Representation of Excalibur in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur
In Sir Thomas Malory’s medieval Arthurian Romance Le Morte D’Arthur, the swords that are most important to the story seem to be the swords wielded by King Arthur, the sword that he pulls out of the stone referred to as Excalibur and the sword given to him by a mystical lady in a lake also named Excalibur, as well as the one that is wielded by Sir Galahad that he pulls out of a stone which is never given a name. There is a predetermined fate for Arthur and Galahad’s swords; the swords, based mainly on their lineage, choose the person who is worthy enough to wield them. Both Arthur’s and Galahad’s lineages determine their worth as well as other factors that make them destined to be chosen by the sword, factors that involve being prophesized about, and being deemed an important individual, in Arthur’s case the king, and in Galahad’s case the greatest knight. Both Arthur and Galahad seem to be set up to follow the same pattern in order to be worthy of their swords, they are both born into the correct lineage, in Arthur’s case he is Uther Pendragon’s, the former king’s son, and in Galahad’s case he is Lancelot’s son and a direct descendant of Jesus Christ, and destined to be the best knight. Their swords also seem to contain similar characteristics such as the supernatural as well as being predestined for a certain individual, the two swords that are pulled from the stone also bear significance because they represent the beginning and the end of Arthur’s reign in Camelot, while the first sword makes him king, the second marks the beginning of the quest for the Holy Grail and the end of Arthur’s reign as king of England.
The first important sword that is seen in the text is the sword that Arthur pulls out of the stone, the story leads up to this event by depicting the honor that comes with the sword as no one is able to pull it out of the stone, not even the strongest of knights, countless knights try to pull the sword from the stone but fail: “So when all masses were done all the lords went to behold the stone and the sword. And when they saw the scripture some assayed, such as would have been king. But none might stir the sword nor move it” (Malory, I. V). The second important sword in the text is the one that Arthur receives from the Lady of the Lake. This sword is important because this is the one that becomes the sword that is with King Arthur till his death, the importance of both swords lie in their supernatural origins, the first sword is stuck in stone with an inscription that claims that only the true king of England, who is Arthur, can take it out of the stone, and the second sword is brought out of a lake by “The Lady of the Lake” who is a mystical woman, and given to Arthur as a gift. This second sword also comes in a scabbard, this scabbard in significant because it is what not only keeps the sword from harm but its supernatural qualities keep Arthur from harm as well. The third sword that carries importance is the sword that Galahad pulls from the stone. This sword allows for Galahad to become one of the Knights of the Round Table and proves him to be the greatest knight in the world.
Starting with the first sword, which is referred to as Excalibur, this sword is pulled out of the stone by a young Arthur who does not know of his relation to Uther Pendragon, the former king, he believes that he is retrieving the sword for Sir Kay who had left his sword at his father’s house. Like the other two swords, the sword in the stone that Arthur pulls out has supernatural properties that prevent anyone but the right person to take it out of the stone, this information is known through an inscription that is written in the stone: “And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England” (Malory I. V). Although he is unaware of it at the time, he is the son of King Uther Pendragon and the rightful heir to the throne. Because of his relation to the previous King, Arthur is the chosen wielder of this sword and is easily able to pull it out of the stone to claim his kingdom: “Now shall ye assay, said Sir Ector to Arthur. I will well, said Arthur, and pulled it out easily. And therewithal Sir Ector knelt down to the earth, and Sir Kay. Alas, said Arthur, my own dear father and brother, why kneel ye to me? Nay, nay, my lord Arthur, it is not so; I was never your father nor of your blood, but I wot well ye are of an higher blood than I weened ye were. And then Sir Ector told him all, how he was betaken him for to nourish him, and by whose commandment, and by Merlin’s deliverance” (Malory I. VI). Arthur is told by who he thinks is his father at the time that Arthur was given to him by Merlin and is able to see that he is actually the son of Uther Pendragon because he is able to take the sword out of the stone easily when no one else is able to do so. The sword also symbolizes the coming together of Britain under a just king: “It tells us that the new king’s power will be drawn from God and sanctioned by Holy Church. The sword symbolizes Justice. It will do so again at the coronation, as it does in all real-life ordines, for to the medieval mind the maintenance of Justice was the primary function of kingship” (Morris, 42). It not only proves that he is a worthy knight, it is also representative of the beginning of a new kingdom under the most honorable man, and because of its supernatural qualities it becomes a divine object only to be handled by the most worthy candidate and gives Arthur’s reign as king validity directly from God.
