... and then he threw the sword as far into the water as he
might; and there came an arm and an hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and so shook it
thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.
Swords of heroes and sacred kings
were typically forged in the Otherworld and were presented to the hero by an
otherworldly woman or taken in adventure from a stone, a tree, or as in Excalibur's
case both - the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake gifting it for a later favor
with Arthur taking it from a samite clad hand brandishing the sword from the waters of the lake.
On the hero's death, the sword must return to its origin.
"So they rode till they came to a lake, the which was a fair water and broad,
and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite,
that held a fair sword in that hand. Lo! said Merlin, yonder is that sword that I
spake of." - Malory
Ask anyone today, what is Excalibur and they will tell you that it
is Arthur's sword taken from the stone to claim his right as king of all Britain.
The stories of the Sword in the Stone and the Lady of the Lake gifting were
different aspects of the hero sword woven together by Malory. The Sword in the Stone
later failed Arthur
in combat and not having the original tales, we can not surmise whether he
changed the tale to make his own story work or as the Post Vulgate stories
state that it was a different sword.
In terms of the evolution of
the Arthurian legend, stories that mention Arthur owning a sword named
Excalibur (or a variant of the name) are older than the story of Excalibur
being pulled from the stone. In terms of the legends themselves, Geoffrey
of Monmouth tells us that Excalibur, which he calls Caliburn was
forged in Avalon. Later French author, whose work is usually called the
"Post-Vulgate" changed many of the details of the Arthurian
legends. According to the Post-Vulgate, the sword drawn from the stone is
not Excalibur, but after this sword broke, Arthur went and got Excalibur
from the Lady of the Lake. This is also the first appearance of the
scabbard in a story, in older stories Excalibur did not have a special
The Welsh name for Excalibur was
Caladvwlch, equating linguistically with Irish Caladbolg, the name of a sword
borne by heroes in Irish legend, derived from CALAD (hard) and BOLG (lightning).
At the supposed time of Arthur's historical existence, there
were a limited number of sword types in western Europe. There were several distinct
types of long-bladed swords, each with a distinctly different style of furniture
(hilt, pommel, etc.). The descriptions of Excalibur fit variations of the spatha, the sword
used by the Romans. The typical Roman spatha was short and pointed, intended for
close-in fighting and principally for stabbing. Other longer variations were double
edged and more rounded at the tip. In accordance with H.R.E. Davidson's excellent
book on 'The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England', I believe that Excalibur was
probably a pattern welded sword that exhibited a herringbone or curved pattern on
each side of the blade. It would have been longer than a traditional spatha to allow
for fighting from horseback, double edged, and with a fuller (groove) running most
of the length. It also was probably inscribed by the swordsmith.
Phillips and Keatman in their book, 'King Arthur - The True Story',
speculate that the two serpents on the sword of Arthur in the Dream of Rhonabwy are
the same design as that of the auxilium unit of the Roman army based at Segontium /
Caernarvon. Their source is one of the illustrations to the Notitia Dignitatum of the
shield of that unit, which has, according to them, two serpents. They propose that
Excalibur was a typical Roman spatha.
Of course, there is also the possibility of Excalibur being an early
Byzantine blade as in some stories where it was the sword of Maxen Vledig. And there
is evidence that the Alans who fought all over the Eastern and Western Roman Empires
and beyond their borders in the early fifth century, fought from horseback using
longswords, not spathas.
Wayland, the smith of the gods and equivalent of Goibniu or Vulcan,
was credited with making many of the great magical weapons and armor of the gods,
including Excalibur. The fact that he is associated with the Saxons and was purported
to have been brought to Britain by them may provide some of the reasons behind one
of the Arthurian legends in which Arthur acquires Excalibur from the Saxons, taking
it in battle. This plot was used in a recent story, 'The Kingmaking' by Helen
In one historical document, Excalibur was in the Royal Regalia lost by
King John when his treasure wagon overturned at The Wash in 1215, whilst he was
attempting to avoid the barons. Because it was regalia, it might have still possessed
the original furniture, though possibly gilded and with stones added. A case in point
is Joyous Gard, Charlemagne's sword. It was created sometime prior to 770 CE, has
the same furniture (though gilded and set with stones), and has been preserved as such
because it was official regalia. The sword is currently in the Louvre. But there are
several accounts of similar forgeries of Excalibur and other legendary weapons.
Excalibur shall always be linked with Arthur, whether it awaits his return
clasped in the Otherworld and guarded by the lady or lies lost and rusted at the bottom
of an English pool. From the Otherworld it was given and to the Otherworld it returned.
Therefore, said Arthur unto Sir Bedivere, take thou Excalibur, my good
sword, and go with it to yonder water side, and when thou comest there I charge thee
throw my sword in that water, and come again and tell me what thou there
seest. -Malory (In an earlier version, Griflet, not Bedivere, was given the task of flinging Excalibur
into the waters after Arthur's last battle. When he saw Arthur's tomb, he became
a hermit but died shortly afterwards.)
Excalibur in Malory's le Morte
Galgano Sword in Stone