Archive for April, 2016

postheadericon Who Put the Sword in the Stone?

Medieval Woman Holding Sword

Merlin put the sword in the stone, in order to ensure the proper King ruled Britain. After Arthur’s father, Uther, died, the nobles of Britain began disputing the right of succession. To ease their fears, Merlin erected a great sword stuck inside an anvil set atop a stone. By his magic, only the rightful ruler of Britain could wrest it from the stone. Meanwhile, baby Arthur was taken into safekeeping and raised by a loyal ally of the King’s.

When Arthur was fifteen, his stepfather, Sir Ector, and elder stepbrother, Kay, travelled to London to attend a tournament to determine the next king of England. When Arthur forgot Kay’s sword, he ran back to the inn where they were staying to retrieve it. But the inn was locked up and no one was around to let him in. Seeing the forgotten sword stuck inside the stone in a nearby churchyard, he pulled it out and brought it to Kay. When Kay was asked where he got the sword, at first, he tried to take credit for pulling it from the stone. But his father made him tell where he really got it from, and the nobles brought him and Arthur to put the sword back into the stone to see which one of them could pull it out. First, Kay tried to wrest it from the stone, but he could not. Then, Arthur tried, and the sword came loose.

This episode comes from Sir Thomas Malory, largely considered to be the most authoritative source on the Arthurian Legend. But it can be traced further back to the twelfth-century poet Robert de Boron. Whether de Boron invented the tale, or was drawing from older sources himself, is unknown. But he is the earliest writer in the surviving record to mention it. Some writers have suggested that de Boron may have meant to indicate that Arthur had wrested his sword from an invading Saxon: the Latin word for stone is only one letter off from the word “Saxon.” Others suggest he may have been drawing on older Nordic traditions in which a king was chosen by noblemen surrounding a stone centerpiece.

But these writers may forget that de Boron was writing in a time during which the Christian Church was gaining increasing strength in Britain, and older Celtic folktales, traditionally stronger in Britain than in other parts of Europe, were becoming increasingly Christianized. It is telling that the poem in which he depicts the Sword in the Stone episode, Merlin, is the same one in which Merlin’s father is rewritten as a demon trying to bring about the Antichrist, as opposed to the incubus demon of older sources – a traditionally Celtic creature, described by Geoffrey of Monmouth as having “partly the nature of men and partly that of angels.” And in de Boron, Arthur pulls the sword as a sign of dedication to justice and to the Christian faith, an element of the story left out by later writers.

The truth may well be that Robert de Boron put the sword in the stone in order to reaffirm his Christian faith.

Learn More


You are currently browsing the Guild Bulletin Board blog archives for April, 2016.