Everyone loves swords. Even America, with our obsession with gunfighters and revolvers, loves the image of two people facing off against each other with sharpened pieces of metal. It’s iconic. Star Wars may have blasters and planet-destroying rays, but let’s be real; the really cool thing about its space wizards is their laser swords.
And everyone really loves magic swords. Hardly surprising that there are so many, given that stories often include magic rings, magic cloaks, magic shoes, even magic geese. But, perhaps, surprising that so many magic swords, and their names (gotta name your sword. Or gun. Or car) continue to endure in legend today.
Anyway. I recently went down a rabbit trail involving magic swords, taking a look at various legendary swords from various cultures. A lot of them link together in one way or another, and others just have interesting stories connected with them. I’m going to list them out here, in part because I’m thinking of incorporating some of them into my Nephilim story. But because there’s so many, I’m going to stick for this entry to Arthurian swords.
Let’s start with one of the most classic. “Excalibur,” meaning “Cut-Steel.” NOT the Sword in the Stone, actually, this sword was distributed by the Lady of the Lake, a prototypical fairy queen in the stories of King Arthur. Despite all the legends, Excalibur isn’t actually used for an awful lot, and its powers mostly seem to be that it’s really really good at cutting stuff.
(sidenote—Terry Pratchett’s Captain Carrot probably has the best literary sword, being a sword that’s not remotely magical, just old, slightly chipped, and amazingly good at cutting stuff.)
What’s more notable is Excalibur’s SHEATH. When Arthur gets the sword, Merlin asks him if he likes the sword or the sheath better, and Arthur naturally says the sword. Merlin chides him for this, saying that the sheath is much more valuable than the sword, as the sheath will keep him from ever being wounded. It’s an interesting bit of literary symbolism that is one of those things that sets La Morte Darthur from being just a straightforward collection of folk tales.
And then Morgane Le Fey steals it and turns into stone. Well done there.
What’s interesting is that this is very similar in some ways to Skofnung, the sword of Danish king Hrolf Kraki. The sword itself is mostly notable for being supernaturally hard and strong (and possessed by the spirits of 12 berzerkers), but Hrolf also has the Skofnung stone, which can heal any wound. In fact, if you’re cut by Skofnung, the stone is the only thing that can heal it.
The other sword that Excaliibur bears a marked resemblance to is Claimoh Solais, or “Sword of Light” from the Irish legend of Cu Chulainn. This sword is a god-killer weapon, but the resemblance is that it shines brightly when drawn. This corresponds with Excalibur, which Arthur uses at one point in battle to dazzle the entire opposing army. (and then… never uses again, for some reason.) There’s possibly some conflation going on here, as something similar happens with the Sword in the Stone—and quite a lot of other swords. There’s a lot of glowing swords, or swords that burn like flame if danger is near (no, Tolkien didn’t come up with that), or if a man of true virtue draws it. If you’re familiar with the Chronicles of Prydain, the sword Dyrmwyn is one of these, a sword from Welsh myth that blazes like fire if a man of true virtue draws it.
By the way, since we’re getting into modern literary versions, I want to just drop a word about the version of Excalibur in The Strange Adventures of Alfred Kropp. The author has a way of making Excalibur a legitimate modern-day threat—he makes Excalibur a sword that gives its bearer extraordinary ability, to the point that the person who holds it can defeat any weapon or army. This also means that when the clumsy protagonist Alfred picks it up, he becomes an inexplicable badass.
This is not a canonical attribute of Excalibur, but it does have a lot in common with the Russian sword Klaadenets. More on that later.
Curtana is interesting, because it actually shows up in two different legends—Tristram and Isolde, and Ogiers the Dane. It’s the name of the sword currently used in coronation ceremonies by the English crown.
Curtana is reputed to be the sword of Tristram, i.e. the most overhyped knight in Arthurian legend. He’s supposedly almost as great as Lancelot, but he’s really not—the guy is as dishonorable a knight as you can get. His main feature is that he’s madly in love with Queen Isolde (in an echo of Lancelot and Guenevere), and her husband King Mark is constantly trying to get him killed because of this. They get exposed twenty times over, but each time Tristram escapes because everybody loves him and are apparently cool with their king’s wife cheating on him. Tristram constantly is humiliating his own king, excusing his affair by saying how great a knight he is, and welshing out on quests that have been given to him. There’s one section where he swears he will take whatever quest is being offered by the ferryman in a boat, then on hearing what the quest is, suddenly remembers that he has to attend a tournament, and volunteers his much awesomer rival, the Saracen(i.e. Muslim) Palomydes, to take the quest.
