The legend of the sword Excalibur, or “Caliburn,” drifted through literature and mythology as early as 1136 CE, but the weapon was essentially immortalized by King Arthur in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, published in 1485 CE. Before that, the mythical sword wielded by King Arthur was mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (published in 1136 CE), but it was referred to by its original name “Caliburn.”
Interested in royalty? Check out: The British Line of Succession to the Throne
What Made Excalibur so Special?
From the onset, King Arthur’s legendary sword was known as the powerful weapon, with borderline mythical powers, and the aptitude to level the most fearsome enemies. Many different renditions of Excalibur are traceable through literature and legend, but a few things remain consistent:
- Excalibur is a mystical sword that’s associated with a singular hero, that needs to be kept out of the enemy’s hands at all costs, owing to its intrinsic power
- Although the sword was a powerful weapon, it was also a symbol of virtue and justice. Excalibur was never wielded for self-interest, it was only used on behalf of the people and keeping the peace
- Excalibur is a magical sword, obtained through mythical means
Where did Excalibur Come From?
Speaking of how Arthur came to own such a miraculous weapon, the most popular origin story of Excalibur is that he was gifted it from the mysterious Lady of the Lake, otherwise known as Viviane or Nimuë.
The water-dwelling enchantress makes an appearance in many fables about King Arthur. The legend goes that she lived in a castle at the bottom of the lake that bordered the island of Avalon, and she gave King Arthur Excalibur under the condition that he fulfill a request from her later.
When King Arthur is mortally wounded in his epic battle with Mordred (the quintessential villain of many Arthurian legends), Excalibur must be returned to the Lady of the Lake. Arthur gives the duty to one of his most trusted knights, who casts the fabled weapon back into the water. In most texts, Excalibur is to be wielded by none other than King Arthur.
Speaking of King Arthur’s Death, Was he Ever Actually Alive?
King Arthur is one of the most famous mythical characters. However, scholars cannot agree upon if he ever existed. What we do know, is that if he did exist, he wasn’t a king, but rather the commander of a force of warriors. The dates also don’t add up. If King Arthur ever lived, it would’ve been over 500 years before legend suggests.
There’s a chance that the legend of King Arthur may have been based on a man named Arturus that led a force of elite fighters into a battle with the invading Jutes and Saxons from Northern Europe sometime around 400 CE. But even if that is the case, he wouldn’t be anything like the gilded King of popular legend.
Since the mythical king who wielded Excalibur probably wasn’t real, that means the legendary sword probably wasn’t real, either. However, that doesn’t mean that the fabled sword didn’t arise from a very real historical tradition.
Other Mythological Weapons of Power
Throughout history, there is a very traceable tradition of fabled weapons of power. In Greek and Roman mythology there are several “magical weapons,” including the “harpe” that Cronos uses to overpower Uranus, and Julius Caesar’s supernaturally-powered sword “Crocea Mors.”
Weapons of extraordinary power can also be found in the Bible. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, God sends down a cherubim with a flaming sword to fend off Adam and Eve if they tried to return.
Excalibur is Not the Sword in the Stone
Although the legends of Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone have been tangled throughout history, they have often been defined in literature as two different weapons. As we’ve already discussed, Excalibur was given to King Arthur by the mysterious enchantress, the Lady of the Lake, not tugged out of a bolder.
The myth of the Sword in the Stone was added to Arthurian legend by Robert de Boron’s Merlin in the 12th century. The sword in that text is notably different from Excalibur because of its differing origins and qualities, namely, Excalibur’s inability to be destroyed.
Wait, Could it Be?
As we know, after King Arthur’s noble death, Excalibur is fabled to be cast back into the lake from whence it came never to be seen again. However, that may not be the full story.
In September 2016, a schoolgirl named Matilda Jones was swimming in the Cornwall lake that is rumored to be the final resting place of Excalibur, when she stumbled across something stuck in the lakebed. She pulled it from the water and found that it was a sword.
The sword was probably a misplaced prop from a movie filmed in the area, but still, the child’s discovery made for an utterly enchanting story.
Interested in learning about more famous folklore? This article details some of history’s most famous Medieval urban legends.