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Arthurian Tropes: The Sword in the Stone
A new series.
With the mild success of my recent twitter thread on the Sword in the Stone I thought it would be worth it to extend it a little here, and even start a new series. With the depth of Arthurian Canon it can be hard to figure out what traditions are part of the original Pre-Galfridian folkloric tradition and what were the clever inventions of later writers. So we have to ask ourselves for many of these tropes, “is there an analogue to this in the earlier Welsh tradition” This is where it is helpful for my work on the historical King Arthur. If we can trace certain tropes from even later writers such as Malory, maybe we can find the roots of those in the Welsh tradition, and in turn maybe even find a historical analogue from the Brythonic Heroic Age.
While the concept of The Sword in the Stone is commonly brought up as part of Arthurian canon, the motif didn't show up in relation to Arthur until the 13th century, when Robert de Boron composed his epic poem Merlin. 'Merlin' is a heavy reworking of Wace's 'Roman de Brut', which itself is a reworking of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'De gestis Britonum', neither of which mention The Sword in the Stone. While Excalibur appears in the Pre-Galfridian tradition, and is likely based on an older folkloric tradition, the idea of a sword pulled from a stone doesn’t seem to appear prior to Robert de Boron’s Merlin at all.
Many theories have come forward as to where the origin of this trope may come from, with many often trying to tie it into ancient bronze casting techniques, 'drawing' a sword from a 'stone' mould. This is a much earlier concept, and if this was the origin one would expect it to appear in the earlier Arthurian tradition, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So while this is compelling, and I wouldn’t throw it out completely, it doesn’t seem to be the origin of Arthur’s Sword in the Stone.
Roland, the famous Paladin of Charlemagne is sometimes associated with the idea of a Sword in the Stone. The 12th Century monks of Rocamadour claimed that Roland had thrown his Unbreakable sword Durendal into the cliffs there, and the supposed relic still is there to this day. Inspection of it shows that it is unlikely this is a period sword however, and widespread circulation of this story seems to have happened after Robert de Boron’s ‘Merlin’ was written. The monks may have even been inspired to fabricate such a story from the next figure I will discuss. Galgano Guidotti a Saint from Tuscany.
There are two versions of Galgano's story, in the first version, he has a vision, and a voice tells him to renounce his material possessions and his villainous ways, Galgano replied that it would be as hard as splitting rock, he then tried to drive his sword into the ground. The ground yielded as if it wasn't there, and Galgano took up the life of a hermit on the very hill the vision happened. He never left the hill until his death.
In the second version, it was said he wanted to make a cross upon the hill, but having no wood, he decided to plant his sword in the ground. Doing so, the ground and the sword became one, and no one could remove it.
Galgano’s story was a popular making it's way across Europe in Robert's time, and you can still see the sword today in Montesiepi Chapel. While it's authenticity has been doubted for years, recent analysis has proven that it is a proper period sword, and extends underneath, where a large cavity underneath, measuring two meters by one meter that may be the burial of St Galgano himself. I find it very likely that this is in fact where Robert de Boron drew the inspiration for his Sword in the Stone, and cemented it as a memorable part of Arthurian Canon.
Galgano's sword, in turn becomes Arthur's Sword in the Stone via Robert de Boron, and in turn influences Malory, who cements it's place as Arthurian canon.
If you enjoyed this article, and would like more like this, like the article and subscribe, as well as follow me on twitter. If this is well received I will discuss other tropes, like Myrddin and the Dragons, the Grail, and others. Let me know if you have any that you’d like addressed in the comments as well!