I was planning to write about swords in fantasy, but any run-down of such a topic has to include at least a mention of King Arthur’s Excalibur. As I read about it, I decided to expand this theoretical mention to an entire post. Swords in modern fantasy fiction will be dealt with in future weeks, but today I’ll look at one of the most important swords in literature.

Etymology

The original tale of King Arthur deals with a Celtic warrior or leader fighting against the invading Saxons. The Saxons eventually pushed the native Britons out to the fringes of the country. The earliest written stories of Arthur are therefore Welsh ones.

The original name of Excalibur appears to be Caledfwlch (a similar name to the Irish mythical sword, Caladbolg), meaning ‘battle breach’ or ‘hard cleft’. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in Latin, changed this to Caliburnus (Anglicised as Caliburn), which was influence by the Latin for ‘steel’, ‘chalybs’.

Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae was very popular in Europe and French writers altered the name again to Escalibor or Excalibur. In the these later re-tellings, the sword was given a folk etymology and was said to mean ‘cut steel’.

Two Swords or One?

There are, of course, two magical swords associated with King Arthur – Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone. The Sword in the Stone was placed in a stone (or an anvil) by Merlin could only be drawn by the son of Uther Pendragon and the rightful heir to the throne. The boy Arthur drew the sword. Later, it broke in battle and had to be replaced. Merlin took Arthur to see the Lady of the Lake, who gave him Excalibur.

Excalibur was first mentioned in relation to Arthur by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who says it was a gift from the Isle of Avalon. Later, Robert de Boron introduces the story of the Sword in the Stone – which apparently was supposed to be Excalibur. Later writers like Thomas Malory give Arthur two separate swords – although Malory confusingly calls both weapons ‘Excalibur’.

As a Latin word for ‘stone’ is ‘saxo’, it could be that the whole Sword in the Stone legend is based on a spelling mistake. The original version could have had Arthur pulling the sword from the dead body of a Saxon.

Description

As Arthur’s first sword broke, Excalibur has the highly useful quality of being unbreakable. It was made by elves, and could cut through iron. Even more usefully, its scabbard makes its wearer impervious to injury. This is a key part of the story, as when Morgan le Fay stole the sword, its scabbard was never recovered, allowing Arthur to be mortally wounded.

Various versions of the Arthur legend say that the sword has a gold hilt carved with dragons or chimeras, or that it has words engraved on either side of the blade – ‘take me up’ and ‘cast me away’, or ‘one edge to defend’ and ‘one edge to defeat’ – or that it shines with a blinding light.

Origins

The Welsh original name of Excalibur, Caledfwlch, has already been mentioned. The Celts regarded many bodies of water as places of magic and often threw swords or other weapons or items of value into them, perhaps as part of a funeral – this is reflected in part of Arthurian legend where, dying, the king tells Sir Bedivere to cast Excalibur back into the lake (Bedivere at first doesn’t do so and lies about what happened; Arthur insists, though, and finally, when Bedivere throws the sword, a hand reaches out of the water to take the sword under).

The story of the Sword in the Stone has a precursor in the Norse myth of Sigmund, who pulls a sword from the trunk of the tree Barnstokk that was placed there by Odin disguised as a one-eyed beggar.

Conclusion

While the swords in many stories may be incidental – granting greater powers to an already great warrior, for instance – Excalibur (and the Sword in the Stone) are integral parts of the legend of King Arthur as we know it (although this wasn’t true of the earliest versions of the tale). Arthur gains legitimacy from possessing the sword, his death is tied to his loss of the scabbard, and when he takes his leave, Excalibur must also be returned to where it came from.

Its sheer fame guarantees that Excalibur has influenced all those writers who have given their heroes magical swords. The sword is a powerful symbol – it connotes authority, justice, violence, martial prowess, chivalry, nobility, killing, execution, protection – so it’s no wonder that it plays such key part in the Matter of Britain and is a stock item of fantasy fiction.

What do you think of Excalibur? What are your favourite swords of myth, legend and fiction? Post a comment and let me know.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Legend of King Arthur, The Camelot Project, Crystal Links, Caerleon Net, Real Armor of God, Britannia History, Timeless Myths.

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