Anyway. Curtana is thought to be the sword of Tristram (sort of) because it dates back to the time of King John, where we get a receipt saying he paid for “Tristram’s Sword.” Curtana, meaning “short” is most likely this sword, because of its blunt tip—in legend, Tristram broke off the tip of his sword while battling Moorholt, Isolde’s brother. It seems pretty likely John was hoodwinked—metallurgists have determined the sword is not nearly old enough. The blunt tip is also why the sword is called “The Sword of Mercy.”
Now here’s where things get interesting. The hero Ogiers the Dane is a folk hero from Old French lore who has a magic sword named Courtain, the Old French word for “short.” The prose version of Tristram flat-out states that Courtain is Tristram’s sword. How did he get it? Well, Ogiers the Dane (who served Charlemagne against the Muslims), was given it by a Saracen named Karaheut.
Now, the legend doesn’t make this connection, BUT. King Mark eventually did manage to kill Tristram, and Palomydes killed King Mark. So, supposing King Mark took Tristram’s sword, Palomydes could have taken the sword from him and sent it off to Karaheut (before he himself was killed by Sir Gawain.)
Oddly enough, for such a well-traveled sword, there’s not in the least bit anything magical mentioned.
This is an interesting one, since it’s a very storied sword which somehow doesn’t have a name—unless it does.
This sword is another of the Lady of the Lake’s gifts, notably… less helpful. She curses a woman to carry it around until a man pure enough to draw the sword can be found. This man will be then cursed to kill his brother.
Just… why? For the lulz?
Anyway, so this prisoner, Sir Balin, manages to draw it, and then immediately kills the Lady of the Lake. (Since she asked Arthur for Balin’s head.) Bet you wondered why she never shows up again, right? Balin goes on adventures and, among other things, delivers the “Dolorous Stroke” by striking King Pellam, aka the Grail King, with the Lance of Longinus, destroying his entire kingdom and setting off the scenario that will later lead to the Grail Quest.
Finally, he accidentally kills his brother (who also kills him) and Merlin seals the cursed sword in a block of stone. This whole time, the sword is never named.
It still is not named when it shows up again, at the start of the Grail Quest, when a block of stone floating in the water shows up at Camelot. None of the knights can pull it out, until a random young guy comes forward and pulls the sword free. Surprise! It’s Galahad, Lancelot’s love child. Galahad uses the sword all through the Grail quest until he gets Solomon’s sword (more on that later), at which point he leaves the sword to Lancelot. Lancelot reputedly uses this sword to mortally wound Gawain.
Gawan also supposedly has a sword that makes him invincible in the sunlight, but we’re going to skip that.
But still no name is given, despite the fact that this sword has officially done more things than Excalibur has. Most sources list it as “the sword with the red hilt” which is not exactly a name. Lancelot’s sword, according to the internet, is called Arondight, but I can find no source for this other than the Fate-Stay-Night anime series. (It also shows up in the Witcher). Nor is there any evidence that Arondight is the specific sword Lancelot uses to kill Gawain, or an earlier weapon that he used.
The closest analogy to this sword that I can find, given its “cursed to kill beloved friends” theme, is Tryfingi, from Norse myth, a sword cursed to kill a man each time it was drawn, and to be the cause of three great evils. But again, no evidence for supposing this.
THE SWORD OF SOLOMON
This is a bit cheap, maybe, but the reference is so bizarre. On the Grail Quest, Galahad and Percival find a magic boat out on the sea. On the magic boat is a magic sword, supposedly owned by King Solomon.
It’s just a huge left-field action, especially since there aren’t many legends of Solomon with a sword. I mean, the chopping of the baby in half, but that was an order, not an action he actually did. The only legendary sword connected with Solomon that I can find is called , or “The Emerald-Studded Sword,” which King Solomon used to fight demons.
This, however, is a Persian myth, and it is very unlikely the tellers of Arthurian tales would have incorporated it. Perhaps they simply assumed that as Arthur had a cool sword, Solomon must have had a REALLY cool one. Why they put it on a boat, I really can’t guess. Just one of those mysteries. Sometimes no matter how far into myth you go, there’s no clear reason why a legend went the direction it did.
So those are the Arthurian swords. I’ve skipped over Gallantine, which made Sir Gawain invincible in sunlight, and Clarent, the “Sword of Peace” that Mordred stabbed Arthur with, because they’re not important and don’t contribute much. In the next entry, I’ll look at weapons with no links (implied or otherwise) to Arthurian lore, like Klaadenets and Zulfiquar.