A speculation on the origin of the sword in the stone legend

The story of King Arthur and the sword in the stone has always mystified me.  It describes how there was a sword in a stone that only King Arthur could remove.  No one else could do.  Because he was the only one who could remove the sword it made him the “chosen King”.  The original account of this comes from “Le Morte D’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory, book 1, chapter 5:

After the death of Uther Pendragen the Archbishop, on the advice of Merlin, asked for the Lords of the realm and Gentlemen of Arms to come to London before Christmas to pray for a new King.  After praying for some time there was found in a churchyard, against the high altar, “a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that saiden thus: – WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD OF THIS STONE AND ANVIL, IS RIGHTWISE KING BORN OF ALL ENGLAND.”  Many tried to pull the sword out but could not. 

Then upon New Years Day they were having tournaments where Sir Kay and little Arthur had come and Sir Kay was made a knight.  As they were riding to the tourney Sir Kay realized he had forgotten his sword and asked Arthur to get it at his fathers house.  When he got there everyone was gone so Arthur went out to the churchyard and grabbed the sword from the stone.  He then rode on to the tournament.  Sir Kay recognized the sword and went to his father telling him he should be King of England.  His father made him swear where he got it and he finally said he got it from Arthur.  After inquiring of Arthur he said he had removed it from the stone.  They then went and put the sword back in the stone.  No one could pull it out once it was in.  Only Arthur could pull it out.  As a result of this, it was accepted that Arthur should be King of England. 

Where did the idea of a sword in the stone come from?  And where did the idea originate from where a certain person, a “chosen” person, was the only one who could remove the sword from the stone?  But, as I’d find out, this was not the only account of these ‘choosing by a stone’.  There are many others.

OTHER ACCOUNTS

All through northwest Europe there are various accounts of sticking an item into something only to have a specific person be able to pull it out.  Here are some of them:

The “Volsunga saga”

King Volsung had a great hall built.  In the middle of this hall was the trunk of a great tree.  This tree was called Barnstock.  One day, a one eyed man came into the hall with a mottled hooded cape, barefoot, and linen breeches tied around his legs, tall, and gray with age (its generally considered to be Odin).  He carried a sword and walked up to barnstock and plunged it into the trunk all the way to the hilt.  He then said, “He who draws this sword out of the trunk shall receive it from me as a gift, and he himself shall prove that he has never carried a better sword than this one”, and walked out of the room.  Everyone came and tried to pull the sword out but no one could.  Then Sigmund, the son of King Volsung, came and easily pulled it out.  

“The Saga of Hrolf Kraki”

Bjorn had three sons.  He told their mother, Bera, that she should bring them to a cave “because of their strange and uncontrollable natures”.  She will find three weapons imbedded in the rock.  Each son shall have a weapon intended for him.   When one of them tried to pull the weapon out that was not intended for him he could not do it.  A sword was meant for Bodvar, who became the champion of King Hrolf Kraki of Denmark.  An axe was meant for Thorir Hound’s foot, who became King of the Gaut’s.  A short sword was intended for Elk-Frodi, who became a man who attacked travelers, killing for money. 

“The Life of Edward the Confessor” by St. Aelred of Rievaulx, chapter 33

Archbishop Lanfrac accused St. Wulfstan of being too simple and inexperienced and should be deposed as Bishop.   As proof that Edward the Confessor had chosen him to be Bishop, and to remain Bishop, St. Wulfstan stuck the staff into the stone above his tomb.   He then asked Lanfrac to come and pull it out.  He could not.  Many others tried to pull it out but no one could.  Everyone was amazed.  St. Wulfstan then called on Edward the Confessor and said, ” . . . if your original opinion of me remains yet [that is, that he should remain Bishop], return the staff to me, or if it has changed, reveal to whom it should be passed.”  He then gently tugged on the staff and it came out easily.  They then agreed that St. Wulfstan should remain Bishop.   

ORIGIN – A SPECULATION

I’ve always wondered where this idea came from, of a stone choosing a King.  One of the speculations I have is that it is Danish in origin.  In chapter 1 of the ‘Danish History’, of Saxo Grammaticus, it states:

“The ancients, when they were to choose a King, were wont to stand on a stone placed in the ground, and to proclaim their votes, in order to foreshadow from the steadfastness of the stone that the deed would be lasting.”

As near as I can tell this is probably the first reference to a stone being used to choose a King.  In this case, though, the stone appears to only represent a ‘solid vote’, so to speak.  It did not, by magical means, choose the person.  Its possible that, perhaps later, this was ‘mythicized’ into the stone choosing the person, leading to the many ‘sword in the stone’ stories, but its difficult to say for sure.

The ‘Danish History’ shows, of course, that it was used, and probably first mentioned, in Denmark.  In addition, some of the accounts appear to show Danish associations:

  • Volsunga Saga – there is an account in the “Danish History” (book 2) which tells of King Frode who has a similar experience to Sigurd the Dragon slayer as described in the Volsunga Saga (could he be the origin of Sigurd the Dragon slayer?)
  • Hrolf Kraki – he was King of Denmark
  • Edward Confessor – was descended from the Danish royalty, both from the original settlers, and through later intermarriage.

As a result of this, I often wonder if this idea originates from Denmark.

I should also point out that Denmark’s islands were apparently viewed in a somewhat mystical way.  I’ve made mention of this in my article “Thoughts on the myth of Gefion, King Gylfi, Odin, the Danish/Swedish rivalry, and the Viking invasions” of how the islands may have been viewed in an ‘otherworldly’ way, and not considered a part of the ‘mainland’ giving these islands a religious quality.   If this were the case, the “stone” in the ground (referred to in the “Danish history”) may refer to this special significance, the “stone” being a reference to the religious significance of the ‘otherworldly’ islands of Denmark ‘choosing’ who is to be King. 

