By Lori J. Fitzgerald
In Episode 3x02 of Once Upon a Time, “Lost Girl,” Snow White finds the inner strength and commitment to lead her people through what she thinks is a magical weapon, the Sword in the Stone. Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword, is an iconic symbol of kingship. In true Once Upon a Time fashion, this sword not only proves Snow White worthy of the throne but also connects to the greater theme of acknowledging one’s true self in “Lost Girl."
Above: Illustration by Howard Pyle
In medieval Arthurian literature, the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur are actually two different swords, although popular culture and Prince Charming treat them as one and the same. Sir Thomas Malory, in compiling the various Arthurian legends of his day and crafting them into the definitive version Le Morte Darthur, combines the tales of the two Excaliburs, thus solidifying them as one sword in our minds. Prince Charming claims that the Sword in the Stone, called Excalibur, was forged by the benevolent mage Merlin from the realm of Camelot. In Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (1470), England is in political chaos for many years after the death of the king, Uther Pendragon. Merlyn (as spelled in Malory) finally sends for all the knights and lords of the realm to gather in London at Christmas because Christ the King would show them by some miraculous sign who should be king of England. “When matins and the first Mass were done, there was seen in the churchyard opposite the high altar a great stone, four-square and like unto a marble stone; in the middle thereof was an anvil of steel a foot in height, and therein stuck a fair naked sword by the point. There were letters written in gold about the sword that said thus: Whoso pulleth this sword out of this stone and anvil is rightfully-born king of all England” (8). Arthur is in London with his foster-father, Sir Ector. As squire to his foster-brother, Sir Kay, Arthur is instructed to go back to their lodgings to fetch Sir Kay’s forgotten sword, but the lodgings are locked. Arthur then takes the sword from the stone and gives it to Sir Kay, not realizing what it is. Sir Kay attempts to claim kingship, but his father gets the truth out of him. However, although Arthur is crowned king, many of the lords of the realm do not fully accept this sign, and he has to wage war to solidify his claim to the throne. He “drew his sword Excalibur, and it was so bright in his enemies’ eyes that it gave light like thirty torches” (13).
Above: William Morris Tapestry
When the Sword in the Stone is destroyed in battle, Merlyn takes Arthur to the Lady of the Lake, who gives him another sword also named Excalibur and a magical scabbard in exchange for a favor that she will ask of him later on. As King Arthur lies dying after his fateful battle with the treacherous Sir Mordred, he commands Sir Bedivere to return Excalibur to the lake, thus symbolizing the end of his mythic-heroic reign: “And there came an arm and a hand above the water which caught it and shook and brandished it thrice and then vanished with the sword into the water” (739).
In keeping with Arthurian legend, Prince Charming tells Snow that Excalibur is a magical weapon that can help her reclaim her kingdom because only the kingdom’s true ruler possesses the strength to free the blade. Excalibur can help Snow defeat the Evil Queen by showing her who Snow really is, the rightful ruler of the Enchanted Forest. Even though the blade is a fake crafted by Charming, he knows that it can be a catalyst to Snow believing in her leadership ability. As Rumple tells him, magic cannot make someone believe; belief has to come from within. Charming’s love is true because he knows Snow White’s true self and consistently helps her to refocus and maintain integrity. This is symbolized by Charming correcting Snow’s aim with her bow and arrow in order to strike at the target’s center. Once Snow realizes that she successfully confronted Regina with a fake sword, Snow accepts her regal identity and regains confidence in herself, knowing it was her own true worth and not a magical weapon that saved the day. However, like King Arthur in Malory’s tale, Snow also has to prove her worth in battle to solidify her claim.
Snow White’s initial response to wielding Excalibur is “I’ve never ruled anything.” She at first denies that aspect of her identity because she has not actively taken on that role before. In the emotional, often humorous, and more modern version of the Arthurian legend, The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1939), Arthur (a young boy called the Wart) also denies who he is when he first pulls the sword out of the stone.
“Sir,” said Sir Ector, without looking up, although he was speaking to his own boy.
“Please do not do this, father,” said the Wart, kneeling down also. “Let me help you up, Sir Ector, because you are making me unhappy.”
“Nay, nay, my lord,” said Sir Ector, with some very feeble old tears. “I was never your father nor of your blood, but I wote well ye are of a higher blood than I wend ye were.”
“Plenty of people have told me you are not my father,” said the Wart, “but it does not matter a bit.”
“Sir,” said Sir Ector humbly, “will ye be my good and gracious lord when ye are King?”
“Don’t!” said the Wart.
“Sir,” said Sir Ector, “I will ask no more of you but that you will make my son, your foster-brother, Sir Kay, seneschal of all your lands?”
