Excalibur: Origins and Evolution
by Emily Lozon
“There likewise I beheld Excalibur
Before him at his crowning borne, the sword
That rose from out the bosom of the lake,
And Arthur row’d across and took it – rich
With jewels, elfin Urim, on the hilt,
Bewildering heart and eye – the blade so bright
That men are blinded by it – on one side
Graven in the oldest tongue of all this world
”Take me,” but turn the blade and ye shall see
And written in the speech ye speak yourself
”Cast me away!” And sad was Arthur’s face
Taking it, but old Merlin counsell’d him
”Take thou and strike! The time to cast away
Is yet far off.” So this great brand the king
Took, and by this will beat his foemen down,”
- Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson (29)
Excalibur: the mystical sword of King Arthur, a weapon of great physical
and magical powers, and one of the most well-known objects associated with
Arthurian legends; “No sword has had the impact and universal appeal as that
enjoyed by Excalibur, legendary sword of the Britons,” (Peterson 52). King
Arthur carried this sword throughout his reign and realm, achieving legendary
status for both himself and the sword. Throughout Arthurian legend, the sword is
credited with many traits, names, origins, and even wielders. Its story changes
and ebbs with the authors’ whims, but it remains a symbol of power, magic, and
Widely known by
its name Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur has held other various names
throughout Arthurian literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who is usually credited
with first adding the sword to legend, named it Caliburnus (Lacy
“Encycolpedia” 147). This name, sometimes shortened to Caliburn, stems from
the Latin word chlybs, meaning steel
(Lacy “Handbook” 337). In addition to the Latin form, there are two theories
for the origin of Caliburnus. One is an Irish word, also the name of a legendary
sword, Calad-cole (Brown “Grail”
117). The other is the Welsh word Caledvwlch,
meaning a strong carving instrument (
In Celtic legend,
it was common for weapons and other objects to have mysterious origins.
Nuada’s sword, Lugh’s spear, the sword of Fergus, and Cuchulain’s gae
bulga (spear) all had origins similar to Excalibur. These weapons were forged by
a smith with great skill and power. In Layamon’s Brut,
King Arthur’s sword was made by Wygar, the elfish smith (Ettlinger 299).
Similar characters, such as Wayland, appear as otherworldly smiths continuing
the pattern, “The concept of an exceptionally skilled craftsman is a common
theme in mythology. Swords of such power are made so that only a few or one
specific person can effectively wield them,” (Peterson 53). Some argue Wayland
evolved from the, “Roman god Vulcan, who was modeled on the Greek god
Hephaestus, the master smith whose forge was beneath the volcano of
forged by supernatural smiths were then wielded by great heroes. Commonly in
Celtic legend though, the hero died at the end of his fight or quest. The
hero’s weapon was usually thrown into a lake afterwards. This was both popular
in legend and as a practice among the Celts (Peterson 53). There is historical
evidence to support this, as archeologists continue to find weapons and armor in
the lakes and ponds of
The origin of the name Excalibur can be traced through Celtic legends as well. Loomis writes, “The derivation of the famous brand Calibor, better known as Excalibur, from the sword Caledvwlch in The Mabinogion, and ultimately from the sword variously called Caladcolg or Caladbolg in the Irish sagas, is accepted by all scholars,” (Loomis 407). In Kulhwch, Arthur has a sword called Caledvwlch. The name is composed of two words, “calet” meaning hard and “bwlch” meaning notch (423). Loomis also argues, “The origin of the name Calibor or Caliborc has long been known, and forms one of the most impressive arguments for the infiltration of Welsh and even Irish names into Arthurian romance,” (423). Loomis’ argument can be best shown and supported in the following Celtic tales and their recognizable names, characters, and events.
Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Dun Cow from the
Excalibur has origins in Welsh stories as well. In a set of poems known as The Welsh Triads, the sword was mentioned by the name Caledfwlch, “Above all there was his magnificent sword – Caledfwlch, the ‘Lightning Sword,’ associated with the old Lightning Gods,” (Williams 43). It belonged to Arthur, who was not called a king, but was a warrior with a great hall, a ship, many magical objects, and a wife named Gwenhwyfar. Taliesin, a sixth century Welsh poet, wrote The Spoils of Annwfn (49). In it, Arthur went on a mission to Annwfn (in the otherworld) to find a magic cauldron. On this trip he also found a, “flashing, deadly sword.” Caledfwlch, often written as a flashing or blazing sword, had otherworld origins in this tale (52). As legend progressed, this theme continued as Avalon became the most common forging place of Excalibur. As can be seen through similar names, events, and traits, Excalibur’s origins clearly lie, at least partly in Celtic and Welsh legends. From these legends, the sword developed into its popular role as Arthur’s sword.
evolution, Excalibur’s tale picked up many commonalities usually repeated in
each tale. Excalibur was given to Arthur through magical means, from Merlin or
the Lady of the
Monmouth is credited for first including Arthur’s sword in the legend (
While Chretien de Troyes does not mention Excalibur much, he is most noted for giving ownership of the sword to someone other than Arthur. In his Conte du Graal, “Escalibor” was Gawain’s sword (Brown “Grail” 117). As his writings came relatively early in Arthurian literature, second only to Monmouth, this was not considered a tradition breaking move. Gawain carried the sword, and it was, “the best sword that ever was, for it cut iron like wood,” (Loomis 421).
