I am looking, as I type this, at the front cover of my much-beloved, much-bruised ex-library copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, one of the many modern retellings-for-children of the core Arthurian stories. (Like most postmedieval Arthuriana it follows Malory in respect of the main story arc, though with the addition of chapters on “Gawain and the Green Knight” and “Gawain and Lady Ragnell” which are taken from standalone Middle English poems.)
I was very fond of this book when I was a kid, as I was of Lancelyn Green’s retelling of Robin Hood, and of Antonia Fraser’s version of King Arthur, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s, and pretty much everything else Sutcliff wrote as well. Between them, those authors bear quite a lot of responsibility for where I am now, halfway through a Masters degree in medieval literatures and with one eye on a doctorate.
I picked it up, for the first time in months if not years, because I was idly sketching out tattoo ideas and wanted a picture reference for Excalibur. (Google’s first six or seven pages are 90% about the film and 10% completely unrelated, from the look of it.) And I did turn out to be correct in my vague recollection that the front cover of Lancelyn Green’s book does indeed show Excalibur. To be precise, it shows a vignette of a lake in the purple twilight, a fuzz at its edges hinting at trees, and in the foreground a hand in a diaphanous white sleeve holding up a scabbarded sword, gripping it about halfway down. The scabbard is bright in blue and red and gold, and seems to shine a bit.
It’s a striking picture, and I especially like that it gives some prominence to the scabbard, which in the Malorian tradition is an even more powerful artifact than the sword – while you’re wearing the swordbelt/sheath combo, you’re invulnerable. The blade itself is damn nice, but it doesn’t do anything of that magnitude. (This is why Morgan la Fay makes sure to steal the scabbard, and leaves the actual sword.)
And then, while I was going “hmm, that’s kind of cool” I was struck by the realisation that this is literally the only illustration of Excalibur I have ever seen – and I’ve encountered quite a few – in which the Hand from the Lake is holding the sword a) sheathed and b) by its centre. The default picture, by contrast, is of the Hand flourishing the sword as if to use it – bare, and held by the hilt.
Which led me in turn to the thought that the standard illustration doesn’t make terrifically much sense if it’s supposed to depict Arthur’s receiving the sword – which I get the impression it usually does, because that’s the famous magical moment that confirms him in his kingship and all that jazz. But you don’t hold out the unsheathed blade of a sword to someone if you’re expecting them to actually pick it up. Tis silly. The illustration on the Lancelyn Green book (by one Andrew Skilleter, the back cover informs me) seems much more sensible.
A quick look at Malory confirms the hunch. Quotes and page numbers from Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd (Norton, 2008):
Reception of Excalibur, p.37:
“Well,” seyde the damesell, “go ye into yondir barge, and rowe youreselffe to the swerde, and take hit and the scawberde with you.” […] and whan they com to the swerde that the honde hylde, than Kyng ARTHURE toke hit up by the hondils and bare hit with hym, and the arme and the honde wente undir the watir.
Return of Excalibur, p.687:
And so [Sir Bedivere] wente unto the watirs syde; and there he bounde the gyrdyll aboute the hyltis, and threw the swerde as farre into the watir as he myght. And there cam an arme and an honde above the watir, and toke hit and cleyght hit, and shoke hit thryse and braundysshed, and than vanysshed with the swerde into the watir.
In the first passage, the scabbard is said to be with the sword (and therefore presumably on it) and Arthur takes the sword by the handle, which would be difficult or impossible if the Hand was already holding it.
In the second, we’re told only that the Hand grabs the sword (“toke hit and cleyght it” – cleight is to clutch as caught is to catch) and waves it around a bit (“shoke hit thryce and braundysshed”) with respect to where it’s being held by; and it too is definitely sheathed, as we learn from the detail that Bedivere knots the swordbelt (“gyrdyll”) around the hilt to keep it out of the way, which wouldn’t be necessary or indeed possible if the blade were bare.
What the illustrators do have on their side is the hard-to-argue-with point that an unsheathed blade is a way cooler and more striking image than a scabbarded one. There’s also the consideration that, the subplot about the scabbard having fallen mostly by the wayside, when people hear the word Excalibur they think of the blade itself; it is, after all, quite probably the most famous magic sword in a language that’s lousy with them, especially with the (re)invention of sword-and-sorcery in the twentieth century.* If you wanted to show Excalibur in action, though, surely it’d be easy enough to illustrate Arthur holding it?
I don’t know what this does to my vague thoughts about tattoos. I like the idea of Excalibur. I love its name. (A market research team tasked with naming the most badass magic sword of all time couldn’t top Excalibur for sheer cool. Hilariously, the name’s a medieval mistake, an error for the earlier Caliburn.) I am intrigued by the possible pre-Christian resonance of chucking a sword into a lake. And I love the symbolism of Excalibur: I love that, unlike a lot of other magic swords which are treated like normal material heirlooms and whose otherworldly fire is thereby somewhat dulled, Excalibur cannot stay – it has to be given back. (Some versions have its ephemeral nature inscribed on the very blade – “keep me” on the one side, “cast me away” on the other.) The moment of the return of Excalibur is one of very few genuinely supernatural moments in the Malorian Arthur-mythos, all the more uncanny for being thin on the ground, and reading it – in almost any version – still gives me chills.
*I could put together a small module’s worth of texts about magic swords, and I’m now kind of tempted to do exactly that. You’d start with the medieval originals: Caliburn/Caledfwlch/Caladchalog, Clarent, Tyrfing, Gram, Laevateinn; stop off at the Swords suit in the Tarot deck, then you’d jump to Tolkien’s Glamdring, Sting, Gurthang, and Andúril; and finish with a whistle-stop tour of other modern magical smitey-things. Pretty sure Conan owns one. A Song of Ice and Fire alone has dozens. You’d have to get Carroll’s vorpal blade and its D&D descendants in there somewhere, too.