Sword in the Stone: Explorations of Excalibur

By: R. David Crouse

Origin of Excalibur

            The Sword in the Stone is a legend which tells the origin of Excalibur and the crowning of King Arthur Pendragon.  Many versions of the legend tell of Arthur pulling the sword from a stone, others an anvil, and another from a lake.  However, much of what people know of Excalibur and King Arthur are based on modern interpretations and a misunderstanding of the true origin of the sword.  Much how Excalibur would eventually be passed from one knight to another, the story was cycled from one person to another who then made changes in order to convey a different meaning or even completely alter the story all together.

            The first ever mention of the sword dates back to 1136 CE in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work the History of the Kings of Britain, however, in this book the sword is referred to as Caliburnus (or Caliburn).  The Sword in the Stone, however, was first mentioned in Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin.  Boron writes the sword to have been drawn from an anvil originally, though other writers have since changed this to be a stone, which was placed in the stone in order to be drawn by the heir to the throne and successor of Uther Pendragon.

            Eventually the story was altered and changed around until Thomas Malory immortalized it in his work Le Morte D’Arthur in 1485 CE.  Here Malory states the Sword in the Stone not as Excalibur but as a different sword all together.  The Sword in the Stone was said to have been shattered by King Pellinore when he and Arthur fought and that Excalibur was in fact given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake as a symbol of power, virtue, and his right to rule.  Even after Arthur’s death at the hands of Mordred, Malory writes Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake rather than allowing it to fall into the hands of a knight who may wish to succeed Arthur and become king.  However, this has not always been the case in every version of the story.

            According to the poem Conte du Graal by Chretien de Troyes (c. 1130-1190 CE), Excalibur is said to have been wielded by Sir Gawain.  The Vulgate Cycle and Post-Vulgate Cycle states the sword was given to Gawain by Arthur who then gave it to Lancelot to defend Guinevere.  Afterwards, Gawain returns the sword to Arthur before returning it to the Lady of the Lake after Arthur’s death.  It is hard to conclude which story should be taken as the “true story” of King Arthur and Excalibur, but with the many alterations it has gone through, a theme is presented that it is quite consistent in this legend and many other forms of mythology throughout the world.

Symbolism of Swords

            Swords have been used in legend and myths long before the creation of King Arthur.