A recent Jeopardy quiz category was about King Arthur. Some of the clues began “According to some versions of the story…” But when it came to Arthur’s sword, the clue implied that Excalibur was the only answer for the question, “what was the name of the sword that Arthur pulled from the stone?”
Sorry, Jeopardy writers. That question should also have begun with “according to some versions of the legend…”
Various tellings of the Arthurian legend exist, including Hollywood versions that have spread the notion that Excalibur was the sword in the stone.
Compressing events is what movie makers must do in order to fit rambling stories drawn from literature into a film. Readers, however, have the option of reading source materials.
The best known printed source for the Arthurian stories in English is Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
Although the title is French, Le Morte Darthur was written in English by an English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, and published in London by the printer William Caxton in 1485.
In Maloryâ€™s version, the sword that the boy Arthur pulls from the stone is not Excalibur.
Arthur doesn’t obtain Excalibur until later, after a fierce hand-to-hand combat in which he is severely wounded and his sword breaks into two pieces. After Arthur’s wounds are tended, Merlin leads him to a lake, where they see an arm “clothed in white samite” holding a sword above the water.
Arthur learns that the sword belongs to the Lady of the Lake. She says she will give it to him in exchange for a gift when she asks for one. Arthur promises that she shall have whatever she asks. He and Merlin then row to the center of the lake and Arthur takes the sword and its scabbard from the mysterious arm.
Merlin tells Arthur that the scabbard is more valuable than the sword. Excalibur cannot be broken, but as long as Arthur wears the scabbard, he cannot bleed.
Malory’s description of Arthur’s acquisition of Excalibur does not mention its name, but later, when the Lady of the Lake comes to claim her gift, Arthur asks her to remind him of the sword’s name:
[Arthur] I have forgotten the name of my sword that you gave me.
“The name of it,” said the lady, “is ‘Excalibur,’ that is as much to say as ‘Cut-Steel.’
At the end of Arthur’s life, as he lies on a strip of land between the sea and a lake, dying of the wound inflicted by Mordred, the king commands his last companion, Sir Bedivere, to throw Excalibur into the lake. Reluctant to throw away such a marvelous sword, Bedivere hides it in the rushes and lies twice to Arthur, saying that he threw it into the water. The third time, Bedivere does as commanded and sees the arm clothed in white samite rise from the water, catch the sword, wave it three times, and sink once more beneath the surface.
Until relatively recently, English-speaking children were exposed to beautifully illustrated children’s versions of Malory’s stories for their leisure time reading and studied Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in the classroom.
Bedivere’s reluctance to throw away Excalibur in Idylls of the King by Tennyson.
If you would like to read the Excalibur-related passages in Malory’s original Middle English, here are the pages in the Oxford edition and some quotations that will help you find the places in the searchable online text.
The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, 1962 reprint, OUP:
page 8 (…so he handled the swerd by the handels, and lightly and fiersly pulled it out of the stone…)
page 41 (And as they rode, kynge Arthur seyde, ‘I have no swerde.’)
page 48 (‘The name of it,’ seyde the lady, ‘ys Excalibir…’)
page 869 (‘take thou here Excaliber, my good swerde, and go wyth hit to yondir watirs syde…’)