In the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate writings, the legend of Excalibur began to expand. While Excalibur was Arthur’s sword, he gave it to Gawain when he was knighted in Merlin. In the prose Lancelot, Gawain lent Excalibur to Lancelot to use while defending Guinevere against the three barons of Carmelide. In the final book, Morte Artu, Gawain gave the sword to Arthur for his battle against Mordred. Arthur asked Girflet to cast the sword into the lake in the end, who did so on the third request (Williams 156). In the Vulgate Merlin, Excalibur was the sword in the stone, “Escalibor begins… with a unique and divinely ordained destiny. In answer to the barons’ prayers for a king after Uther dies, a sword lodged in an anvil appears in a stone… And this was the sword that he had taken from the stone. And the letters that were written on the sword said that it had the name Escalibor. And this is a Hebrew name that manes in French “cuts iron and steel and wood” and the letters tell the truth,” (Warren 202, 193). In the Morte Artu, Excalibur was, for the first time in Arthurian legend, returned to the lake and its maker (Williams 150).
Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte DArthur gave sole ownership of Excalibur
to Arthur and continued upon the story created in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate
writings. Arthur pulled a sword from the stone, but broke it. Merlin arranged
for him to get a better sword from the Lady of the
Merlin told Arthur about the scabbard and its protective power. He said the scabbard would keep the wearer from losing blood and Arthur should be careful not to lose it. Merlin even told Arthur the scabbard would be stolen by a woman he trusted, “But always he warned the King to keep well his sword and the scabbard, for he told him how the sword and the scabbard should be stolen by a woman from him, that he most trusted,” (Malory 58). Arthur, however, did not take heed and Morgan le Fay stole the scabbard from his bedside. She threw the scabbard into a lake, where it sunk to the bottom and could not longer be of use to Arthur, “She rode unto a lake thereby and said, ‘Whatsoever come of me, my brother shall not have this scabbard.’ And then she let throw the scabbard in the deepest of the water. So it sank, for it was heavy of gold and precious stones,” (41, 71-72). Thus when Arthur charged into battle against Mordred, he was mortally wounded. Dying, Arthur ordered Bedivere to throw Excalibur back into the lake, “Therefore,’ said King Arthur unto Sir Bedivere, ‘take thou here Excalibur, my good sword, and go with it to yonder water’s side; and when thou comest there, I charge thee throw my sword in that water, and come again and tell me what thou seest there’,” ( 514). Twice Bedivere hid the sword and lied to Arthur. After a third command from Arthur, Bedivere finally, “went unto the water’s side; and there he bound the girdle about the hilts, and threw the sword into the water as he might. And there came an arm and a hand above the water and took it and clutched it, and shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished with the sword into the water,” (515). Malory’s sources for Le Morte DArthur were the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycle writings, therefore his additions to the story followed the pattern set forth by those authors.
Tennyson’s tale of Excalibur is very similar to Malory’s. In Idylls of the King, Arthur received Excalibur from the Lady of the
Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was
written in 1982. It is a modern approach to Arthurian literature and twists the
tale slightly. Excalibur was a powerful sword forged on the Isle of Avalon. It
had a scabbard with protective powers. Unlike previous authors, however, Bradley
explains the creation of Excalibur from the Avalon point of view. Viviane, the
Lady of the
The other major change Bradley makes is the way in which Arthur receives Excalibur. Arthur was brought to Avalon by the Merlin. Viviane offered him the sword, not from the bottom of a lake, but from an underground location on the Isle. She did, like in Malory, request something from the king before giving him the sword, “The light flared on gold and jewels in cup and platter, the long spear, the crimson and gold and silver threads of the scabbard. And from the scabbard, Viviane drew forth the long, dark blade. Dimly, stones glinted in its hilt. ‘The sword of the Sacred Regalia of the Druids,’ she said quietly. ‘Swear now to me, Arthur Pendragon, King of Britain, that when you come to your crown, you will deal fairly with the Druid as with Christian, and that you will be guided by the sacred magic of those who have set you on this throne,” (Bradley 235). After much debate, Arthur agreed to Viviane’s request and was granted the sword.
Another interesting development in Excalibur’s tale happened not in
legend, but in accord with a discovery in the twelfth century. Around 1190,
Among the various characterizations, Excalibur was usually attributed two magical powers, a glowing light and its protective scabbard. It was also said to be unbreakable and extremely sharp through magical enforcement (Day 28, Peterson 52). Especially in older tales, Excalibur shines and blazes when it is drawn or used, “When Arthur drew it from the scabbard, it ‘cast a great light as if two torches had been kindled there’,” (Loomis 422). Its most important power rested in the scabbard however. In Malory’s Le Morte DArthur, Merlin asked of Arthur, “Whether like ye better the sword or the scabbard?” “‘I like better the sword,’ said Arthur.” Merlin replied, “Ye are the more unwise, for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword; for while ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall lose no blood be ye never so sore wounded. Therefore keep well the scabbard always with you,” (Malory 30). The scabbard was clearly more precious than the sword; it could protect its wearer from any wound. However, despite Merlin’s many warnings, Arthur lent out the scabbard several times (he only lent the sword once) and it was eventually stolen by Morgan le Fay (Peterson 52). This led to Arthur’s fatal wounding in his battle with Mordred and eventually his death.
Excalibur, from its many Celtic, Welsh, even Latin origins, has developed
through centuries of stories and authors into a legend and a powerful symbol.
Excalibur was a sword, but it was also the weapon of
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