heal wounds. This meant that whenever King Arthur had Excalibur’s scabbard with him, he could not be hurt. In the Arthurian legends, this magical scabbard was stolen by the king’s evil half-sister, Morgan le Fay, who then threw it into a lake.

As a result of this, Arthur lost his invulnerability, and was mortally wounded when he fought against Modred (best-known as Arthur’s illegitimate son by another of his half-sisters, Morgaine) at the Battle of Camlann. Before he dies, Arthur commands one of his knights, Sir Bedivere (or Sir Griflet in some versions), to throw Excalibur back into the lake. In one version, the knight disobeyed his sovereign twice by pretending to cast the sword into the lake, as he was not willing to throw away such a precious weapon. When the knight finally throws Excalibur into the lake, a hand reaches out of the water to receive the sword, and pulls it under.

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Aubrey Beardsley Illustration from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur. London: Dent, 1894

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water . Aubrey Beardsley Illustration from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur. London: Dent, 1894 ( Public Domain )

Origins of Excalibur

So, where did Arthur acquire the sword Excalibur? Well, the truth is that the story of King Arthur is generally considered as just that, a story, with his actual existence doubtful, so there is no set truth. If you think oldest is best, then the first scribe of the story was Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12 th century version. He wrote of its origins only, ‘Caliburn, [Excalibur] best of swords, that was forged within the Isle of Avallon’ which removes its mystical origin and states clearly where it was made. The first to speak of its origin from a stone is Robert de Boron in his poem Merlin, later in the 12 th century, and in both the Vulgate Cycle and Mallory’s version it is made clear the sword in the stone is not Excalibur as it is broken in battle and is replaced by the Excalibur from the lake.

It should be remembered that all of these writers were transcribing stories which originated in the 6 th – 8 th centuries and had been passed on from oral to written traditions over hundreds of years before the sword and King Arthur were brought together. Although the version by Geoffrey of Monmouth has some basis in historical record, there is also a lot which is not traceable and his account is generally considered more romance than history with the necessary dramatic embellishments.

It seems then, there is no truth readily available. If the real Excalibur did come from the stone, later stories of the magic sword breaking seem incompatible. If the sword from the stone breaking is thought true, the replacement from the lake is needed. Caliburn was forged in Avallon but how it came to Arthur’s hand is not stated. If you want to believe all the legends, the existence of two swords is a requirement.

Quest for Excalibur

As the magical sword of King Arthur, Excalibur has appeared in a number of modern films, television series and video games. Most of the time, there is a quest in which the protagonist of the film / game has to search for the magical sword. This is an indication that Excalibur still fascinates our imagination, and, like the stories of its wielder, King Arthur, will continue to do so well into the future.

Top image: The taking of Excalibur by John Duncan ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren

References

Conlee, J. (Ed.), 1998. Prose Merlin. [Online]
Available at: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/conlee-prose-merlin

Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain [Online]

[Thompson, A., (trans.), 1999. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain .]
Available at: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf

Lupack, A., 2017. Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone. [Online]
Available at: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/theme/Excalibur-and-sword-in-the-stone

Mark, J. J., 2017. Excalibur. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Excalibur/

New World Encyclopedia, 2017. Excalibur. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Excalibur

Pendergrass, R., 2015. Mythological Swords. s.l.:lulu.com

Comments

"The Sword in the Stone first appears in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, in which Arthur pulls out the sword that was set by the wizard in an anvil (which was changed by later writers into a stone)."
I'm a blacksmith and well-versed in the history and lore of forging iron and steel. Anciently, many anvils were actually made of stone.

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