Excalibur is King Arthur’s magical SWORD that was given to him by VIVIANE, THE LADY OF THE LAKE. After Arthur’s fatal encounter against Mordred, Excalibur was thrown in the lake and returned to the Lady. Contrary to popular belief, Excalibur is not the weapon pulled out of the stone which established Arthur as heir to King Uther Pendragon. That sword broke in battle, after which Merlin arranged for Arthur to accept a new, elven-made sword, the magical Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake.
Merlin took Arthur to the lake’s edge and pointed to the arm extended out of the water holding a sword. Amazed, Arthur then saw a beautiful woman rowing a small boat to the shore, and he asked who she might be. Merlin replied that it was Viviane, who lived on a rock in the lake’s mists—in other words, at Avalon. At first the Lady refused to give Excalibur to Arthur but finally gave in, requesting that Arthur present her with a gift at some future time.
The king agreed and sailed on a barge out to the middle of the lake to claim the weapon. The arm then disappeared beneath the water’s surface. Excalibur itself was unbreakable, and its scabbard protected Arthur when he wore it. Excalibur is the French version of the sword’s name, which was originally called Caladfwich, a Welsh word derived from the Gaelic CaladBolg, which means “hard lightning.” Viviane defi nes the name as meaning “cut-steel.” Geoffrey of Monmouth, an early storyteller, called the sword Caliburn, which eventually became Excalibur.
In the great Irish epic poem An Tain Bo Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the hero Cu Chulainn also possesses a sword named Caladbolg. In his study of weapons and warfare in J. R. R. t ol kien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, author Chris Smith remarks that a sword is designed for no other purpose than as a weapon, whereas an axe, a spear, or a knife can be used for hunting food or clearing land.
Swords, therefore, symbolize rank and privilege: To own a sword meant one had enough money to spend on something that had no secondary use. Sword blades and hilts were beautifully made and engraved, while the scabbards might be decorated or even contain jewels. Such treasures were cared for lovingly, like a member of the family. To give the sword a name conferred power, which emboldened the owner and frightened his enemies. The legends relate that Morgan le Fay, half-sister to Arthur and a skilled enchantress, stole Excalibur and gave it to her lover, Sir Accolon of Gaul.
Viviane retrieved the sword and gave it back to Arthur, but Morgan threw the scabbard in the lake. After Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, challenged Arthur in the Battle of Camlann and destroyed them both, the dying king requested that Sir Bedivere (Bedwyr or Girfl et) throw the sword back in the lake. At first Bedivere tried to keep Excalibur for himself, but Arthur—who realized Bedivere still had the sword— commanded that the knight try again.
This time Bedivere threw Excalibur far into the lake, where the mysterious arm and hand caught the sword and immediately sank into the murky water. In the film version of The Mists of Avalon, based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s book of the same name, Morgaine (Morgan) rows Arthur across the lake to Avalon but has lost the ability to part the mists that hide the ancient temple.
Arthur surmises the Goddess requires an offering and suggests Morgaine give Excalibur to her. When Morgaine throws the sword, it becomes a bright light in the sky, changing from a sword with hilt to a Christian cross. The mists successfully part but only for a moment, and then Arthur dies.
FURTHER READING :
- Bradley, Marion Zimmer. The Mists of Avalon. New York: Knopf, 1983.
- “Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone.” The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Available online. URL: www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/swrdmenu.htm. Downloaded October. 17, 2004.
- Ford, David Nash. “Excalibur: A Discussion of the Origins of King Arthur’s Sword.” Available online. URL: www. britannia.com/history/arthur/excalibur.html. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
- Smith, Chris. The Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare. New York: Houghton Miffl in, 2004.
- “Welcome to Camelot, Home of King Arthur and His Court.” Available online. URL: www.geocities.com/Athens/ Acropolis/2025/art.htm. Downloaded October 17, 2004.
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