How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water, by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
|Plot element from Arthurian legend|
|First appearance||Welsh legend|
|Element of stories featuring||King Arthur|
Excalibur is the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes attributed with magical powers or associated with the rightful sovereignty of Great Britain. Sometimes Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone (the proof of Arthur's lineage) are said to be the same weapon, but in most versions they are considered separate. The sword was associated with the Arthurian legend very early. In Welsh, the sword is called Caledfwlch; in Cornish, the sword is called Calesvol.
Forms and etymologies
The name Excalibur apparently derives from the Welsh Caledfwlch which combines the elements caled ("battle, hard"), and bwlch ("breach, gap, notch"). Geoffrey of Monmouth Latinised this to Caliburnus (likely influenced by the medieval Latin spelling calibs of Classical Latin chalybs, from Greek "χάλυψ", "steel"), the name of Arthur's sword in his 12th-century work Historia Regum Britanniae. Caliburnus or Caliburn became Excalibur, Escalibor, and other variations when the Arthurian legend entered into French literature.
Caledfwlch appears in several early Welsh works, including the poem Preiddeu Annwfn and the prose tale Culhwch and Olwen, a work associated with the Mabinogion and written perhaps around 1100. The name was later used in Welsh adaptations of foreign material such as the Bruts, which were based on Geoffrey. It is often considered to be related to the phonetically similar Caladbolg, a sword borne by several figures from Irish mythology, although a borrowing of Caledfwlch from Irish Caladbolg has been considered unlikely by Rachel Bromwich and D. Simon Evans. They suggest instead that both names "may have similarly arisen at a very early date as generic names for a sword"; this sword then became exclusively the property of Arthur in the British tradition. Most Celticists consider Geoffrey's Caliburnus to be derivative of a lost Old Welsh text in which bwlch had not yet been lenited to fwlch. In Old French sources this then became Escalibor, Excalibor and finally the familiar Excalibur.
In Chretien de Troyes's Perceval, Gawain carries Escalibor and it is stated, "for at his belt hung Excalibor, the finest sword that there was, which sliced through iron as through wood" ("Qu'il avoit cainte Escalibor, la meillor espee qui fust, qu'ele trenche fer come fust."). This statement was likely picked up by the author of the Estoire Merlin, or Vulgate Merlin, where the author (who was fond of fanciful folk etymologies) asserts that Escalibor "is a Hebrew name which means in French 'cuts iron, steel, and wood'" ("c'est non Ebrieu qui dist en franchois trenche fer & achier et fust"; note that the word for "steel" here, achier, also means "blade" or "sword" and comes from medieval Latin aciarium, a derivative of acies "sharp", so there is no direct connection with Latin chalybs in this etymology). It is from this fanciful etymological musing that Thomas Malory got the notion that Excalibur meant "cut steel" ("'the name of it,' said the lady, 'is Excalibur, that is as moche to say, as Cut stele.'").
Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone
In Arthurian romance, a number of explanations are given for Arthur's possession of Excalibur. In Robert de Boron's Merlin, Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone. In this account, the act could not be performed except by "the true king," meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. This sword is thought by many to be the famous Excalibur, and its identity is made explicit in the later so-called Vulgate Merlin Continuation, part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. However, in what is sometimes called the Post-Vulgate Merlin, Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake sometime after he began to reign. She calls the sword "Excalibur, that is as to say as Cut-steel." In the Vulgate Mort Artu, Arthur orders Griflet to throw the sword into the enchanted lake. After two failed attempts (as he felt such a great sword should not be thrown away), he finally complies with the wounded king's request and a hand emerges from the lake to catch it, a tale which becomes attached to Bedivere instead in Malory and the English tradition. Malory records both versions of the legend in his Le Morte d'Arthur, naming Excalibur as the sword the Lady of the Lake gives to Arthur to replace the sword that Arthur broke in his fight with King Pellinore.
In popular fiction, the two are often made as the same, such as in the film Excalibur, as well as the Disney film adaptation of The Sword in the Stone. The novel itself does present the swords as separate.
Caledfwlch in Wales
In Welsh legend, Arthur's sword is known as Caledfwlch. In Culhwch and Olwen, it is one of Arthur's most valuable possessions and is used by Arthur's warrior Llenlleawg the Irishman to kill the Irish king Diwrnach while stealing his magical cauldron (Irish mythology mentions a weapon Caladbolg, the sword of Fergus mac Roich. Caladbolg was also known for its incredible power and was carried by some of Ireland's greatest heroes. The name, which can also mean "hard cleft" in Irish, appears in the plural, caladbuilc, as a generic term for "great swords" in the 10th century Irish translation of the classical tale The Destruction of Troy, Togail Troi ).
Then they heard Cadwr Earl of Cornwall being summoned, and saw him rise with Arthur's sword in his hand, with a design of two chimeras on the golden hilt; when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the two chimeras was like two flames of fire, so dreadful that it was not easy for anyone to look. At that the host settled and the commotion subsided, and the earl returned to his tent.—From The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz.
Calesvol in Cornwall
In the late 15th/early 16th century Middle Cornish play Beunans Ke, Arthur's sword is called Calesvol, which is etymologically an exact Middle Cornish cognate of the Welsh Caledfwlch. It is unclear if the name was borrowed from the Welsh (if so, it must have been an early loan, for phonological reasons), or represents an early, pan-Brittonic traditional name for Arthur's sword.