Kay was kneeling down too, and it was more than the Wart could bear.
“Oh, do stop,” he cried. “Of course he can be seneschal, if I have got to be this King, and oh, father, don’t kneel down like that, because it breaks my heart. Please get up, Sir Ector, and don’t make everything so horrible. Oh dear, oh, dear, I wish I had never seen that filthy sword at all.”
And the Wart also burst into tears. (206-207)
In both Malory and T.H. White, Arthur is an orphan, raised by his foster-father Sir Ector but true son of Uther Pendragon, hidden for his own protection. In Malory Arthur is very matter-of-fact about his parentage. However, T.H. White dedicates the first section of The Once and Future King, entitled “The Sword in the Stone,” to Arthur’s childhood and education (the Disney movie of the same name is based on this). In “The Sword and the Stone,” Arthur’s abandonment weighs heavily on him and he is often ill-treated physically and emotionally by Kay and others: “The Wart was not a proper son. He did not understand this, but it made him feel unhappy, because Kay seemed to regard it as making him inferior in some way. Also it was different not having a mother and a father, and Kay had taught him that being different was wrong. Nobody talked to him about it, but he thought about it when he was alone, and was distressed. He did not like people to bring it up” (14). Both in Malory and T.H. White, Arthur accepts Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair, choosing to ignore it for the sake of the kingdom but mostly out of love for both his wife and his best friend. It is only when the other knights force his hand that he must act upon this treachery. Perhaps his childhood emotions of loneliness and not belonging, of being unworthy, are the undercurrent for this behavior, causing him to accept what is really a wrong done to him out of fear of losing the relationships he has. On the eve of the final battle, when Lancelot and Guinevere are in exile and most of his knights are dead, T.H. White beautifully conveys Arthur’s sadness mixed with peaceful resignation as he calls out for Merlyn, who is long gone. The loneliness of being an orphan is with Arthur even at the end of his life.
Like King Arthur, Emma is also the daughter of royalty, sent away for her own protection, raised in a foster-care system without knowing who she really is. In “Lost Girl,” Emma has to accept and acknowledge a part of her true self, just as her mother did in the Fairy Tale Land flashback, as the first step towards finding her son. Like Charming did for her with the bow and arrow, Mary Margaret re-directs Emma’s thoughts with her question:
Mary Margaret: That boy with the knife. You stopped fighting him. Why?
Emma: Because he was just a boy.
Mary Margaret: No. There was something else. I saw it in your eyes. Why did you stop? Why?
Emma acknowledges out loud that she is an orphan, whether she has her family with her or not. By recognizing and connecting with the look in the Lost Boy’s eyes, the same despair and loneliness that young King Arthur as Wart felt, Emma realizes that these hurtful feelings are an inseparable part of her identity which shapes who she is and how she responds to life: “It’s just on this island I don’t feel like a hero or a savior. I just feel like what I’ve always been. An orphan.” The haunted look in her eyes speaks volumes to this and makes what we know about her past with Neal and the protective wall she has built up around herself even more poignant. But it is this very acknowledgement that unlocks the map for her, not only bringing her closer to saving Henry but also symbolically closer to achieving her full potential as a whole person and perhaps eventually finding her own happy ending.
In Once Upon a Time, as in Arthurian legend, the magical sword Excalibur is used as a symbol not only of monarchy but also of finding one’s true self. Snow White, in momentarily believing herself to have pulled the sword from the stone, acknowledges her identity as rightful ruler of the Enchanted Forest. Even though the sword is a fake (as Rumple says, everyone knows Excalibur is in Camelot), having it in her hand enables her to find the courage and ability to awaken a dormant part of herself. Emma also accepts her identity in acknowledging that she will always be an orphan, as she was never truly comfortable with calling herself the savior, even though this is a part of her too. In Season 2 individual promo pictures, Emma was in her father’s armor with his sword; this year she was in her mother’s ball gown. Perhaps when all the pieces of herself form a whole, Emma will become who she truly is meant to be. Mary Margaret states, “Sometimes we think we know ourselves, but we need a push to show us the reality.” Excalibur is the literary symbol of this “push,” but in actuality it is the people who truly love each other, like Charming for Snow, Mary Margaret for Emma, and Belle for Rumple, who are the impetus for the characters believing in their true selves. In Once Upon a Time, as in life, it is our loved ones, the people closest to us, who can often see us for who we truly are when we ourselves cannot.
Explore the Arthurian legend surrounding Lancelot, take a trip into the woods to discover the mythology behind Red Riding Hood or learn more about a modern day hero called Snow White. Origins provides unique insights and perspectives from talented writers into the characters we know and love, going far beyond the boundaries of Storybrooke.