Blade and Mana: Excalibur

Our new feature series takes a look at magic swords and their place in our stories and culture.

For as long as there have been warriors in our stories, there have been magical weapons for them to wield, and the sword is the most typical of these. Swords themselves are important symbols even without magic.

They are one of the few weapons in the world which were not developed for any other reason: axes, daggers, spears, bows, guns, these all have other purposes and applications, but the sword – it can only kill men. It is useless for hunting or cutting down trees or slicing meat for a feast. 

In addition, the sword was once a very difficult craft, requiring the master swordsmiths to dedicate their entire lives to making even moderate quality blades. These things make the sword a foremost choice for the heroes of stories. Adding magic to a blade makes the greatest heroes nobler, and the most terrible foes viler. This feature series will cover some of the most important magic swords in literature and mythology.

Today we’re looking at Excalibur.

Excalibur may be the most well-known magic sword in the western world, but as with any aspect of Arthurian legend, it’s difficult to nail down details due to the plethora of versions of the legend. The story of Arthur was readapted and translated so many times that any claims of where the story started exactly are just guesses.

The sword wasn’t in the first stories. Of course, Arthur had a sword, and many times it carried a name, as was Celtic tradition, but it was when the story was translated into Old English that it seems the sword took on magic powers. The earliest versions of Arthur’s sword were usually called Caledfwlch, which was later Latinized to “Caliburnus,” then later stylized in several different forms including Excalibur, which seems to be the version which stuck.

Though some versions of the legend place Excalibur into the stone, from which only the heir of Uther Pendragon could draw it, that was actually a different sword, which was itself not magical. Arthur did not receive Excalibur until after he had become established as king.

Sometimes, it is crafted by Merlin, and sometimes it is brought in by Lancelot, but usually it is retrieved from the Lady of the Lake. Usually it is given specifically to Arthur, and sometimes, he is told that only he may use it.

The magical properties come from early texts which describe the sword being of such high and rare quality that it could cut iron as easily as wood. This eventually transformed into the magical ability to shear effortlessly through any metal, allowing Arthur on the field of battle to cut swaths through the enemy lines.

In the few stories that cover Arthur’s end (usually at the hands of his incestuous, bastard son Mordred) – including one of the most often used as a source on Arthur’s life, Le Morte D’Arthur – upon his death, Arthur enigmatically tells one of his knights to take Excalibur and throw it into the lake, so that no one else may ever wield it.

Twice, the knight returns to Arthur’s side to make sure that he really wants the sword to be thrown away before he finally listens and tosses the sword, reluctantly, into the depths.

In some of the stories, the scabbard also has magic powers, which ensure that anyone carrying it will never die of blood loss by magically cauterizing all wounds instantly. In these stories, the scabbard is stolen by Morgan le Fey before the final battle, which enables Mordred to kill the king with a blow that would have not been fatal if he’d still had the magic scabbard. Mordred overcomes the power of Excalibur itself by attacking Arthur with a sword which once belonged to Uther (sometimes also the sword drawn from the stone) which Arthur does not wish to destroy.

Come back soon for the next article in the series which will feature The Vorpal Sword. If there is a magic sword which you would like to see featured in this series, let us know in the comment section.