Excalibur is the legendary sword of King Arthur, sometimes also attributed with magical powers or associated with the rightful sovereignty of Britain.
Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone (the proof of Arthur’s lineage) are sometimes said to be the same weapon, but in most versions, they are considered separate.
Excalibur was associated with the Arthurian legend very early on. In Welsh, it is called Caledfwlch; in Cornish, Calesvol; in Breton, Kaledvoulc’h; and in Latin, Caliburnus.
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, the first tale to mention the “sword in the stone” motif, Arthur obtained the British throne by pulling a sword from an anvil sitting atop a stone that appeared in a churchyard on Christmas Eve.
In this account, as foretold by Merlin, the act could not be performed except by “the true king,” meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. As Malory writes:
“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born.”
The identity of this sword as Excalibur is made explicit in the later Prose Merlin, part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle (the Vulgate Cycle).
However, in the most famous English-language version of the Arthurian tales, Malory’s 15th-century Le Morte d’Arthur, early in his reign Arthur breaks the Sword from the Stone while in combat against King Pellinore and is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake in exchange for a later boon.
Similarly, in the Post-Vulgate Cycle, Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake sometime after he began to reign. In the Vulgate Mort Artu, Arthur is at the brink of death and so 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), Griflet finally complies with the wounded king’s request and a hand emerges from the lake to catch it.
This tale becomes attached to Bedivere instead of Griflet in Malory and the English tradition. Malory records both versions of the legend in his Le Morte d’Arthur, naming both swords as Excalibur.
In Welsh legends, 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 Róich, which 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 Togail Troi (“The Destruction of Troy”), a 10th-century Irish translation of the classic tale.
Though not named as Caledfwlch, Arthur’s sword is described vividly in The Dream of Rhonabwy, one of the tales associated with the Mabinogion (as translated by Jeffrey Gantz):
“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.”
Geoffrey’s Historia 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 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.
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.
The challenge of drawing a sword from the stone also appears in the later Arthurian stories of Galahad, whose achievement of the task indicates that he is destined to find the Holy Grail.
In some tellings, Excalibur’s scabbard was said to have powers of its own, as the one wearing it would not lose even a drop of blood. Any wounds received while wearing the scabbard would not bleed at all, thus preventing the death of the wearer.
For this reason, Merlin chides Arthur for preferring the sword over the scabbard, saying that the latter was the greater treasure.
In the later romance tradition, including Le Morte d’Arthur, the scabbard is stolen from Arthur by his half-sister Morgan le Fay in revenge for the death of her beloved Accolon and thrown into a lake, never to be found again. This act later enables the death of Arthur at the Battle of Camlann.