Excalibur or Caliburn 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; in Breton, the sword is called Kaledvoulc’h; in Latin, the magic sword is called Caliburnus.
Forms and etymologies
The name Excalibur ultimately comes from the Welsh Caledfwlch (and Breton Kaledvoulc’h, Middle Cornish Calesvol) which is a compound of caled “hard” and ” “breach, cleft”. Caledfwlch appears in several early Welsh works, including the poem Preiddeu Annwfn (though it is not directly named – but only alluded to – here) 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 (chronicles), which were based on Geoffrey of Monmouth. 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.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1136), Latinised the name of Arthur’s sword as Caliburnus (potentially influenced by the Medieval Latin spelling calibs of Classical Latin chalybs, from Greek chályps [χάλυψ] “steel”) and states that it was forged in the Isle of Avalon. 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.
Geoffrey Gaimar, in his Old French L’Estoire des Engles (1134-1140), mentions Arthur and his sword: “this Constantine was the nephew of Arthur, who had the sword Caliburc” (“Cil Costentin, li niès Artur, Ki out l’espée Caliburc“).
In Wace‘s Roman de Brut (c. 1150-1155), an Old French translation and versification of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the sword is called Calabrum, Callibourc, Chalabrun, and Calabrun (with alternate spellings such as Chalabrum, Calibore, Callibor, Caliborne, Calliborc, and Escaliborc, found in various manuscripts of the Brut).
In Chrétien de Troyes‘ late 12th century Old French Perceval, Gawain carries the sword Escalibor and it is stated, “for at his belt hung Escalibor, 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 probably 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 British throne by pulling a sword from a stone. (The story of the Sword in the Stone has an analogue in some versions of the story of Sigurd, whose father, Sigmund, draws the sword Gram out of the tree Barnstokkr where it is embedded by the Norse god Odin.) 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 Prose Merlin, part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. This version also appears in the 1938 Arthurian novel The Sword in the Stone by British author T. H. White, and the Disney adaptation. They both quote the line from Thomas Malory in the 15th century; “Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of this Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of all England”. The challenge of drawing a sword from a stone also appears in the Arthurian legends of Galahad, whose achievement of the task indicates that he is destined to find the Holy Grail.
However, in what is called the Post-Vulgate Cycle, 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 both swords as Excalibur.
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 Róich. 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 Togail Troi (“The Destruction of Troy“), the 10th century Irish translation of the classical tale.
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.
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, 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.
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 phrases on opposite sides: “Take me up” and “Cast me away” (or similar). 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. Loss of blood from injuries, 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 in revenge for the death of her beloved Accolon 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 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.
Original article: Excalibur / Caliburn