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. In many Arthurian tales, it is also a powerful, magical weapon.
History of the Blade
In early Welsh works such as Culhwch and Olwen, King Arthur’s sword was known as ‘Caledfwlch’. This term, roughly translating as ‘hard cleave’, may be related to the Irish ‘Caladbolg’, a sword used by Fergus mac Roich and other heroes in Irish mythology. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136) latinised ‘Caledfwlch’ to ‘Caliburnus’ (or ‘Caliburn’), perhaps associating the name with a hard metal blade – ‘chalybs’ meaning steel. He, and later authors including Wace and Layamon, stated the sword had been forged in Avalon. Following this, French authors altered the name further, eventually arriving at the popular term ‘Escalibor’, which Malory altered into ‘Escalibur’. Variations along the way included ‘Calibourne’, ‘Calliborc’, ‘Escaliborc’ and several others. Thomas Malory explained that the name ‘Excalibur’ meant ‘Kutte Steele’ (cut steel).
The Sword in the Stone
In Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, Arthur is given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake. However, in one section of this work, Malory also applies the same name to the sword that Arthur draws from the stone. After “he drewe his swerd Excalibur” from the stone, it gave off the light of thirty torches and helped him scare off his enemies. When the sword breaks, Malory then has Arthur receiving another sword, also named Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake. While he may have intended to only label the second sword as Excalibur, he confused his tale by calling both blades by that name. In any event, the name Excalibur, as previously explained, is a later French variant of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Caliburnus - Arthur’s sword… and could possibly refer to both blades whether from stone or lake. The original ‘sword in the stone’ tale by Robert de Boron in ‘The Story of Merlin’ actually has the sword embedded in an anvil on top of the stone. (One wonders how a seemingly magical blade, powerful enough to penetrate stone, or an anvil, could break in the first place?) In the 1981 film Excalibur produced by John Boorman, this double-label problem is dealt with by having only one sword. When the ‘sword in the stone’ breaks, it is then repaired by the Lady of the Lake.
Sword and Scabbard
In some versions of the legend, the sword is sometimes worn by other Arthurian knights. In Chretien de Troyes’ 'Perceval', the blade ‘Escalibor’ hangs from the belt of Gawain. In Culhwch and Olwen, the warrior, Llenlleawg the Irishman, uses Arthur’s sword to slay the Irish king Diwrnach, at the same time stealing his magic cauldron. The scabbard of Excalibur was also deemed to have magical qualities protecting the wearer from serious injury or from any loss of blood if injured. When Arthur falls at Camlann, Excalibur is returned to the lake by Bedivere in Malory’s account, and by Girflet in the Vulgate ‘Mort le roi Artu’.