Learning the truth about Jesus Christ had been the most fascinating, exciting, enlightening, and potentially life-changing event to happen in my life since I’d discovered what the difference between boys and girls was really all about. But what was all of that, compared with King Arthur, the greatest romance in the English language? Now I alone among living scholars knew for certain that not only was he a real person, but how he came to be king. And in the days to come, I was going to learn what really happened during his reign (as opposed to the stories, legends, and myths that have been added since his death)—from an eyewitness.
Bwa-ha-ha. Mine, all mine. If I hadn’t come to a resolution about abandoning the fruitless research into Louis XIV.V before, I certainly would have done so by the time King Caradog bled his life out on the stones of Stonehenge.
For most people, the best part of the Sword in the Stone tale would be the compelling evidence that Arthur had been a real person. Everybody has seen the Disney version, watched the boy Arthur change into a fish and swim in the moat, laughed his buffoonish foster-brother Kay. They could all tell you that Arthur was racing by the churchyard because Kay left his sword at the inn and needed one for a tournament, and that Arthur pulled the sword from the anvil without a clue about what it meant. The differences between that version and the true story should be fascinating to anyone. But far beyond that, the legend of Arthur is the most beloved romance in the English language. Both historians and those who just love the stories they heard during childhood would be intensely satisfied to know what everyone wanted to believe all along: there really was a King Arthur.
For a few of you hopeless romantics out there, those begrudgingly fettered to the earth by money and life insurance and your smart phone and all of the other practical realities of life in the twenty-first century, I’ll wager that your favorite part was the flagrant display of magic by Merlin. It was certainly one of mine. Merlin ‘spoke seven sonorous words in an unknown tongue’ and drove a sword into solid rock so deeply that strong knights couldn’t remove it. I couldn’t help but think, “Hey, if someone could perform real magic only a millennium and a half ago, maybe it can still be done today.” I mean, I have a magical cup from Atlantic and all that, but this would strongly imply that, theoretically, anyone can do it. And the chains binding us to reality become a little weaker.
I am both historian and romantic, but my favorite part was neither of these.
When I was growing up and still believed in heroes, I played ‘Sword in the Stone’ about twenty thousand times. There was a stump down by the creek that was just beginning to get soft in the center. With a well-placed stab, my sturdy stick would stand up in it perfectly and be magically transformed into Excalibur, locked into the stone because only I could remove it. Unfortunately, with my appetite for reading stories about King Arthur, I soon discovered that in the ‘official’ version (Malory et al), the sword in the stone wasn’t Excalibur at all, but just a plain old sword that broke soon after when Arthur was wielding it in a knightly battle against King Pellinore. Even as a boy, that didn’t make a lick of sense to me. It made me mad, and eventually ruined my make-believe so much I quit playing Sword in the Stone. My pretend sword is probably still there, sticking up in the stump, waiting patiently for the hand of the new king to draw it forth.
And now, after all these years, I was vindicated. The Sword in The Stone was Excalibur after all. When I heard that from The Grail, I actually shouted out loud.
Compared with being right all of those years, what’s mere magic?