Today’s Clash of the Legends , part 6 is met with a monumental clash of metal, as the legendary sword , Excalibur, meets it’s BBC counterpart! Are you ready?

Brought to you by OBS Staff Member Karolina

The Legend of Excalibur


Image: The Lady of the Lake offering Arthur Excalibur, by Alfred Kappes (1880)

The Welsh name for Excalibur was Caladvwlch, equating linguistically with Irish Caladbolg, the name of a sword borne by heroes in Irish legend, derived from calad (hard) and bolg (lightning). There seems to be much confusion on where this sword of myth came from. It is in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Histories – however – there it is named Caliburn, and it is not given the significant role that it plays in the more popular legends of King Arthur. Excalibur begins to appear as the sword that we know and love in the partially lost work of Robert De Boron’s poem Merlin (c.1200). This is where the sword in the stone idea seems to have first begun – where it was first claimed that the sword would not be moved from the stone if not pulled out by the legitimate heir to Uther’s throne. It was later added that it was in fact the Lady of the Lake that hands the sword over to Arthur after the sword he pulled from the stone (which, in these versions is NOT Excalibur!) breaks in battle. Merlin takes Arthur to a lonely lake. They row to the middle of the lake, and a sword begins to emerge from the lake – and an enchantress with it. It is THIS sword that is Excalibur.

Malory is the one who has both the sword that Arthur pulls from the stone and the sword that is given to him by the Lady of the Lake identified as Excalibur, confusing the legend. In Malory’s version, as he is dying, Arthur commands Bedivere to cast Excalibur into the lake, where it is retrieved by the hand of the Lady of the Lake. A barge appears, carrying ladies in black hoods (one being Morgan le Fay), who take Arthur to his grave.

In TH White’s version, Kay leaves his sword at home, and sends his ‘squire” (the furious young Wart) off to fetch it, with a shilling as his payment. The young Wart grumbles his way back to the cottage, and cannot find the sword Kay was to use, and starts to contemplate how to get a sword for his ‘brother’. As he makes his way back to Kay and Ector – Wart stumbles upon a sword, in a stone – that has and anvil on it (How curious!). He is enticed by Merlin (who is sitting in a tree) and various woodland animals to pull the sword out, and his attempts are met with a fanfare of music from the church as well. After three attempts, Wart finally is successful- and delivers the sword to Kay. He tells Kay where he got it from, and Kay, knowing the significance, lies to Ector, telling him that he was the one who pulled the sword from the stone. Of course, Ector knows his son, and bows to Arthur, and Kay joins him.

There are versions to this story where Arthur is a child when he pulls the sword from the stone (which, once again is sometimes Excalibur, sometimes not) – then there are stories that tell of him being a young man when he receives the legendary sword. Sometimes it’s a challenge that is set up by Merlin. Sometimes it’s explained that the sword in the stone and the sword Arthur receives from the Lady of the Lake are Excalibur – but the Lady of the Lake fixed it for Arthur after it broke in battle. There is also a version that states that Arthur received Excalibur as a gift from the lands of Avalon. The sword is also attributed to sometimes to have been used by Arthur’s nephew, Gawain – or whoever Arthur’s best knight was. The variations, when you really get into it, seem endless.

As to the actual imagery of Excalibur , much like what I discussed in Camelot , is a powerful one; although it differs from legend to legend. Some accounts say that it has two dragons on it, Their eyes either shoot fire – or have the power to calm. It is also sometimes inscribed – with the words “take me up” and, on the other side “caste me away” ; or alternatively “one edge to defend” and on the other “ one edge to defeat”. Excalibur has a golden hilt, studded with jewels. It’s blade is said to shine so brightly (the brightness of thirty torches, or so say the legends) that it blinds Arthur’s opponents when it’s pulled from it’s scabbard (which also has it’s own healing powers).

Excalibur, although not Arthur’s only weapon, is definitely his most well known. And, whichever version you go with, it definitely has a permanent place in the legend.

Image of the cover of the Chalice Wells in Glastonbury, England. The depiction on the lid is supposed to be Excalibur (taken by Karolina Avalon, 2011)

BBC’s Excalibur

image from BBC Merlin‘s opening credits

Arthur’s legendary sword , although has not been named specifically on the show as yet, has already had a huge impact of the goings on within the show. It makes an appearance in the credits – and, season one has an episode named “Excalibur” (but , as I said, it’s never been explicitly named in the show).

The creation of this particular version is thus; Arthur is challenged by Tristan – is … well, undead Uncle (on his mother’s side) on the day of his coming of age. He has just been named Uther’s heir and crown prince – when the black knight challenges Arthur. The challenge is actually taken up by a knight, Sir Owain – who is defeated by the black knight, and then another on of Arthur’s knight, Sir Pellinore – who is also killed. Arthur, refusing to see any more of his men die, challenges Tristan himself. Both Uther and Merlin try to get Arthur to back out of the challenge, but he refuses – so, Merlin reads up on what could destroy this already dead knight – and finds that a sword blessed by a dragon could do the trick. Merlin runs to Gwen and asks for his father’s greatest sword – and Gwen hands it over (after telling the oblivious Merlin that she would give him anything he asked). Merlin then goes to the Great Dragon. The Dragon agrees to bless the sword, but insists it is only to be used by Arthur: in the wrong hands, it could be used for terrible evil. Merlin agrees, but, alas, it was not meant to be.

Uther requests that Gaius drugs Arthur – rendering him unable to fight Tristan, and maintains that he will fight in his stead. So, when Merlin delivers the sword to Arthur’s chambers, it is Uther who is there to receive it. Merlin tries to dissuade Uther using the sword, but to no avail. He fights Tristan with the sword, and defeats him.

The Great Dragon, however, confronts Merlin and is enraged to learn Uther used the sword instead of Arthur, saying that in Uther’s hands, the sword will only bring evil. As he cannot destroy the sword, the Dragon orders Merlin to hide the sword where no one can find it or uses its power. Merlin sneaks the Sword out of Camelot and casts it into a lake, where it lands on the lake floor (See the OBS review of “Excalibur” ).

Excalibur reappears at the end of season three , in “the coming of Arthur part 2”, where Freya, Merlin’s lost love, appears to him and tells him she has something. He goes to the lake where he had given Freya a Viking’s funeral (and also the same lake where he threw Excalibur into). And, lo and behold, the sword begins to raise out of the water. Merlin retrieves it. It’s Merlin who wields the sword through out this episode – defeating Morgause and Morgana’s minions with it, and finally using it to tip the cup of life over and seemingly foiling the evil sisters’ plans for domination. The final shot of season 3 is one of my favourites (and is what inspired me to have a picture of the legendary Excalibur as a background picture on my iPhone) . It’s Merlin with Excalibur, in the forest. He lifts the sword over his head, and slams it down, using his magic to bind it to a large boulder, and he walks off. I LOVE this image, as it potentially sets the scene for a challenge to Arthur for season 4 – where he will need to prove himself as the Once and Future King, and the true Ruler of Albion, once and for all. And, it’s been orchestrated by Merlin. (See the OBS review of The Coming of Arthur here)

Picture on the left: Freya in BBC Merlin delivering Excalibur to Merlin

Picture on the right: The final shot of BBC Merlin season 3

So – what do you think? Which version of the legendary sword is your favourite?

Next time- Uther versus Uther!!



Previous Clashes:

Merlin v Merlin:
Arthur v Arthur:
Camelot v Camelot:
Guinevere v Guinevere:
Morgan Le Fay v Morgana :