Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia


‘Cuts through iron and steel and wood’, ‘Cut steel’
Caladbolg, Caladvwlch, Caledfwlch, Calesvol, Caliborne, Calibourne, Caliburn, Caliburnus, Caluburn, Esalabor, Eslabor, Escalibor, Escaliborc, Escaliboume, Eschaliborc, l’Espee del Perron, Estalibore, Excalibar, Excalibor, Kaledvuolc’h

King Arthur’s sword, called Caliburnus (Latin chalybs ‘steel’) in earliest accounts and Caledfwlch in Welsh legend. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, it was “best of swords”, and “was forged within the Isle of Avalon”. Other tales add that no armor could withstand it, that it blazed with fire when drawn, and that it instantly killed anyone it touched. Robert de Boron and the Vulgate romances name Excalibur as the same sword that Arthur drew from the stone, proving his right to rule Britain.

In French romance, Gawaine is often seen with Excalibur, and the Vulgate Merlin clears this discrepancy by saying that Arthur used the sword for a while, but bestowed it upon Gawaine after Arthur won a better sword: Marmiadoise (Marmyadose), the sword of King Rions (Ryons), which had first belonged to Hercules. Gawaine lent Excalibur to Lancelot once, and in another episode, Arthur let Meliadus borrow the sword.

In the Post-Vulgate Merlin continuation and in Malory the story goes that Merlin was often afraid that Arthur would fall in battle, and so decided that he should have his own special sword. Therefore, Merlin took Arthur on a journey to the shores of a wide and still lake. There, in the middle, Arthur saw an arm, clothed in rich samite (silk), rise from the calm waters, the hand clasping a fair sword. Merlin advised Arthur that he must speak kindly to the Lady of the Lake in order to obtain the sword.

Sure enough, she invited Arthur to row out to the centre of the lake to take the sword and its scabbard, but had to promise to grant the Lady a favor in the future. Returning to the shore, Merlin asked which he preferred, sword or scabbard? Arthur considered the question, and then replied that he preferred the sword, to which Merlin added that the scabbard was worth ten of the sword, for while Arthur carried the scabbard he would never lose blood, no matter how sorely wounded he might be. Tennyson says that the Lady bestowed the sword upon Arthur so that he could drive the heathen out of Britain.

In one episode from the Post-Vulgate and Malory, Arthur entrusts the sword to Morgan le Fay. She made a counterfeit and gave the real one to her lover, Accalon, while returning the copy to Arthur. Wishing Arthur dead, she arranged a fight between Accalon and her brother, but the Lady of the Lake arrived in time to stop Arthur’s demise. In the aftermath, Morgan stole the scabbard and threw it into a deep lake. A note in the Post-Vulgate says that a fairy named Marsique recovered the scabbard and gave it to Gawaine, for use in a battle against Mabon the Enchanter.

The Vulgate Merlin says that its name meant “cuts through iron and steel and wood”, while Malory gives the simpler translation “cut steel”. Certainly, as Norris Lacy argues, its root seems to be the Latin chalybs, meaning “steel”. Tennyson claims that on one side of the sword was written, in the oldest tongue, “take me”, while the other side read, in modern language “cast me away”.

After the final battle with Mordred, Arthur, mortally wounded, commanded one of his knights (Girflet in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate, Bedivere in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Malory, Gawaine in the Middle English Parlement of the Thre AgesLucan in the English ballad “King Arthur’s Death”, and a nameless squire in La Tavola Ritonda) to throw Excalibur into a nearby lake. The knight balked at the idea of disposing of such a fine sword. On the first occasion that Bedivere returned from the lake, having hidden Excalibur, meaning to keep the sword for himself, Arthur asked him what he had seen. Bedivere’s answer, that he had seen nought but wind and waves, told Arthur that his instructions had not been carried out. The second time Bedivere carried out Arthur’s orders and hurled the sword out over the lake. As it fell towards the water, an arm appeared and, having caught the sword, drew it back under the waters. Returning once again to Arthur, Bedivere recounted what he had seen and this time Arthur knew all was well. Over half a dozen lakes and ponds in Britain – most of them in the southeast – claim to be the location of this event.

In Chrétien’s final romance, we find Gawaine belting on Escalibor, which can cut iron as easily as wood. Gawaine has come to Escavalon to defend himself against Guigambresil’s charge of treason; earlier, Chrétien emphasized that Gawaine takes only his own property along on this trip. Gawaine’s possession of his uncle Arthur’s sword baffles D.D.R. Owen, but Ruth Cline notes that the Vulgate includes an alternative tradition, in which Arthur gives Excalibur to Gawaine, who then consistently uses it throughout. I found Gawaine consistenly using Excalibur throughout the rest of the Vulgate.

Malory says nothing of this alternative tradition, but gives Gawaine a sword named Galatine. Might we consider Galatine the sword Arthur drew from the stone and then gave to his favorite nephew when he himself received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake? Also according to the Vulgate, Arthur seems to have had a second sword, named Sequence. This might be identified with the sword from the stone. The reason Arthur chose to keep the first sword and give Gawaine the one he had received from the Lady of the Lake might have been to provent another such incident as Morgan’s attempt to kill Arthur by means of a counterfeit Excalibur.

Some sources incorrectly state that Excalibur was the Sword in the Stone, but, even though this is not the accepted state of affairs, they do make partial amends by saying that it was placed in the stone by the Lady of the Lake. Merlin warned Arthur during the war with the rebel kings that the sword from the stone was not to be drawn until Arthur’s moment of greatest need. When Arthur drew it, at the time the battle was going against him, the sword

was so bright in his enemies' eyes, that it gave a light like thirty torches,

enabling him to win the battle. After this it seems to have settled down and been merely a tremendously good weapon, not a preternaturally luminous one. Regarding the approprateness, however, of Gawaine’s being given a sword that on at least one occasion shone as brightly as thirty torches – if the sword from mon theory that Gawaine descends from a solar deity.

In the Vulgate, where Gawaine continues to use Excalibur in the war against Lancelot, Arthur apparently takes it back after Gawaine’s death. Here, as in Malory, it is Excalibur that Arthur commands his last knight, Bedivere, to throw into the water after the final battle, where it was grasped by a hand and drawn under. In the Vulgate account, Arthur regrets that Lancelot cannot have the sword, for Lancelot alone is now worthy of it.

In 1191, King Richard the Lionheart supposedly presented ‘Caliburnus’ to his ally, Tancred of Sicily. We may assume that a sword was “discovered” some time during the reported discovery of Arthur’s body at Glastonbury.

See also
Arthur’s Grave | The Legend of King Arthur
The Scabbard of Excalibur | The Legend of King Arthur

Image: The Lady of the Lake | Artist: Unknown