Its also interesting to point out that there appears to be an association with Odin and the Danish island (also mentioned in my article above).  Snorri Sturluson has, in several accounts, said that Odin once “lived” in Denmark.  There is also a town, still existing, in Denmark called Odense, supposedly meaning the “temple of Odin”.  In addition, there are accounts of great sacrifices that took place in Denmark every nine years, which are associated with Odin.

Not only that, it was the custom for Norse Kings to claim descent from him In other words, Odin is associated with Kings and Kingship.

These seem to describe an association:

King > “stone” > land > Denmark > Odin

If this were the case, it may show that there is a long-lost aspect of Kingship, particularly in Denmark, which may very well be the case.  The accounts that we have, then, may only be some remnants.

There may even be more to the “stone”-land-King association than what it may seem.  The King was viewed as being King of the land.  He was not perceived as King of the sea, which is one of the reasons why the Vikings proliferated on the high sea’s . . . there was no King’s law there.  Once a King left his land, or went on the sea, he was often viewed as no longer being King.  This shows that there is a definite association between the land and the King.  This suggests that the idea of the “stone” choosing the King, then, may actually refer to the land, or Kingdom, “choosing” its King . . . the “stone” being a representative of the land.

A SWORD AND A STONE???

Though the stone is most prevalent, and what’s become popularly known, this is not mentioned in all accounts.  The accounts describe a number of variations:

  • A stone.
  • A tree.
  • An anvil.  It’s interesting that the original Sword in the Stone account of King Arthur states that the sword is actually stuck in an anvil “naked by the point”.  That is to say, the sword goes all the way through the anvil with its point sticking out the other end.

I’m inclined to think that the “stone” is probably the original item.  The others were used to fit the situation.  The use of the stone may be for a number of reasons:

  • The idea of the ‘firmness’ of the stone, as described in the “Danish History”.
  • The associations with the islands of Denmark in ‘choosing’ the King, as I described above.
  • The idea of the “stone” being a representative of the land, as I described above.
  • The ‘mythical beings’ found in stones.  For the stone to ‘choose’ it may be assumed there is a ‘mythical being’ in the stone that chooses.  Even in the account of Edward the Confessor it was considered that it was he who would allow the staff to be removed.  There is also an account of Kings and ‘mythical beings’ in stones that are interesting.  In the ‘Ynglinga Saga’ it states how Svegdir, King of Uppsala, wanted to search for the gods.  He travelled far and wide to find the gods.  At one point he saw a dwarf who was standing next to a stone.  The dwarf asked him to go into the stone if he wanted to see Odin.  He then jumped into the stone where it immediately shut up after him.  It was believed that the giants (or, probably, trolls) had snatched him away when he jumped in the stone.  Again we see an association of stone-Odin-King, as I described above.  It also hints at the idea of ‘mythical beings’ in stones.  Because this theme is not mentioned all that much I am inclined to think that it plays little part in the sword in the stone stories.

In addition, its not always a sword that is in the “stone”.  The accounts describe some variations:

  • A sword.
  • A short sword.
  • An axe.
  • A Bishops staff.

The accounts seem to show that what is stuck in the stone is a representative of the persons particular quality or duties.  This appears in the fact that only they can remove this item from the stone.  Once its removed from the stone the power of the stone seems to be no more, except when the same item is put back into the stone where only the same person can pull it out again.

It appears that the type of item stuck in the stone seems to portray the persons function:

  • A weapon apparently represents a warrior.  In addition, the type of weapon sometimes shows what type of warrior he is (as shown in the “Saga of Hrolf Kraki”).
  • A Bishops staff represents religious authority.

Because of the more specific specifying of peoples of authority its possible that these stories may of been created to ‘justify’ the more specific types of authority that began to appear in the Viking era.  As a result, it did this by creating these many stories of people pulling things out of stones to justify their authority.  It gave their authority a mythical stance and justification . . . and makes for good storytelling.

———–

Copyright by Mike Michelsen

This entry was posted in Historical stuff, Mythology, Vikings - Odin, Thor, the Norse, and such and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to A speculation on the origin of the sword in the stone legend

  1. I basically agree but the original Arthurian tale of a sword somehow stuck in both a stone AND an anvil suggests that the Volsunga Saga is the older tale. You mentioned Odin thrusting the sword in Barnstock [Yagdrasil] and challenging the revelers to pull it out of the tree. The one who does not only acquires an exceptional, magical sword but is gifted by supernatural success giving rise to the Volsunga dynasty. After being fought in many successful battles by multiple generations of Volsungs, the sword is snapped by no other than Odin, himself [God giveth and taketh away] and the Volsungs go into temporary decline. Duplcitous Regin, brother of Fanfnir–a man patricide gradually changed to a dragon by pure greed and paranoia–supposedly ‘helps’ Sigurd by forging two separate sword, both of which Sigurd destroys by striking against Regin’s ANVIL. Regin then produces the perfect weapon by forging both pieces of the Odin-Produced sword. Sigurd then kills the enormous dragon Fafnir and takes his cursed hoard of treasure. He then decapitates Fafnir because birds warn him of Regin’s ambivalence.

    The common features are sacred tree/stone; the ease with which the sword slides out of the tree/stone by the chosen one; a broken sword; and anvil. The Lady of the Lake is peculiar to Arthur but she certainly evokes the power and mystery of Odin’s Valkyries. As a matter of fact, the Volsunga Saga is associated with other present ‘fairy tales’. I especially like the tale of the necessity of gain Brynhild, the Valkyrie and Shield Maiden, by penetrating a barrier of fire. Unfortunately, the modern tale completely forgets to mention the shape-shifting, duplicity and ultimate disaster.

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