Driving along the highway to the Texas Renaissance Festival, you’ll see multiple advertisements for swords, daggers, bows and other medieval weaponry that fell out of favor with everyone but vengeance-seeking former assassins once guns became reliable and available. The bladed weapons available for purchase at the festival have been intentionally dulled to prevent those drunk on mead from doing serious injury to themselves, which leaves the dedicated fantasist with a different kind of sword-shaped hole in their hearts.
What we want is a legendary blade, such as the one wielded by King Arthur as he led the Knights of the Round Table on fearless quests. Excalibur is the boss-level weapon in the history of famous swords and is integral to the Arthurian mythos. The king received the sword from the Lady of the Lake, a sorceress and student of Merlin. It is engraved on both sides and blasts a light that blinds all enemies.
Even the scabbard of Excalibur is powerful. The man who draws Excalibur from it will not die of blood loss. In some of the stories, wounds received by the bearer of the scabbard are completely bloodless. It was the loss of this scabbard, stolen by Arthur’s half-sister Morgan la Fey, that led to his death at the Battle of Camlann at the hands of her son, Mordred. Excalibur was returned to the Lady of the Lake by either Sir Griflet or Bedivere.
What you may not know, is that iconic as Excalibur is to the character of Arthur, it was not his only weapon.
Most famous besides Excalibur is the sword Clarent, better known as the Sword in the Stone. In some legends, the two are identical, possibly because of their similar names in the original Welsh, but the post-Vulgate cycle of Arthurians works that served as the basis for Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” treat them as distinctly different weapons.
Clarent belonged to Arthur’s father, Uther. After Uther was killed, various barons began to fight amongst themselves for the throne. Merlin enchanted the sword and thrust it into a rock. Only the rightful king could remove it, as Arthur did. Though a battle-tested and worthy weapon, Clarent was used more as a symbol of Arthur’s legitimacy than as an actual weopon, though some writers have portrayed Mordred using the blade to deal Arthur his death blow. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure, when a man was knighted, Clarent was the sword used for the ceremony rather than Excalibur.
Arthur also bore a dagger called Carwennan. Welsh legends say that the dagger was one of three weapons, including Excalibur, that were given to Arthur by God himself. Appropriate to its uses in more covert attacks from behind, Carwennan could shroud the wielder in shadow so that he could approach unseen. The edge was so sharp that Arthur was able to split the witch Orddu in half with a single stroke.
A spear and a shield are also mentioned, specifically in the same legends as Carwennan, especially in “Culhwch and Olwen,” one of the oldest folk tales, in which Arthur helps a young knight win the hand of a giant’s daughter. The spear, Rhongomyniad, also came from Uther and was supposedly forged in Carmarthen by a smith named Griffin. Though Arthur is so attached to the weapon that he mentions it specifically as a boon he will not grant Culhwch, it is not a particularly important part of the legends.
Neither is his shield, Wynebgwrthucher, though it does see a deal more action. Its shape is never described, but knights of Arthur’s time bore rounded shields, not the kite-shaped ones of later Crusaders. Its face was adorned with the image of either a cross or the Virgin Mary, depending on the source, but it’s possible that it was blank and writers have confused the Welsh words for “shoulder” and “shield” when describing Arthur as carrying such images into battle. Either way, should someone try to sell you replicas of the arms of the king at RenFest, you’ll now have a handy guide to what it is you’re buying.
Jef Rouner is a freelance writer.