Caliburn to Excalibur
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is the first non-Welsh source to speak of the sword. Geoffrey says the sword was forged in Avalon and Latinises the name "Caledfwlch" as Caliburnus. When his influential pseudo-history made it to Continental Europe, writers altered the name further until it finally took on the popular form Excalibur (various spellings in the medieval Arthurian Romance and Chronicle tradition include: Calabrun, Calabrum, Calibourne, Callibourc, Calliborc, Calibourch, Escaliborc, and Escalibor). The legend was expanded upon in the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, and in the Post-Vulgate Cycle which emerged in its wake. Both included the work known as the Prose Merlin, but the Post-Vulgate authors left out the Merlin Continuation from the earlier cycle, choosing to add an original account of Arthur's early days including a new origin for Excalibur.
The story of the Sword in the Stone has an analogue in some versions of the story of Sigurd (the Norse proto-Siegfried), whose father, Sigmund, draws the sword Gram out of the tree Barnstokkr where it is embedded by the Norse god Odin.
In several early French works such as Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, the Story of the Grail and the Vulgate Lancelot Proper section, Excalibur is used by Gawain, Arthur's nephew and one of his best knights. This is in contrast to later versions, where Excalibur belongs solely to the king.
In many versions, Excalibur's blade was engraved with words on opposite sides.
In addition, when Excalibur was first drawn, in the first battle testing Arthur's sovereignty, its blade blinded his enemies. Thomas Malory writes: "thenne he drewe his swerd Excalibur, but it was so breyght in his enemyes eyen that it gaf light lyke thirty torchys."
Excalibur's scabbard was said to have powers of its own. Injuries from losses of blood, for example, would not kill the bearer. In some tellings, wounds received by one wearing the scabbard did not bleed at all. The scabbard is stolen by Morgan le Fay and thrown into a lake, never to be found again.
Arthur's other weapons
Excalibur is by no means the only weapon associated with Arthur, nor the only sword. Welsh tradition also knew of a dagger named Carnwennan and a spear named Rhongomyniad that belonged to him. Carnwennan ("Little White-Hilt") first appears in Culhwch and Olwen, where it was used by Arthur to slice the Very Black Witch in half. Rhongomyniad ("spear" + "striker, slayer") is also first mentioned in Culhwch, although only in passing; it appears as simply Ron ("spear") in Geoffrey's Historia. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, a Middle English poem, there is mention of Clarent, a sword of peace meant for knighting and ceremonies as opposed to battle, which was stolen and then used to kill Arthur by Mordred. The Prose Lancelot of the Vulgate Cycle mentions a sword called Seure, which belonged to the king but was used by Lancelot in one battle.
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- Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid)
- R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64-5
- R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), p.65; see further T. Green, Concepts of Arthur (Stroud: Tempus, 2007), p.156
- P. K. Ford, "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30 (1983), pp.268-73 at p.271; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), p.64; James MacKillop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.64-65, 174.
- Bryant, Nigel (trans., ed.), Perceval: The Story of the Grail, DS Brewer, 2006, p. 69
- Roach, William, Chretien De Troyes: Le Roman De Perceval ou Le Conte Du Graal, Librairie Droz, 1959, p. 173
- Loomis, R. S., Arthurian Tradition and Chretien de Troyes, Columbia, 1949, p. 424
- Vinaver, Eugene (ed.), The works of Sir Thomas Malory, Volume 3, Clarendon, 1990, p. 1301
- Merlin: roman du XIIIe siècle ed. Alexandre Micha (Geneva: Droz, 1979)
- Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation trans. N. J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1992-6), 5 vols
- Malory, Sir Thomas, Baines, Keith (ed.), Le Morte D'Arthur, Penguin, 2001, p. 41.
- Thurneysen, R. "Zur Keltischen Literatur und Grammatik", Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, Volume 12, p. 281ff.
- O'Rahilly, T. F., Early Irish history and mythology, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957, p. 68
- Gantz, The Mabinogion, p. 184.
- Koch, John, "Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia", Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 329.
- Zimmer, Heinrich, "Bretonische Elemente in der Arthursage des Gottfried von Monmouth", Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, Volume 12, E. Franck's, 1890, p. 236.
- Book I, 19, from The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, Ed. Vinaver, Eugène, 3rd ed. Field, Rev. P. J. C. (1990). 3 vol. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-812344-2, ISBN 0-19-812345-0, ISBN 0-19-812346-9. (This is taken from the Winchester Manuscript).
- T. Jones and G. Jones, The Mabinogion (London: Dent, 1949), p.136; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64, 66
- P. K. Ford, "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30 (1983), pp.268-73 at p.71; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64
- Alliterative Morte Arthure, TEAMS, retrieved 26-02-2007
- Warren, Michelle, History On The Edge: Excalibur and the Borders of Britain, 1100-1300 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 212)
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (July 2010)|
- Bromwich, R. and Simon Evans, D. Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992)
- Ford, P.K. "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 30 (1983), pp. 268–73
- Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). The Mabinogion. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
- Green, T. Concepts of Arthur (Stroud: Tempus, 2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1 
- Jones, T. and Jones, G. The Mabinogion (London: Dent, 1949)
- Lacy, N. J. Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation (New York: Garland, 1992-6), 5 vols
- Lacy, N. J (ed). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. (London: Garland. 1996). ISBN 0-8153-2303-4.
- MacKillop, J. Dictionary of Celtic Mythology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
- Micha, Alexandre. Merlin: roman du XIIIe siècle (Geneva: Droz, 1979)