The Sword in the Stone

King Arthur is supposed to have lived in or around AD 500. However, the legend of the sword in the stone does not originate with him. It was attached to the Arthurian tradition perhaps in the 12th century -- this site credits Robert de Boron, and Wikipedia seems to agree -- some decades after Geoffrey of Monmouth's famous history revived Arthur as a figure explaining why a set of kings from the continent could reasonably claim to be the legitimate royalty over the British Isles. Arthur had ruled both in Brittany and in Britain, by tradition, and the Norman kings would go on to claim the right to rule over the whole territory comprising his legendary kingdom.

The sword in the stone is usually supposed to be related to the Volsung saga in Norse. In that saga, Odin drives a magic sword into a tree as a gift for the man who can remove it. Only Sigmund is able to free it. This sword later breaks, and its shards are re-forged by his son (with assistance from a magic dwarf). The resulting sword, Gram, is the sword Sigurd uses to kill the dragon. This sword is the clear predecessor for Tolkien's Narsil/Anduril, the sword that was broken. The story of Gram is not completely unlike the Arthurian story, with a divinely-given sword, the freeing of which results in a test, and which later breaks and must be replaced. In Malory, the sword in the stone breaks in a fight with king Pellinore, from which Arthur is only rescued by Merlin's intervention. Merlin then takes Arthur and introduces him to the Lady of the Lake, who grants him Excalibur. However, in earlier versions of the story, Excalibur and the sword in the stone are the same sword.

I remind you of all of this to pass on another possible origin for the sword in the stone story, via D29. The timing is just about right. It will have happened some decades before Robert de Boron's poetry.
The legendary sword in the stone still stands in Italy. While connected to Arthurian legend and British history, this Sword in the Stone is associated with a Catholic saint. Visitors can see it in the Montesiepi chapel, near Saint Galgano Abbey in Chiusdino, in Tuscany.

The legend surrounds the story of brave knight Galgano Guidotti, who was born in 1148 near Chiusdino. After spending his youth as a brave knight, Galgano decided to follow the words of Jesus in 1180 and retired as a hermit near his hometown.

Galgano is said to have stuck his sword onto a rock in order to use it as a cross for his prayers. One year later Galgano died, and in 1185 Pope Lucius the 3rd declared him a saint.

After Galgano's death, according to legend, countless people have tried to steal the sword. In the chapel you can see what are said to be the mummified hands of a thief that tried to remove the sword and was then suddenly slaughtered by wild wolves.

The sword was believed to be a fake for years. However, recent studies examined the sword and the hands, and the dating results as well as metal and style of the sword all are consistent with the late 1100s, early 1200s. This lends credence that the story on which the English sword and the stone is based on originated with Guidotti in Italy.
A video of the sword and the stone, around which was later built an abbey, can be seen here.


Lars Walker said...

That's definitely the right sword style for the period.

raven said...

I hope he did not die because his weapon was locked up...

Interesting how even in the present day, the sword has an implied power and association with honor and nobility. And it is a cross-cultural penumbra,as well. Individual personal weapons may have had that status, but not as a class.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting. I just picked up Geoffrey Ashe's The Quest For Arthur's Britain again after 40 years. He notes that in Modena Cathedral in Italy there are carvings which show Arthur rescuing his queen from an abductor (12th C), and a mosaic at Otranto shows him riding a goat, with Bleheris singing his deeds in the background.

Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series for children, the last in the series winning a Newbery, has similar elements in its sword story, drawn from Welsh mythology. There was a lot of Arthurian material in heroic fantasy when it came on the scene in the 1960's: TH White, Mary Stewart, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner.

Arthur apparently fell out of favor in the 16th C because he was so strongly associated with the divine right of kings, including a few specific kings who were on the out-list.

Texan99 said...

16th not 17th?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, though late. The Puritans were the leaders in that. Plus, you will notice that Shakespeare did not write about him.

Texan99 said...

I jumped to the conclusion that it was the Stuarts who were on the out-list. Was the reaction against Henry VIII, or even the Plantagenets? This book sounds like one I should pick up, rather than make you extract it in detail here!