Excalibur 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.

Forms and etymologies

The name "Excalibur" came from Old French "Excalibor", which came from "Caliburn" used in Geoffrey of Monmouth (Latin "Caliburnus"). There are also variant spellings such as "Escalibor" and "Excaliber" (the latter used in Howard Pyle's books for younger readers). One theory holds that "Caliburn [us] " comes from "Caledfwlch", the original Welsh name for the sword, which is first mentioned in the Mabinogion. In "Culhwch and Olwen" and the Welsh Bruts, Arthur's sword is also called "Caledfwlch" (derived from "caled", "battle, hard" + "bwlch", "breach, gap, notch"). [R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64-5] It is often considered to be related to the phonetically similar "Caladbolg", a sword borne by several figures from Irish mythology, although a borrowing of "Caledfwlch" from Irish "Caladbolg" has been considered unlikely by Bromwich and Evans. They suggest instead that both names "may have similarly arisen at a very early date as generic names for a sword"; this sword then became exclusively the property of Arthur in the British tradition. [R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), p.65; see further T. Green, "Concepts of Arthur" (Stroud: Tempus, 2007), p.156]

Another theory states that "Caliburnus" is ultimately derived from Latin "chalybs", a loanword from the Greek word for steel: χάλυψ, which is in turn derived from "Chalybes", the name of an Anatolian ironworking tribe. [Lacy, "New Arthurian Encyclopedia", pp. 15, 147] According to "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, "Excalibur" was originally derived from the Latin phrase "Ex calce liberatus", "liberated from the stone". In Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", "Excalibur" is said to mean "cut-steel". Geoffrey of Monmouth calls Arthur's sword "Caliburnus", a name which most Celticists consider to be derivative of a lost Old Welsh text in which "bwlch" had not yet been lenited to "fwlch". [P. K. Ford, "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in "Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies" 30 (1983), pp.268-73 at p.271; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), p.64; James MacKillop, "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.64-65, 174.] In early French sources this then became "Escalibor", and finally the familiar "Excalibur".

In her book "The Ancient Secret", Lady Flavia Anderson postulates that "Excalibur" has a Greek origin, "Ex-Kylie-Pyr" or "out of a cup—fire". This corresponds to her thesis that the Holy Grail refers to those items used to draw down the Sun in order to make fire. Excalibur, she believed, was a " of light" and associated with Aaron's Rod. Just as only Aaron or Moses could make their rod "flower" (into flame), so only Arthur could pull Excalibur from the stone.

Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone

In Arthurian romance a number of explanations are given for Arthur's possession of Excalibur. In Robert de Boron's "Merlin", Arthur obtained the throne by pulling a sword from a stone. In this account, the act could not be performed except by "the true king," meaning the divinely appointed king or true heir of Uther Pendragon. This sword is thought by many to be the famous Excalibur and the identity is made explicit in the later so-called "Vulgate Merlin Continuation", part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle. ["Merlin: roman du XIIIe siècle" ed. M. Alexandre (Geneva: Droz, 1979)] However, in what is sometimes called the "Post-Vulgate Merlin", Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake sometime after he began to reign. She calls the sword "Excalibur, that is as to say as Cut-steel." In the Vulgate "Mort Artu", Arthur orders Girflet to throw the sword into the enchanted lake. After two failed attempts he finally complies with the wounded king's request and a hand emerges from the lake to catch it, a tale which becomes attached to Bedivere instead in Malory and the English tradition. ["Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation" trans. N. J. Lacy (New York: Garland, 1992-6), 5 vols]

Malory records both versions of the legend in his "Le Morte d'Arthur", and confusingly calls both swords Excalibur. The film "Excalibur" attempts to rectify this by having only one sword, which Arthur draws from the stone and later breaks; the Lady of the Lake then repairs it.



In Welsh legend, Arthur's sword is known as "Caledfwlch". In "Culhwch and Olwen", it is one of Arthur's most valuable possessions and is used by Arthur's warrior Llenlleawg the Irishman to kill the Irish king Diwrnach while stealing his magical cauldron. Caledfwlch is thought to derive from the legendary Irish weapon "Caladbolg", the lightning sword of Fergus mac Roich. Caladbolg was also known for its incredible power and was carried by some of Ireland's greatest heroes.

