How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894.
How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894.

Excalibur is the mythical 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 was called Caledfwlch.



Forms and etymologies

The name Excalibur came from Old French Excalibor, which came from Caliburn used in Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1140) (Latin Caliburnus). There are also variant spellings such as Escalibor and Excaliber (the latter used in Howard Pyle's books for younger readers). One theory holds that Caliburn[us] comes from Caledfwlch, which in turn comes from Caladbolg ("hard-belly", i.e. "voracious"), a legendary Irish sword (see below). Another theory (found in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, 1995) states that "Caliburnus" is ultimately derived from Latin chalybs "steel", which is in turn derived from Kalybes, the name of a Sarmatian ironworking tribe. Another theory holds that Excalibur was originally derived from ensis caliburnus, "Calibian sword", which might point to a Mediterranean origin. This is noted and used by the historian Valerio Massimo Manfredi in his novel The Last Legion (2002). According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, Excalibur was originally derived from the Latin phrase Ex calce liberatus, "to liberate from the stone". In Malory, Excalibur is said to mean "cut-steel", which some have interpreted to mean "steel-cutter".

Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone

Excalibur in the stone
Excalibur in the stone

In surviving accounts of Arthur, there are two originally separate legends about the sword's origin. The first is the "Sword in the Stone" legend, originally appearing in Robert de Boron's poem Merlin, in which Excalibur can only be drawn from the stone by Arthur, the rightful king. The second comes from the later Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin, which was taken up by Sir Thomas Malory. Here, Arthur receives Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake after breaking his first sword in a fight with King Pellinore. The Lady of the Lake calls the sword "Excalibur, that is as to say as Cut-steel."

As Arthur lay dying, he tells a reluctant Sir Bedivere (Sir Griflet in some versions) to return the sword to the Lake by throwing it into the water. Bedivere thinks the sword too precious to throw away, so twice only pretends to do so. Each time, Arthur asks him to describe what he saw. When Bedevere tells him the sword simply vanished underwater, Arthur scolds him harshly. Finally, Bedivere throws Excalibur into the Lake. Before the sword strikes the water's surface, the hand of the Lady of the Lake reaches up to grasp it and pull it under. Arthur leaves on a death barge with the three queens, where as his legend says, he will one day return to save Britain from a threat.

Malory records both versions of the legend in his Le Morte d'Arthur, and confusingly calls both swords Excalibur. The film Excalibur attempts to rectify this by having the Lady of the Lake only repair the sword after it is broken.



In Welsh legend, Arthur's sword is known as Caledfwlch.
In Welsh legend, Arthur's sword is known as Caledfwlch.

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. Caledfwlch is thought to derive from the legendary Irish weapon Caladbolg, the lightning sword of Fergus mac Roich. Caladbolg was also known for its incredible power, and was carried by some of Ireland's greatest heroes.

Caledflwch is vividly described in the Mabinogion:-

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 serpents on the golden hilt; when the sword was unsheathed what was seen from the mouths of the two serpents 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. "Iddawg, who is the man who brought Arthur's sword?" (asks Rhonabwy) "Cadwr Earl of Cornwall, the man whose task it is to arm the king on the day of battle and conflict."
from The Dream of Rhonabwy, from The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz.

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 Latinizes the name "Caledfwlch" to Caliburn or Caliburnus. Continental writers altered the name further — first to Escalibor, then to Excalibur — when his influential pseudo-history made it to Continental Europe. The legend was expanded upon in the Vulgate Cycle (c. 12301250), 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.

Other information

The story of the Sword in the Stone has an analogue in some versions of the story of Sigurd (the Norse proto-Siegfried), who draws his father Sigmund's sword out of a tree where it is embedded.

Interestingly, 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 the Alliterative Morte Arthure (ca. 1400), Arthur is said to have two legendary swords, the second one being Clarent, stolen by the evil Mordred. Arthur receives his fatal blow from Clarent.

According to some speculators, the legend of the Sword in the Stone is possibly a reference and remembrance in storytelling of the techniques of Bronze Age sword-making technology. [1] Simply described, the technique involved casting a sword using molten bronze into a mold consisting of two halves. There is a hollow in the shape of a sword formed by the two halves. The two halves run the length of the sword, and shape the flat of the blade as well as the handle. The mould halves can be made of hardened clay or of stone. When the molten bronze hardens and the halves are separated, one half is left with a "sword in the stone," resting inside one of the halves. In its own right it is a magical moment, impressive enough to have remained as a poetic image, transformed by writers who did not know or remember the possible origin of the phrase. However, the tales of Arthur apparently first arose in the post-Roman Dark Ages, long after the Bronze Age, though some say he had appeared in legends by then. There may also be a figurative meaning, in that the sword is concealed in the stone in the sense that metal is found as an ore within the earth.


In many versions, Excalibur's blade was engraved with words on opposite sides. On one side were the words "take me up", and on the other side "cast me away" (or similar words). This prefigures its return into the water. Another version, by one Mary Stewart, represented Caliburn as the hereditary sword of the near-legendary warrior Magnus Maximus; engraved on it the phrase TO HIM UNCONQUERED. By this account, it was taken by Maximus's kinsmen to North Wales after his death in Italy, later to be retrieved by Merlin the Enchanter and hidden by him on the strange island of Caer Bannog, from which Arthur took it. In addition, when Excalibur was first drawn, Arthur's enemies were blinded by its blade, which was as bright as thirty torches. 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.

The 19th century poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described the sword in full Romantic detail in his poem "Morte d'Arthur", one of the Idylls of the King:

There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o’er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt:
For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work
Of subtlest jewellery.