The sword that Arthur receives from the Lady of the Lake is the second important sword that is mentioned in the text, this sword is called Excalibur and becomes the sword that Arthur uses for the remainder of his life when he returns it to the lake from which it was retrieved. This sword also possesses a supernatural origin as the Lady in the Lake gives it to Arthur after his first sword is broken during a battle with King Pellinore, the Lady of the Lake is a mysterious woman who seems to have magical abilities and lives under or near the lake from which Arthur retrieves Excalibur. “Well! said the damosel, go ye into yonder barge, and row yourself to the sword, and take it and the scabbard with you” (II. XXV). She gifts Arthur Excalibur as well as the scabbard in which it rests, not only is the sword’s origin supernatural, the scabbard that holds it also possesses magical properties which will keep the sword and its wielder safe from any harm. “Whether liketh you better, said Merlin, the sword or the scabbard? Me liketh better the sword, said Arthur. Ye are more unwise, said Merlin, for the scabbard is worth ten of the swords, for whiles ye have the scabbard upon you, ye shall never lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded; therefore keep well the scabbard always with you” (II. XXV). Here the wizard Merlin explains to Arthur the significance of the scabbard that he holds is sword in, he tells Arthur that the scabbard’s magical qualities will protect him from ever being injured as long as he has the scabbard with him.
The sword that Sir Galahad pulls out of the stone is similar to the sword that Arthur pull out of the stone that makes him king of England: “Here Malory uses the sword-in-the-stone episode to not only remind the reader of Arthur’s destiny, but also to create links among Arthur and Galahad” (Archibald, 102). Just like the sword that Arthur pulled out of the stone said that only the true king of England could pull it out, this sword was also only to be wielded by the greatest knight, prophesized by Merlin to be Galahad: “there shall never man handle this sword but the best knight of the world, and that shall be Sir Launcelot or else Galahad his son“ (Malory, II. XIX). Although Sir Galahad does not become king, the sword that he pulls out of the stone also symbolizes his worthiness and honor as the greatest knight. It gives him a seat as a knight of the round table and because this sword also possesses supernatural qualities, it changes the writing on the seat he is to take to contain an inscription with his name on it to further display Galahad’s worth as the greatest knight in the world. Merlin also leaves the scabbard of the sword for Galahad to find and upon finding the scabbard he would be able to pull out the sword from the marble that it is embedded in by Merlin: “Also the scabbard of Balin’s sword Merlin left it on this side the island, that Galahad should find it” (Malory, II. XIX). Merlin leaves the scabbard for Galahad to find to ensure that he is the rightful bearer of the sword when the time comes for him to pull it out, it seems to be a way to provide credibility to Galahad before he attempts to take the sword out of the stone, it also adds to the predestined nature of Galahad’s task to be the greatest knight. In the same way that Arthur’s direct connection to the previous king Uther Pendragon allows him access to the sword in the stone, Galahad’s lineage also plays a direct role in him being dubbed as the greatest knight and being able to access his own sword in the stone: “Yea, for sooth, said the queen, for he is of all parties come of the best knights of the world and of the highest lineage, for Sir Lancelot is come but of the eighth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ, and Sir Galahad is of the ninth degree from our Lord Jesu Christ. Therefore I dare say they be the greatest gentlemen of the world” (Malory, XIII. VII). As told by Queen Gwenevere, Lancelot is a direct descendant of Jesus Christ, and as Galahad is his son, he is also a direct descendant of Jesus Christ. He is not only described to be a direct descendant of Jesus Christ but also upon his arrival at the river in which the sword was found he is also said to be related to Joseph of Arimaethaea: “Then the old man said unto Arthur, Sir I bring here a young knight, the which is of king’s lineage and of the kindred of Joseph of Arimathaes, whereby the marvels of this court and of strange realms shall be fully accomplished” (Malory XIII. III). this factor of Galahad’s lineage applies to him being able to pull out the sword from the stone the same way that Arthur’s direct relation to Uther Pendragon allowed him to take Excalibur out of the stone.
