Merlin, Excalibur, and steel making

Hi, first time here. I read someplace, long ago, that Merlin the Magician learned how to extract steel from stone and the story of pulling the sword from the stone was born. I can not find the original reference, although it makes sense to me that the King would keep his kingdom if he had at his disposal the knowledge of steel making for superior weapons. I recently read that steel was being made in Turkmanistan in the 12th and 13th Centuries in a place called Merv. Is this all a coincidence, or did Crusaders get this info from there and it all came down to us as an enchanting tale? Does anybody know anything about this? And, could you give me any leads on references? Thanks

Try From Scythia to Camelot by C. Scott Littleton & Linda A. Malcor.

I haven’t read it myself, but my wife has and she assures me it contains the information you’re looking for.

The story of the Sword in the Stone seems to have originated in France, sometime around 1200. This is roughly around the same time as the tale of Saint Galgano Guidotti:

According to the first response here, several other works of the 13th century in Scandinavia also featured swords being pushed into things (rock or trees) to be pulled out by heroes.

Overall, it seems likely that something did prompt this sort of story at that time in Europe, and yes that does seem to be roughly the same time period as when the first bloomeries were being introduced into Europe.

Whether that is correlation or causation, I can’t say. It’s possible that Guidotti started it, and that’s all there is to it.

Unfortunately, I can’t find anything saying how the sword got in the stone, let alone confirming that Merlin is the one who placed it there. Of course, I’m sure that at some point Merlin has been the one who placed the sword, but I actually rather doubt that this was an original feature.

Can’t we work the Lady of the Lake into this somehow?

The canonical version is that the sword in the stone wasn’t Excalibur, but a completely different sword that played no part in later myth. The Lady of the Lake later gave Excalibur, including the magic scabbard to Arthur.

Of course, this seems to me like an attempt to reconcile two incompatible origins for Excalibur.

If I recall, the sword in the stone is the one that made him king. Then he was given Excalibur, which I think was supposed to be unbreakable, and as long as you wore its scabbard you would suffer no injury.

I think.

Or something.

I know I heard that some place.

The idea that Arthur pulling a sword from a stone was a metaphor for iron/steel being extracted to make better swords was also mentioned in the novel Prince Ombra, if you’ve read it that might be where you came across the idea.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.

First off you can’t extract steel from stones. You can extract iron from some ores, but never steel. Steel requires an organic input.
Secondly, if you want some sort of rational explanation for the myth, there is a much simpler one. Bronze age swords were commonly made using stone moulds. The two halves of a stone was carved into the shape of a sword, the halves bound together and molten bronze poured in. The stone was then unbound and split open to reveal the sword within the stone.

IOW this was literally pulling swords form stones. No need for semantic twists. It seems like a far more plausible explanation, if one is really required.

I know what you’re saying but I’ll throw in some detail. Usually the smelting process automatically introduces a source of carbon through the charcoal used for the smelt. There is no design of ancient bloomery that can’t produce a steel bloom, and even a soft “wrought iron” bloom contains enough carbon to qualify as ultramild steel by modern designations. In fact, preparing truly carbon-free iron from ore isn’t that easy, although you might be able to do it with hydrogen reduction or by elctrolysis of molten salts.

I don’t really buy the Arthurian “sword in the stone” being a metaphor for the “secret” of steel smelting because the legend is far too late: steel smelting was well established all across Europe by 300 BC and in many areas, before that. Polybius described the reportedly soft wrought iron swords of the Celts in the battle of Telamon, 224 BC, and the magnificent Sutton Hoo sword, well worthy of Arthur, was early 7th century.

The concept of someone fated to be a great leader doing some stunt to prove their lineage did not come from the legend of King Arthur or Saint Galgano Guidotti. It’s much older and much more common that that.

Take Theseus, a hero from Greek mythology most people have probably heard of even if they don’t know much about the stories told about him. His father, King Augeus, put his sword and sandals under a large rock. Theseus proved he was the rightful king of Athens by lifting the rocks and finding these items, and then set off to claim the throne that was rightfully his.

Getting metal ore from rocks to make weapons from had nothing to do with this story. It was a test of physical might, like killing snakes with your bare hands as child.

When modern people interpret old myths and legends to fit their own intellectual and emotional desires it says a lot about their own priorities and wishes but nothing about those of the people who actually created the original stories.

You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.

Perhaps she represents whomever invented quenching steel to increase its hardness?

Sigh…I’m happy now. :cool: Thanks for pulling these laughs out of the deep recesses of my memory. :smiley:

There is an awesome Monty Python clip (not holy grail) with the lady of the lake ‘delivering’ the sword to Arthur. Cant find it though sigh

I always have this vision of Authur pulling the sword from the stone so hard that it flies over his head, and into the lake behind him. Mixing two stories I know.

I recall seeing a clip from the [producer/director/somebody] involved with the movie Excalibur, where he said the name is from Latin ‘ex’ and the Arabic for ‘a mold’. He went on to talk about lost-wax casting as used to make the grip of a sword in place as one piece, by carving the grip in wax, covering it in clay, firing (i.e. ‘stoneware’), and pouring metal around the tang of the blade into the mold. Breaking the fired clay away from the new grip could be read as taking the sword out of the stone.

It comes from Welsh, not Latin.