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What is Excalibur?

By A.E. Jaquith
Updated May 23, 2024
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Excalibur is the sword that the legendary King Arthur wielded. The sword, and by proxy King Arthur, have appeared countless times in stories, poems, movies, video games, and nearly every other media. Since there is no historical fact concerning Excalibur, its properties, appearance, and how Arthur obtained it vary greatly from story to story.

In some versions of King Arthur's story, Excalibur was a the sword in the stone, which could only be drawn by the true king of England. Other stories claim that Excalibur was given to Arthur by the wizard Merlin. Most stories that explain the origin of Excalibur claim, however, that the sword was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake, a spirit that dwells in a magical lake.

Many different descriptions and depictions of Excalibur have been created. Modern day "reproductions" of Excalibur commonly portray the weapon as a broadsword, with a wide blade and circular pommel divided by a cross. Alfred Lord Tennyson described the sword as being jewel-encrusted. Other poets and story-tellers created their own descriptions of Excalibur.

The attributes of Excalibur vary as much as the origins of the sword. In some legends, Excalibur was merely a finely crafted weapon. In other variations, the sword was magical and was capable of cutting through steel and rock. In stories where the sword is a magic weapon, it is capable of blinding Arthur's enemies and protecting him from serious injury.

Some variations on the story of King Arthur claim that only Arthur, the true and divinely mandated king, is able to wield the weapon. This is synonymous with stories in which Excalibur was the sword in the stone. Other stories claim that they were two separate swords, and that Arthur received Excalibur shortly after he began his reign. In some versions of the Arthurian legend, other knights were able to wield the sword.

During Arthur's last battle he is grievously wounded. As he lay on his death bed, he instructs one of his knights of the round table to return the sword to the Lady of the Lake. As the sword is cast back into the lake, the hand of the Lady reaches out from the water, grasps the hilt, and returns it to the lake.

The origin of the word Excalibur is unknown. Some believe that it is of Greek or Latin origins. Regardless of the exact origin of the word, throughout history, the sword has been called by several different names, and even after Excalibur was the accepted name, spelling variations continued.

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Discussion Comments
By SZapper — On Jul 15, 2012

My personal favorite retelling of the story of King Arthur and Excalibur is the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone. As the title suggests, Arthur is the only one who is able to pull the sword out of the stone, and I believe in this movie he does so by accident. I think he gets caught in some sort of battle and he pulls the sword out of the stone without thinking about it so he can defend himself.

I think having King Arthur pull the sword out of the stone definitely lends more drama to the story than just having someone give it to him as a gift or something! Even if it a magical sword either way.

By sunnySkys — On Jul 14, 2012

@betterment - Interesting take on the myth. One of my favorite versions of the tale of King Arthur is The Mists of Avalon, written by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur tale that mainly focuses on the women in the story and also highlights the conflict between Christianity and Paganism in England during that time period. In this version, the Lady of the Lake is the leader of the Druids, and King Arthur's sister is a priestess who blesses the sword Excalibur for King Arthur and imbues it with magic.

By betterment — On Jul 14, 2012

I've always thought the different versions of the King Arthur story involving Excalibur were very interesting. Because I think that how King Arthur actually gets Excalibur is kind of an integral part of the story.

In the stories where Arthur pulls it from the stone, it's almost as if he was divinely chosen to be king of England. Because only the "true king" can pull the sword out of the stone.

However, in the stories where the Lady of the Lake gives him the sword, he's been chosen to be king by a more accessible entity, that could have chosen anyone else.

By JimmyT — On Jul 14, 2012

I find it so interesting that something as simple as a sword could become such a great literary device that can be used to heighten the status of the hero.

What I am wondering though is if the use of a sword, like Excalibur, is just something that is used in Anglo Saxon legends or if in other cultures across the world they also have similar tales that involve a hero with a mighty weapon?

I only say this because I do not remember much of stories from the east involving a hero with a weapon and the story was more focused on the person in general and their ability to lead and conquer, as opposed to what they were using while doing it.

By jcraig — On Jul 13, 2012
@jmc88 - I absolutely agree, but as far as the King Arthur legend goes I think that since Excalibur is such an integral part of the story that as long as the story has some comparison at all to King Arthur there will be something that compares to Excalibur.

However, in the history of folklore whenever there is a story that involves a hero in battle their weapon is usually a pretty important part of their legend, as it is something that defines them.

Take William Wallace for example in Scotland, as he used a sword that was five feet long and added to his legend that he was a huge man and a great warrior.

The William Wallace legend and the King Arthur story are both ones that involve a weapon that defines a great warrior and this is consistent with several other stories over time.

By jmc88 — On Jul 12, 2012

@TreeMan - I agree. I have read many books that have something similar to Excalibur and for the most part they all seem to leave the reader in question as to whether the device similar to Excalibur is super natural or not.

One thing I have noticed through reading various stories similar to the King Arthur legend is that there is almost always something that can be compared to Excalibur and they always seem to make it seem that the tool is simply a finely tuned weapon that is enhanced by the confidence of the user.

I always thought that this was very interesting as all the stories seem to go back and forth with whether or not the tool is either one of the said things, always with great emphasis on the exploits.

By TreeMan — On Jul 12, 2012

The legend of Excalibur has transcended the literary world and has become a tool that has been used in many other stories.

One that I can think of is recently I read a book involving a baseball player called "The Natural" in which the protagonist uses this one special bat to hit long home runs.

This part of the story could compare to the legend of King Arthur with his bat being seen as Excalibur. Whether it had supernatural powers or was just a finely tuned weapon was up for literary debate as one could factor in the weapons effectiveness with growing confidence from its user.

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