Excalibur: The Legendary Sword of King Arthur

The Excalibur is a mythical sword.

It is associated with King Arthur and his compilation of medieval stories. The legendary Excalibur was believed to hold ultimate power to its rightful master, but plague anyone else who attempted to use it. 

The Lady of the Lake gives Excalibur to King Arthur, 1880

The Arthurian Legend

To introduce the famous Excalibur we must first recognize the series of mythical stories in which it belongs in history. 

The Arthurian Legend is a body of individual stories. These stories weave together the events in the life of King Arthur. King Arthur didn’t exist in real life. But the creators of his stories seemed to bring him to life. 

He was a man of great prestige, a warrior, a knight, and then a king who led his army of heroes on many adventures. He is famously depicted in the Knights of the Round Table and known for uniting the inhabitants of his land. 

Around the year 1136, author Sir Geoffrey of Monmouth created the character of King Arthur. He was then included in the book called The Historia Regum Britanniae. This translates to The History of the Kings of Britain. 

These stories were widely read during the time period. It was second in popularity only to the Bible. Some three hundred years later, Sir Thomas Malory extended the adventures of King Arthur in his famous stories Le Morte d’Arthur which included eight different books in a series. 

Some historians believe the character King Arthur was based on a great Celtic leader named Arturus who lived in the 5th century. Others believe Arthur was actually Dux (Duke) of Britain, which is a Roman title. But by the year 500 AD, the term “King” had become vague and simply referred to any Celtic leader. 

Whomever this character was written to follow, Arthur symbolized a warrior who was triumphant for a some time, only to die a tragic death. 

The Rise of King Arthur

It was said that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall and was taken from his Royal parents by the warlock Merlin. The boy was named Arthur Pendragon. Merlin then gave the child to Sir Ector, a knight, to be raised as a foster child. 

It was not known by anyone but Merlin and Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon, that Arthur was the king’s son. He was looked down upon as a weak outcast of an orphan. 

Very shortly after giving away his only son, King Pendragon died. With no one to assume the role and rule the Kingdom, the people turned to Merlin for a solution. Having promised to look after the well-being of little Arthur, Merlin devised a plan. 

He created a large stone in a churchyard in Westminster, London. Sticking out of that stone was an anvil and a nearby plague stated: “Whoso pulleth out his sword from this stone, is right wise King born of all England.” 

Many villagers and travelers from far away places alike, tried their hand at pulling the sword from the great stone. Nobody was successful. Soon the stone was forgotten, with the kingdom then falling into greater ruin. 

As Arthur grew up, Merlin began to intercede in Arthurs’ life. They became friends, and Merlin spent much time mentoring the boy. He taught him that knowledge was more powerful than strength. 

One day, at age 15, Merlin encouraged the meek, scrawny Arthur to try his hand at the Sword in the Stone. As a crowd assembled, the boy grasped the anvil. To his amazement, the sword came loose in his hands. 

Some believe that this was the Excalibur sword, but many contend that the Excalibur came in a later story. 

The Excalibur

A warrior’s sword was his most prized possession and Arthur’s was certainly special. After Arthur was declared King, many in the kingdom did not agree with this declaration. 

One such knight, King Pellinore killed a friend of Arthur’s and Arthur swore revenge. A great battle ensued between Arthur and Pellinore. As Pellinore swiftly gained the upper hand in the fight, Arthur fell to the ground, badly wounded. 

Because he was always watching and protecting his mentee, Merlin appeared and cast a deep sleep on Pellinore, thus saving Arthur’s life. With his sword broken and destroyed at his side, Merlin guided Arthur to a lake. 

A hand broke the surface of the water and the mystical Lady of the Lake appeared with a gift – a sword – the Excalibur. The Lady of the Lake had been known as a Celtic goodness and was closely associated with other fairies of the water. 

King Arthur Asks the Lady of the Lake for the Sword Excalibur, illustration by Walter Crane, 1911

Whether the Excalibur was indeed the Sword in the Stone or was given to Arthur by the Lady in the Lake through the means of Merlin, the Excalibur was truly of another realm. The original author of King Arthur lore, Geoffrey Monmouth, developed the mighty weapon as a symbol of justice, to be wielded only by a good and true leader. 

In fact, the first time the weapon was mentioned in his works, Monmouth gave no magical attributes to the weapon itself. Seen as more of a political symbol, the Excalibur must be held by someone with the best interest of his people, and not his own royal self interest. 

King Arthur’s story continued as he formed his noble group, the Knights of the Round Table. They worked to ensure peace to the kingdom. They even worked on a mission to retrieve the Holy Grail – the sacred cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. 

The Excalibur symbolized nobility and a selfless leader. But there are some other parallels to the stories of the Bible. In an extension of the story of the death of King Arthur, one of his trusted knights, Sir Girflet was instructed to throw Excalibur back into the lake in which it came from. 

The knight cannot imagine throwing away such a prized possession which holds such significance to the kingdom. He does not heed the instructions of his King. This reverts back to the story of Jesus being deceived by someone close to him, as Sir Girflet was one of King Arthur’s most trusted knights. 

The symbolism here is put forth by the famous Excalibur: only the truly noble beings understand the selfless actions which are best for all humanity and not their own desires. 

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