Some of my favourite stories are the ones about King Arthur.
There are many versions of the Arthur legend. One collection was written by the man whose name I have borrowed, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the Twelfth Century.
These stories contain a fascinating mixture of fact and fiction. Some are hard to place into either category. Perhaps the hardest to believe, or even make sense of, is the story of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Well, two stories, really. In one, he draws the sword from a stone to prove he is the rightful king. In another, he is given the sword by the Lady of the Lake, to whom it is finally returned.
What? Can this be serious?
For a long time, I was mystified. Then I learnt a few things about pre-Roman Britain. Yes, I know Arthur is supposed to be a king of post-Roman Britain. I will come to that later, but bear with me.
The times before the Romans came are known as the Bronze Age, followed by the Iron Age. This indicates the importance of those metals in the societies which came after the Stone Age. Swords were made of bronze and later of iron. Possessing one made a difference.
How do you make a sword?
Start with a piece of iron, or bronze? If you can. First you had to get your metal. How? Find some ore and smelt it. What is ore? A kind of rock. So you start with a stone and turn it into a sword! Not many people could do it. In those days, as any other, knowledge was power. Unlike today, however, people kept it to themselves and passed it on only to their closest friends or relatives. They did not write books or give seminars. You had to be in an inner circle.
So if you could make a sword, you were someone important, powerful.
In 2002 archaeologists discovered the remains of The Amesbury Archer, near Stonehenge. He lived at the start of the Bronze Age. He was obviously a man of great wealth and power. Probably a king. But he was also apparently a man with knowledge of bronze-making. Perhaps the man who introduced the craft to Britain? Was Arthur a bronze-smith or iron-smith?
So they didn’t jump out of lakes, then?
No, and yes! It is amazing how many bronze swords have been found in lakes and in rivers. Now, I refuse to believe that bronze-age people were so careless as to lose their swords whenever they crossed a river or fished in a lake. Swords were valuable. So important that they were given names. Like Excalibur. Lakes and rivers were also important. Vitally. You need water to live. But people drown. Water can be a barrier or a highway. You need to keep on the right side of the gods or spirits of the water. Bronze-age historians generally believe that these swords were placed in water intentionally as offerings to gods or spirits.
So who was the Lady of the Lake?
She could have been the goddess or spirit or angel of the lake. Or else some sort of priestess who served the deity. She could have given Arthur the sword of an ancestor or hero who had given it to the god. That would have been a sign of divine favour. Useful when you apply for the position of king.
Isn’t Arthur in the wrong century?
Apparently. Could there have been stories about a great hero or two from a previous age, possibly also called Arthur. (The name means ‘bear’). Could the legends have become confused? Or did some storyteller draw on the older tales in order to emphasize Arthur’s divine calling and/or to link him with his ancestors?
Of course, all I have said is speculation. But it is based on some scientific facts. Perhaps I will write another version of the Arthur legend, where I will try to make the Excalibur story more credible. Someone should.