The swords are significant to Arthur and Galahad for similar reasons. The sword in the stone that Arthur pulled out displayed his worth to the whole kingdom and showed all the people in England that he was their one true king. Similarly, the sword that Galahad pulled out of the stone displayed his worth to the Knights of the Round Table and gave him a spot on the round table not just as a knight but as the greatest knight. Both of these events are prophesized and thus give them a divine quality as though they were set up by God and so they cannot be wrong. The swords are not the only significant part of the knights’ armors, the same kinds of supernatural and divine qualities are placed in other parts of the armor, such as the shield that Galahad retrieves. In a similar manner to the way that the swords were retrieved, Galahad also acquires this shield using the same previous formulas as used when retrieving the swords, the retrieval of this shield also comes with a prophecy, requirement of the right lineage, and it provides magical protection. The shield dictates that only the greatest knight in the world can wear it without coming into misfortune, much like the swords, which also prophesized similar prophecies, in Arthur’s case the sword dictated that the rightful king of England would retrieve it from the stone and in Galahad’s case the sword dictated that the greatest knight would pull it out of the stone. In the same way that Galahad was predetermined by Merlin to be the one to pull the sword in the stone, Galahad is also predetermined to retrieving this shield as well. The prophecy is revealed to Galahad by the squire in the Abbey in which the shield resides, he tells Galahad the story of a king named Evelake who’s shield was bestowed with the blood of Joseph of Arimathaea as a reminder of his love for the king. Similar to the way that the sword in the stone that Galahad pulled out that bore the warning that should an unworthy knight try to remove it from the stone and fail they would be hurt by the sword , this shield came with a warning as well that if the wrong person wore it, they would come to regret it“And never shall man bear this shield about his neck but he shall repent it, unto the time that Galahad, the good knight, bear it, and the last of my lineage shall have it about his neck, that shall do many marvelous deeds (XIII. XI). As this quote explains, Joseph of Arimathaea left the shield specifically for Galahad and as he calls Galahad the last of his lineage, it suggests that Galahad is directly related to Joseph of Arimathaea which allows him to be able to wear this shield.
The appearances of Arthur’s sword in the stone as well as Galahad’s sword in the stone also bear significance in that they represent the beginning and the end of Arthur’s reign as king. With the pulling out of the first sword from the stone Arthur becomes king and begins a new era of his reign over England, it also proves to other knights that he is seemingly worthy to be king by divine proclamation since the sword choosing him is supernatural in nature. When the second sword shows up, Arthur is not the one who is able to pull it out of the stone, this time it is a new knight who is able to pull it out and that is Galahad. By pulling out the sword Galahad fulfills his prophecy by proving to the Knights of the Round Table as well as Arthur that he is the greatest knight in the world, and it is no longer Arthur who is the receiver of this supernatural and seemingly divine proclamation of his worth. This marks the end of Arthur’s reign as king because the arrival of Galahad brings the quest of the Holy Grail to the knights of the Round Table, and it is this final quest that puts the knights to the ultimate test and leads to the end of the fellowship of the Round Table as well as Arthur’s death: “While Arthur’s kingship provided unity and the beginning of fellowship, Galahad’s arrival brought dispersal through the quest” (Archibald, 118). When Galahad’s arrival brings forth the appearance of the holy grail during one of Arthur’s feast, the knights cannot help but want to go after it, and Arthur seems to be aware that this is the final quest for most of his knights, he seems to sense the end coming towards his kingdom and expresses sorrow at the knights’ wishes to seek the holy grail: “And therewith the tears fell in his eyes. And then he said, ‘Gawain, Gawain, ye have set me in great sorrow, for I have great doubt that my true fellowship shall never meet here more again” (Malory, XIII. VIII). Arthur’s dismay seems to mirror the pattern of prophecy that precedes both occurrences of the sword in the stone.
The swords in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, specifically Arthur’s swords and Galahad’s sword, are significant in that they are the key to the beginning and the ending of Arthur’s rule. They are all fueled by prophecy and are predestined to choose their wielders based on their lineage. The first sword that Arthur pulls out of the stone is significant because it makes Arthur king, it’s supernatural properties make it so that no one but the correct person is able to take it out of the stone and be graced by the power that comes along with it’s possession. This sword also marks the beginning of Arthur’s rule as king od England, it allows him to bring together this knights of the Round Table and build his kingdom. The second sword of Arthur’s is the one that he receives from the Lady of the Lake, this sword is also supernatural not only because it is from this mysterious Lady, but also in that it’s scabbard keeps it’s wielder from injury, this is the sword that stays with Arthur for the remainder of his life. The third sword is the sword that Galahad pulls out of the stone, this sword is a mirror to the first in that it gives Galahad the same kind of power that the first sword gives to Arthur, it proves that he is the greatest knight in the world. It is also a mirror to the first sword in that it represents the beginning of a new era, and marks the end of Arthur’s reign as king. This sword’s arrival is the beginning of the quest for the Holy Grail and the separation of the Knights of the Round Table. Malory seems to follow a pattern with the arrival of each of these swords, he gives all of them an element of the supernatural, they are all linked to lineage of their wielders, they have prophecies attached to them that predetermine who will be able to possess them, and they give their wielders the highest titles.
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