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 the kingdom of Arthur . It is also the symbol of the power one man can wield, bringing an entire kingdom under his rule. The origins and evolution of Excalibur can be traced through the development of the name Excalibur, by looking at Celtic and Welsh legends, and by tracing the evolution of Excalibur’s tale and attributes through various Arthurian stories.

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 ( Warren 254n43). In The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh prose poetry, Caledvwlch is a legendary sword with the same attributes as Excalibur (Gantz 140). Roger Sherman Loomis, in his Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes, argues for both origins. He claims the name Excalibur developed out of many different legends and authors’ adaptations. Caledvwlch probably developed out of one of the forms of the Irish Calad-cole, and then became Caliburnus in Monmouth’s writings. It became Calibor in the Anglo-Norman poet Wace’s French prose Roman de Brut, based on Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. According to Loomis, there existed, “A peculiar tendency to attach the prefix es- to names,” (Loomis 424). Calibor then became Escalibor, which eventually transformed into Excalibur. There was more to this sword than its name however, as can be send through the various Celtic and Welsh legends it evolved from.

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 Aetna (Day 86-87).

Magical weapons 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 Britain . Perhaps this act was to keep others from using their weapons (Lacy “Handbook” 338). It may have also been a symbolic act, an acknowledgement of defeat or, “a sacrifice or a votive offering made to fit a cult ritual,” (Day 89-91). Celtic religion had a sacrificial element; therefore this assessment of throwing weapons into lakes may be based in religious beliefs and practices. Like the Celts and their heroes, Arthur also returned his sword to the lake from whence it came, back to the Lady of the Lake .

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.

In The Cattle Raid of Cooley in the Book of Dun Cow from the Ulster cycle, Fergus mac Roich was exiled and prevailed upon to fight against the Ulstermen. He demands his sword from King Ailill. The king, “sends for it and presents it to Fergus, who greets it as ‘Caladcolc’,” (Loomis 424). In the Book of Leinster, a variation of the same story, the sword is called Caladbolg. This sword is said to have come from “faery palaces and to become as long as a rainbow when it is brandished,” (424). Before the battle in The Cattle Raid of Flidais, Fergus’ sword is switched out for a wooden one. He does not realize this until he is in the middle of the battle. In The Death of Fergus Mac Leite, Fergus is mortally wounded and, “he implored the Ulstermen to give his sword to one who would be worthy of it,” (425). The two Irish names mentioned, Caladcolg and Caladbolg, translate into, respectively, ‘Hard Sword’ and ‘Hard Sheath’ (425). The sword of Fergus is from a magical place and has magical attributes, as does Excalibur. In Huth Merlin, part of the Post-Vulgate cycle, Morgan le Fay switches Excalibur for another and Arthur does not realize it until he is fighting Accolon. He also gives a speech about the proper and worthy wielder of Excalibur as he lays dying (425). The names Caladcolg and Caladbolg are very similar to Caledvwlch, which as previously discussed is the sword in The Mabinogion. This sword was also associated with battle prowess, as it is used to defeat the Ulstermen. Arthur’s sword is a symbol of battle prowess, as his victories and, “reputation on the battlefield helped make the sword legendary; it became seen as the sword of kings. The sword then became a more powerful symbol for his reign than any crown,” (Williams 53).

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.

Over its 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 Lake . It was not forged in this world. Sometimes it was the same as the sword in the stone, but more than often was not. If there was a sword in the stone, Arthur usually broke it and Merlin arranged for Arthur to have a magic one (Lacy “Handbook” 337). In the earlier stories, Excalibur did not solely belong to Arthur, in later stories it did. Merlin warned Arthur not to lose the scabbard because of its magical protective powers. The scabbard was stolen by Morgaine or Morgan le Fay. In the end, before Arthur died, he told one of his knights, Bedivere or Girflet, to throw the sword back into the water. This request was denied twice and then completed upon the third request. The Lady of the Lake took the sword back, and Arthur died (338). This is the basic outline of Excalibur’s story. However each author, Monmouth, Chretien, the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate authors, Malory, Tennyson, and Bradley, added his or her own events that have culminated in the sword’s legend.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is credited for first including Arthur’s sword in the legend ( Warren 21). Called Caliburn, it was, “the best of swords that was forged in the Island of Avalon ,” (Brown “Bleeding” 30). Caliburn was first mentioned as Arthur prepared for battle against the Saxons, “He girded on his peerless sword, called Caliburn,” along with the shield Pridwen and lance Ron (Monmouth 217). During the battle, Arthur realized his side was losing. Unwilling to suffer defeat, “He drew his sword Caliburn, called upon the name of the Blessed Virgin, and rushed forward at full speed into the thickest ranks of the enemy. Every man whom he struck, calling upon God as he did so, he killed in a single blow. He did not slacken his onslaught until he had dispatched four hundred and seventy men with his sword Caliburn,” (217).  It was again mentioned in the fight against the Gauls. Arthur was fighting with Frollo and, “raised Caliburn in the air with all his strength and brought it down through Frollo’s helmet and so on to his, which he cut into two halves,” (225). In the battle against the Romans and Emperor Lucius, Arthur again drew Caliburn and led his warriors to victory, “Arthur dashed straight at the enemy. He flung them to the ground and cut them to pieces. Whoever came his way was either killed himself or had his horse killed underneath him at a single blow…Their armor offered them no protection capable of preventing Caliburn, which wielded in the right of this mighty King, from forcing them to vomit forth their souls with their life blood,” (255). This sword was very symbolic of battle prowess, might, and Arthur’s many victories. It was only mentioned in Monmouth in connection to battles and war, “like the Irish marvelous swords, Caliburn was drawn at the crucial moment in battle, and always brought victory,” (Brown “Bleeding” 30). As a military weapon, Caliburn was used to incite others to military prowess and was powerful symbol of power ( Warren 57).

