It is apparently a common mistake to confuse the Sword in The Stone and Excalibur. Many people would today tell you that they are one and the same, yet although Arthur has always had a sword in popular accounts, it was the French Romancers who first introduced the story of Excalibur and The Lady of the Lake.
According to the now common tale, the Sword in the Stone broke in battle and was replaced with a second when Merlin guided Arthur to a magical lake, whereupon a mysterious hand presented him with a magnificent sword. This was said to be the offering of the Lady of the Lake - a sword whose blade was unbreakable and a scabbard which afforded its wearer invincibility. Many accounts of Arthurian legend cast Morgan le Fay as the evil half-sister and it is said to have been she who stole Excalibur and the scabbard from Arthur. The sword was recovered but the scabbard was not and so it was that Arthur fell in battle at Camlann. Before he died, he instructed that Bedwyr return the sword to the magical lake, to the mysterious Lady.
This tale would appear to have sound basis in fact as it is known that it was a Celtic practice to deposit swords, shields and other weaponry in sacred rivers and lakes. The discovery of ancient relics such as the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet from the Thames are just two such examples of contemporary discoveries.
The earliest Arthurian stories give the name of King Arthur's sword as Caladfwlch - a Welsh word derived from Calad-Bolg, meaning "Hard Lightning". The name later developed to Caliburn in Geoffrey of Monmouth's account and finally to the current French Excalibur. It is also interesting to note that legendary figures throughout the world are generally associated with magical swords, which are often the source of their kingship. There are many similarities between the tales of Arthur and Excalibur and those of Norse, Irish and Welsh folklore.
It is common to many of the stories that the magical blades are fashioned by an Elfan Smith. In Saxon mythology his name was Wayland, but for the Celts he was Gofannon. There are further parallels to be drawn with Greek and Roman tales of weapons forged for the Gods to gift to their subjects, such as Persus and Achilles.
The origins of the legend of Excalibur are almost certainly French, as much of 'modern' Arthurian mythology comes from during the French Romantic period, from writers such as Chrétien and Mannesier. There is, however, compelling evidence that Excalibur was to some extent a true sword, if not actually the gift of some altruistic, latter day Jacques Cousteau.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001
The Sword Of Power