The Actual Story Behind The Sword In The Stone



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Was Excalibur the actual Sword in the Stone? Was Arthur Pendragon real? Who was Merlin? Legends and theories abound about the figures related to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The stories range from heroic to decidedly not. Real or mythological, the Arthurian lore holds our interest to this day.

More archeological evidence seems to come out every year that reignites the fervor for tales about mighty deeds done in the name of love and glory. Perhaps there's a small part of us that hopes to capture the chivalry of a romanticized past. One thing is certain - the search for the truth behind the legend continues.

Photo: Amaury Laporte / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • It's Supposedly The Sword Of King Arthur Pendragon, The Celtic Briton Who Fought Against Saxon Invaders In Post-Roman Britain
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    It's Supposedly The Sword Of King Arthur Pendragon, The Celtic Briton Who Fought Against Saxon Invaders In Post-Roman Britain

    If Arthur existed, he was probably a 5th-century warrior who led the Britons against Anglo-Saxon invaders. A decentralized continent, Britain experienced multiple attacks from external forces, so it makes sense that the natives would build a legend around a leader who could unite the people.

    A legendary warrior needs a legendary weapon. The Celts have several stories about magical weapons, like the spear of Bedwyr, which was said to draw blood from the wind. Excalibur, translated from the old Celtic name Caliburnus, may have held mostly ceremonial power instead of actual magical properties. Magical or not, wielding Excalibur helped Arthur beat back his many foes. 

    The king's story has become entwined with the legend of the Sword in the Stone. Powerful sorceresses supposedly forged the sword on the Isle of Avalon, the same island where Arthur's body was laid to rest after his last battle.

  • The Sword Is Sometimes Called Excalibur - And Only The Rightful King Of Britain Can Free It From Its Confines

    As is often the case with legends,  many variations exist to how Arthur obtains his sword. The most popular is that as a young boy, Arthur pulled the sword from a stone. Another version proposes that the Lady of the Lake (sometimes called Nimue or Vivien) gave Arthur the sword. After Arthur falls in battle, one of his knights returns the sword to the lake, where a hand catches it and disappears. The 12th-century poet Robert de Boron placed the sword in an anvil instead. 

    Another aspect that changes is the sword's name. In most cases, Excalibur is the sword Arthur pulls from stone or anvil, but it has a few other monikers. No matter the name, most texts describe the sword as being the brightest and best among weapons.

  • The First Non-Welsh Reference Was In A 12th-Century Chronicle, But 'Sword In The Stone' Is From A French Poem
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The First Non-Welsh Reference Was In A 12th-Century Chronicle, But 'Sword In The Stone' Is From A French Poem

    The first historical (as in non-contemporary) reference to King Arthur was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth during the 1100s. He lived and worked as both a cleric and historian in Oxford, with major texts including the Prophecies of Merlin and History of the Kings of Britain. The latter begins with Brutus - a descendent of another legendary character, Aeneas - claiming Britain, and ends with the reign of Arthur Pendragon. Details from Geoffrey's account, like Guinevere and Merlin, became standard for years to come.

    Arthur gets his sword from 13th-century French poet Robert de Boron in his poem Merlin. Most of the poem chronicles Merlin's life, but ends with Arthur's ascension after pulling a certain sword from a certain stone. de Boron says the men at court make Arthur repeat this action for months before finally agreeing to crown him king. The poem ends with Arthur's coronation.

  • Sir Thomas Malory's 'Le Morte D'Arthur' Immortalized The Legend During The Late 1400s
    Photo: James Archer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte D'Arthur somewhere between 1469 and 1470, but it wasn't published until 1486. Malory's work became widely read and regarded because it came about at the same time as the printing press. The rise in literacy, coupled with Malory writing his story in English instead of Latin, led to a second and third printing. 

    Malory might have written the tale while in prison. He chose the wrong side in the War of the Roses and found himself locked up for a time - twice. This gave him plenty of time to write his epic poem. He passed before his work was published, but his legacy remains, with his work becoming familiar to future writers, including William Shakespeare.

  • In Malory's Story, 'Excalibur' And 'The Sword In The Stone' Are Two Different Weapons
    Photo: Aubrey Beardsley / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    One change Sir Thomas Malory made to the legend, which caused some confusion, was to differentiate between the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur. The original sword is pulled from a stone, but then it breaks during battle. Arthur must earn the true Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake (AKA Nimue or Vivien). After Arthur's final battle with his nephew Mordred, Arthur has one of his knights return Excalibur to the lake. A hand catches the sword and disappears beneath the water.

    Malory also explained that Excalibur's scabbard was the real treasure, but that detail got lost to history.

  • Through The Middle Ages, The 'Sword In The Stone' Became Wrapped Up In Romantic Stories Involving Arthur And His Knights

    As time moved on and Arthurian legends made their way across continents, the tone of the stories changed. Arthur could no longer be just a warrior who united his people. He also had to fall in love in the romantic and courtly way. To do that, he needed… a court. 

    Different accounts report different numbers of Arthur's companions, from 13 to 1,600. The knights who star in their own adventures are usually Sirs Lancelot, Kay, Bedivere, Gawain, Galahad, and Mordred. 

    Lancelot famously saved Arthur's life through his purity and ruined Arthur's life by falling in love with Queen Guinevere. Kay is sometimes portrayed as Arthur's stepbrother, but has always been his oldest companion. Bedivere is usually right alongside Kay, and is also the knight Arthur gives Excalibur to, for return to the lake. Gawain battles a pesky knight in green armor and Galahad finds the Holy Grail. Mordred is sometimes written as Arthur's illegitimate son, but is always written as the one who defeats Arthur and tears down the idyllic Camelot.