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 Lake . Malory wrote they rode to a lake, “And in the midst Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand…. ‘That is the Lady of the Lake,’ said Merlin, ‘And within that lake there is a great rock, and therein is a fair palace as any on earth, and richly beseen. And this damosel will come to you anon; and then speak ye fair to her that she may give you that sword.’…‘Well,’ said the damsel, ‘Go ye into yonder barge and row yourself to the sword, and take it and the scabbard with you; and I will ask my gift when I see my time.’ So King Arthur and Merlin alit and tied their horses onto two trees, and so they went into the barge; and when they came to the sword that the hand held, then King Arthur took it up by the handles and bore it with him…” (Malory 29-30).

           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 Lake under Merlin’s guidance. In the final fight with Mordred, Arthur struck Mordred, but was also struck himself, “And one last act of knighthood shalt thou see/Yet, ere I pass.’ And uttering this the King/Made at the man: then Mordred smote his liege/Hard on the helm which many a heathen sword/had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow/Striking the last stroke with Excalibur/Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell,” (Tennyson 292). As in Malory, Arthur again commanded his knight Bedivere to return Excalibur to the lake, “I am so deeply smitten thro’ the helm/That without help I cannot last till morn./Thou therefore take my brand Excalibur/Which was my pride: for thou rememberest how/In those old days, one summer non, an arm/Rose up from out the bosom of the lake/Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful/Holding the sword – and how I row’d across/And took it, and have worn it, like a king/And, wheresoever I am sung or told/In aftertime, this shall be known:/But now delay not: take Excalibur/And fling him far into the middle mere/Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word,” (293).After disobeying twice, Bedivere finally did as he was asked, “and strongly wheel’d and threw it…So flash’d and fell the brand Excalibur/But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm/Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful/And caught him by the hilt, and brandish’d him/Three times, and drew him under in the mere,” (296). Tennyson wrote during the nineteenth century, by that time the legend of Excalibur had evolved into a set pattern of mystical origins, protective powers in the scabbard, battle prowess, and a final return to the Lady of the Lake . Tennyson did not evolve Excalibur’s tale further, but rather followed Malory’s footsteps.

Marion Zimmer 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 Lake , still presented Arthur with the sword, but in a much different way than a hand reaching out of a lake. Viviane had Morgaine prepare the scabbard, “When that sword is carried into battle, it must be circled with all the magic we have. You are to fashion a scabbard for the sword, Morgaine, and set into it every spell you know, that he who bears it into battle shall lose no blood,” (Bradley 227). Morgaine took on the task and spent three days crafting a scabbard and enchanting it with the protection of the Goddess, “Goddess! Great Raven! Blood has been shed upon this scabbard, so that none need be split upon it when it is carried into battle,” (228). Bradley also describes the otherworldly smiths who forge the sword, “Fallen to earth in a falling star, a clap of thunder, a great burst of light; dragged still smoking to be forged by little dark smiths who had dwelled on the chalk before the ring stones were raised; powerful, a weapon for a king, broken and reforged this time into the long, leaf-shaped blade, tooled, and annealed in blood and fire…She had been told the name of the sword. Excalibur, which meant cut steel. Swords of meteorite iron were rare and precious,” (230). Within the stories mentioned, Monmouth’s, Malory’s, and the others’, this is the first time a description of the making of the sword and scabbard is given. Bradley’s book focuses on Avalon, this point of view therefore is coherent with her overall work.

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, monks at Glastonbury claimed to have discovered and dug up Arthur’s grave (Ditmas 26). In 1191, King Richard I the Lion Hearted presented Tancred of Sicily with a sword he proclaimed to be Excalibur (Lacy “Handbook” 338).The temporal proximity of these two events suggested they were related. In Sicily at the time, William II had married Joanna of England (Richards’s sister). William died soon after, leaving no son. The heir was his aunt Constance, who was married to the German Henry of Hohenstauffen. His German background was unpopular with the Sicilians, therefore the throne was instead occupied by Tancred of Lecce. Tancred had Joanna imprisoned. Richard demanded her release and the return of her dowry, however Tancred returned her and a bedroom set only. The two quarreled and eventually called a truce. Richard presented Tancred with a sword, “which the British call which sword was the sword of Arthur, former noble king of England ,” (Ditmas 27). This account was attested to by both Benedict of Peterborough and Roger of Hoveden. Perhaps the monks at Glastonbury had notified Richard of the discovery of the grave and sent some ancient sword to him. There was no recorded account of any sword being found in the grave. Perhaps Richard simply wished to pass on a gift he knew Tancred would recognize and respect (27). Most scholars agree this sword was a ruse, not only due to lack of evidence, but also due to the prestige of Excalibur and its legend. Surely no ruler would give away such a priceless relic, “To give away Excalibur would be to give away all of England ,” (Peterson 54).

           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 Britain ’s most renowned king. Perhaps its popularity is based in the kingdom it represents. It was wielded by the creator of an empire, a brotherhood of knights, and a chivalrous court at Camelot. “For many, Excalibur symbolizes everything that is noble and valiant from Arthuriana. Its mysterious origins and power only add to the allure of the myth…Every great hero had a weapon to avenge, protect, or hunt with…the sword itself stands for more than what it is. Excalibur has transcended the simple description of a gilded long sword and become a symbol of the strength, pride, and power of an age long passed, yet attainable once again,” (Peterson 52, 54).

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