Though not named as Caledfwlch, Arthur's sword is described vividly in "The Dream of Rhonabwy" one of the tales associated with the "Mabinogion":

Caliburn to Excalibur

Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain" is the first non-Welsh source to speak of the sword. Geoffrey says the sword was forged in Avalon and Latinizes the name "Caledfwlch" to "Caliburn" or "Caliburnus". When his influential pseudo-history made it to Continental Europe, writers altered the name further until it became "Excalibur". The legend was expanded upon in the Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, and in the Post-Vulgate Cycle which emerged in its wake. Both included the work known as the "Prose Merlin", but the Post-Vulgate authors left out the "Merlin" Continuation from the earlier cycle, choosing to add an original account of Arthur's early days including a new origin for Excalibur.

Other information

The story of the Sword in the Stone has an analogue in some versions of the story of Sigurd (the Norse proto-Siegfried), whose father, Sigmund, draws the sword Gram out of a tree where it is embedded by the Norse God Odin.

In several early French works such as Chrétien de Troyes' "Perceval, the Story of the Grail" and the Vulgate "Lancelot Proper" section, Excalibur is used by Gawain, Arthur's nephew and one of his best knights. This is in contrast to later versions, where Excalibur belongs solely to the king. In the "Alliterative Morte Arthure", Arthur is said to have two legendary swords, the second one being Clarent, stolen by the evil Mordred. Arthur receives his fatal blow from Clarent.


In many versions, Excalibur's blade was engraved with words on opposite sides. On one side were the words "take me up", and on the other side "cast me away" (or similar words). This prefigures its return into the water. In addition, when Excalibur was first drawn, Arthur's enemies were blinded by its blade, which was as bright as thirty torches. Excalibur's scabbard was said to have powers of its own. Injuries from losses of blood, for example, would not kill the bearer. In some tellings, wounds received by one wearing the scabbard did not bleed at all. The scabbard is stolen by Morgan le Fay and thrown into a lake, never to be found again.

Nineteenth century poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described the sword in full Romantic detail in his poem "Morte d'Arthur", later rewritten as "The Passing of Arthur", one of the "Idylls of the King":

quote|:There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,:And o’er him, drawing it, the winter moon,:Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth:And sparkled keen with frost against the hilt::For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,:Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work:Of subtlest jewellery.

Arthur's weapons

Excalibur is by no means the only weapon associated with Arthur, nor the only sword. Welsh tradition also knew of a dagger named Carnwennan and a spear named Rhongomyniad that belonged to him. Carnwennan ("Little White-Hilt") first appears in "Culhwch and Olwen", where it was used by Arthur to slice the Very Black Witch in half. [T. Jones and G. Jones, "The Mabinogion" (London: Dent, 1949), p.136; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64, 66] Rhongomyniad ("spear" + "striker, slayer") is also first mentioned in "Culhwch", although only in passing; it appears as simply "Ron" ("spear") in Geoffrey's "Historia". [P. K. Ford, "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in "Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies" 30 (1983), pp.268-73 at p.71; R. Bromwich and D. Simon Evans, "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992), pp.64] In the "Alliterative Morte Arthure", a Middle English poem, there is mention of Clarent, a sword of peace meant for knighting and ceremonies as opposed to battle, which is stolen and then used to kill Arthur. [ [http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/alstint.htm "Alliterative Morte Arthure"] , TEAMS, retrieved 26-02-2007]

ee also

*Singing Sword
*List of fictional swords
*Kusanagi, a Japanese sword of similar importance.



*Alexandre, M. "Merlin: roman du XIIIe siècle" (Geneva: Droz, 1979)
*Bromwich, R. and Simon Evans, D. "Culhwch and Olwen. An Edition and Study of the Oldest Arthurian Tale" (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992)
*Ford, P.K. "On the Significance of some Arthurian Names in Welsh" in "Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies" 30 (1983), pp.268-73
* Gantz, Jeffrey (translator) (1987). "The Mabinogion". New York: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
*Green, T. "Concepts of Arthur" (Stroud: Tempus, 2007) ISBN 978-0-7524-4461-1 [http://www.arthuriana.co.uk/concepts]
*Jones, T. and Jones, G. "The Mabinogion" (London: Dent, 1949)
*Lacy, N. J. "Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation" (New York: Garland, 1992-6), 5 vols
*Lacy, N. J (ed). "The New Arthurian Encyclopedia." (London: Garland. 1996). ISBN 0815323034.
*MacKillop, J. "Dictionary of Celtic Mythology" (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)

External links

* [http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/excalibur.html Timeless Myths website: Legend of "Excalibur"]
* [http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/swrdmenu.htm The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester: Excalibur and The Sword In The Stone]
* [http://www.geocities.com/dagonet_uk/weapdata.htm#sword%20here Background on King Arthur's weapons] .

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