The Sword in the Stone: An Error in Translation?

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The iconic moment in the ancient legends when young Arthur succeeds where countless others have failed in drawing the sword free of the anvil and stone has ...

Where have we heard this before? One word changed by a translator down through the years has made a legend out of what quite possibly could have been a perfectly ordinary event.

The stories of errors in translation or transliteration are legion, almost as numerous as the numbers of manuscripts that were lost when the Library of Alexandria was demolished. (Indeed, it is interesting to speculate what kind of historical proof for all kinds of theories is at the bottom of the ocean along with the rest of the great Library.) Translations of all great historical books (indeed, all historical books, period) have been–and continue to be–subject to the whims of fancy of the hobgoblins who create the errors that create such wonderful things as the Sinning Bible. Remember that one? One medieval translation of the Good Book left the “Not” out of the Eighth Commandment. How did it read? Thou Shalt Commit Adultery! The story of King Arthur–with its many shades of truth, conjecture, bias, and applicability to any and all generations–would seem to ripe for such an error. Indeed, one of the primal legends of the genre might, in historical fact, have been nothing more than victor’s battlefield spoils.

Here’s how it happened: The Sword in the Stone: An Error in Translation? The familiar story is that the young Arthur, squire to Kay, went in search of a sword for his knight and half-brother. Seeing no alternative, Arthur pulled the sword from the stone that bore the inscription that said that anyone pulling the sword from the stone would be King of England. (Now, the first appearance of the sword was in an anvil on top of a stone. You don’t hear much about the anvil anymore, do you?) Anyway, Arthur pulled the stone out and got to be king. All fine and dandy, right? No matter whether Merlin used his magic to put the sword in there in the first place. No matter whether the sword was really Excalibur. (Sharp readers of the legends will tell you that Excalibur came from the Lady of the Lake, not from the stone. What Arthur did with the stone-sword we don’t rightly know.)

But what if Arthur didn’t pull the sword from the stone? Would that make him less of a king? It is an age-old question, one that was asked in a recent column on this website. Are our heroes admirable because of what they did or because of how we believe in them?

The English words for stone and Saxon are similar. One reads of how Arthur pulled the sword from the saxo, or the stone. Could this have originally read Saxon? Could the last letter have been smudged or just left off? Remember, the printing press hadn’t been invented at the time of the writing of the first books to mention this curious how-Arthur-became-king story. One story would have been copied by a person into another book; that story would have, in turn, been copied by another person into another book; and so on. The possibility of an error in translation or even copying is frighteningly real. Arthur could very well have pulled the sword from the Saxon. This could have been his own sword, which he pulled from the body of the Saxon leader–symbolizing Arthur’s great victory over the Saxons. The story could also have been of Arthur taking the sword from the dead body of a Saxon because Arthur’s own sword had broken on the field of battle–an all too common fate for many weapons in the Dark Ages.

In the end, we just don’t know. As with virtually all aspects of the Matter of Britain, we can’t say for sure, from a historical viewpoint, what the truth is. We can’t prove this point either way. Still, the possibility of an error in translation would be an explanation that a historian–someone used to dealing in facts and figures–could accept more easily than the fanciful tale of a lad coaxing a metal sword from a large anvil on top of a ton-weight stone.