Arthur's sword, symbol of divine kingship, is as much a
character in the legend as any human or supernatural being.
Excalibur is a symbol of the responsibility of power. In
Tennyson's Idylls of the King, one side of Arthur's sword is
engraved " in the oldest tongue of all this world,/ 'Take me, but
turn the blade and ye shall see,/And written in the speech ye
speak yourself,/'Cast me away!'" Tennyson describes Arthur's
face as sad as he receives the sword, though Merlin counsels,
"'Take thou and strike! the time to cast away/Is yet far-off.'"
From the very words etched on the sword, we immediately see
the cyclical nature of kingship. "Take me" becomes a
call-to-arms for Arthur. By grasping the sword, Arthur accepts
responsibility that leadership entails, his sadness an
acknowledgement that his power will inevitably wane.
According to legend, Arthur also possessed a lance, Ron, and
a shield, Pridwen, on the back of which was painted a portrait
of the Virgin Mary. The origins of the sword date back to
Celtic mythology, but are found in British, Welsh, and Irish
epics. The Welsh name for the sword was Caledvwlch. Irish
stories call it Caladbolg, the fairy sword of the hero Cuchulain.
In various British Arthur stories, Excalibur is often referred to
as "Caliburn." Loomis comments the "ex-" or "es-" prefix that
was later added was a "peculiar tendency" of the time period
There are two explanations of the way in which Arthur
acquires Excalibur. Contemporary story-tellers are fond of "the
sword in the stone" narrative in which young Arthur pulls the
magical sword from a rock and anvil bearing this inscription:
"Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is
likewise King of all England." This is, for example, the main
dramatic action in Disney's Sword in the Stone. Arthur's ability
to pull the sword from the stone proves his worthiness as
King. A second version describes Arthur and Merlin riding to
a lake. Here they "see an arm clothed in white samite, rising
from the water and holding a sword. Presently a damsel rides
rapidly toward them, and at Merlin's bidding dismounts and
walks with dry feet over the water. She takes the sword, the
arm vanishes,and the damsel brings the coveted weapon back
to Arthur. " Here we see the commingling of Christian and
pagan motifs, the Christ-like walking on water with the fairy
quality of Excalibur and the mythic making of a King.
This version of the story is spoofed in Monty Python and the
Holy Grail (1975) when the peasant Dennis, working on a
Marxist commune, meets King Arthur. His companion, a warty
old woman, asks Arthur how he came to be king, and Arthur,
looking skyward, says he received kingship through the
supernatural sanction of "the Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in
shining samite" who lifted Excalibur "aloft from the bosom of
the lake" to bestow it upon him, this description setting up
Dennis's rejoinder: "Strange women lying in ponds
distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.
You can't expect to wield supreme power just because some
watery tart threw a sword at you!"