The story of Balin in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is littered with moments when Balin seems to watch in horror as events set in motion by his own actions spiral far out of his control with disastrous results.
The tale begins with Balin proving he is “a passynge good man of hys hondys and of hys dedis, and withoute velony other trechory and withoute treson” when he pulls the sword from the sheath carried by a damsel into Arthur’s court. But this perfection is in doubt from the very beginning, starting with the way Balin waits until every other knight has tried his hand at drawing the sword and the damsel is about to leave in disappointment. In contrast to Arthur’s response to the damsel’s challenge, “I woll assay myselffe to draw oute the swerde, nat presumynge myselff that I am the beste knyght,” Balin waits because he is poor and shabby, and also because he had been imprisoned for having killed a knight who turned out to be Arthur’s cousin. Though he had been freed by the barons, he was far from Arthur’s favorite and presumably was trying to keep a low profile. The damsel at first scorns him because of his poor dress, but he convinces her to let him try, and he succeeds in drawing the sword where all the others had failed.
This seems to prove that Balin is indeed a worthy and virtuous knight, which is necessary for the tragic tones of all the consequent harm that he inadvertently causes. But immediately after this apparent proof, Balin refuses to return the sword to the damsel, insisting on keeping it even when she warns him that only harm can befall anyone who keeps this sword. None of the major calamities that happen throughout the rest of the tale are Balin’s fault directly. But is his refusal to act logically on the information given to him a factor that might assign blame?
Following the narrative through the various altercations that Balin and his brother Balan engage in can get complicated. I stopped numerous times as I read to go back and check the relationships of all the figures involved in the slaying and avenging cycles. The most disastrous pairing is when Balin unknowingly kills his own brother, but from the start of the tale, instances where Balin slays knights whose identities become important only after he has killed them abound, the first being Arthur’s cousin for whose death Balin had been imprisoned.
The three negative qualities the damsel says must be lacking in the knight who will be able to draw the sword are “velony,” “trechory,” and “treson.” The Middle English Dictionary includes in the definition for “trecherie”
Faithlessness to a sworn oath or sacred obligation
and for “treisoun”
treachery to one’s kin, esp. contriving the death, exile, or imprisonment of a relative.
Though Balin does not set out to perform treachery in regard to his and others’ kin, does his refusal to return the sword negate his devotion to following what has been ordained to happen to him?
Balin’s brother Balan tells him, “ye must take the adventure that God woll ordayn you,” after Balin has failed to save Columbe, who kills herself because Balin has killed her lover. This knight was fighting Balin because he had been sent by Arthur to avenge the Lady of the Lake, whom Balin had killed because she had killed his mother, though the Lady says Balin killed her brother. The complicated allegiances and possible treachery are further complicated by the idea that whatever happens to any of the characters is ordained by God.
Balin himself, when refusing to return the sword, says, “I shall take the aventure…that God woll ordayne for me. But the swerde ye shall nat have at thys tyme, by the feythe of my body!” The question is, are the events that follow ordained by God, or are they a consequence of Balin’s choice to keep the sword? How does one determine which “aventure,” which chance happening, is caused by divine and which by human agency?
But going a bit farther back, when Merlin reveals what exactly was happening with the damsel who brought the sword to Arthur’s court in the first place, casts more questions on the cycle of vengeance throughout:
‘Now shall I sey you,’ seyde Merlion; ‘thys same damesell that here stondith, that brought the swerde unto youre courte, I shall telle you the cause of hir commynge. She is the falsist damesell that lyveth – she shall nat sey nay! For she hath a brothir, a passyng good knyght of proues and a full trew man, and thys damesell loved anothir knyght that hylde her as paramoure. And thys good knyght, her brothir, mette with the knyght that helde hir to paramoure, and slew hym by force of hys hondis. And whan thys false damesell undirstoode this she went to the Lady of Avylion and besought hir of helpe to be revenged on hir own brothir.
‘And so thys lady Lyle of Avylion toke hir this swerde that she brought with hir, and tolde there sholde no man pulle hit oute of the sheethe but yf he be one of the beste knyghtes of thys realme, and he sholde be hardy and full of prouesse; and with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir…’
Turns out, the origin of the sword destined to be drawn by the best knight is riddled with treachery as well. In this recounting, though, no mention is made of the knight being required to return the sword. Would that have made a difference, after all? Merlin says “with that swerde he sholde sle hys brothir” – if he hadn’t had the sword when he faced his brother, would he have been spared this fate?
The section of this tale after Balin has enabled Arthur’s defeat of Ronys is parallel to the episode in which Columbe kills herself, despite Balin’s attempts to prevent her, after Balin has killed her lover. Merlin had prophesied after Columbe’s death that Balin would “stryke a stroke most dolorous that ever man stroke,” wounding the truest knight and causing death and destruction on a huge scale. In this last section, Balin attempts to avenge the death of a damsel’s lover, whose death Balin is only indirectly responsible for. The knight who killed the damsel’s lover is the brother of the one whose death causes all this destruction.
But this “dolorous stroke” is not delivered by the sword. In fact, as pointed out by many, the fact that Balin is the “knight with two swords” seems to have been forgotten at this point, and when his sword breaks during his fight with Pellam, he has to run around looking for another weapon. He finally finds a spear in one chamber, which is actually the spear which pierced Jesus on the Cross, and wounds Pellam with that, causing the destruction of the surrounding land (as part of the Grail story).
The damsel dies as a result of this stroke as well, meaning that if this were supposed to be somehow repairing the way Columbe died as a result of Balin killing her lover, it has not worked. But this whole thing seems to have nothing to do with the sword itself, actually. Balin killed Columbe’s lover who was trying to avenge the Lady of the Lake, who has no connection to the sword that Balin drew from the scabbard.
After this, Balin rides out alone and the story ends with Balin wearing unrecognizable armor and going to fight another knight who turns out to be his own brother, Balan, also wearing unrecognizable armor. They kill each other and ask to be buried together.
The two strands of the tale – one related to the sword, the damsel who wants revenge on her brother, and the curse that the bearer would kill his own brother; the other related to the Lady of the Lake and Balin’s failure to save the grief-stricken Columbe from suicide – seem to be largely unconnected. What they have in common is ambiguity about Balin’s fault in any of the disasters. On one hand, Balin is the victim of a curse (the sword) and another’s actions (Columbe), but on the other hand, he did take actions that had a part in bringing those to completion. He insisted on keeping the sword, and although he acted with the best of intentions, he did cause Columbe’s grief.
Just after Balin wounds Pellam, there is one short episode unconnected to either strand. Balin meets Garnysh and attempts to unite him with his love. Acting again with the best of intentions, he shows Garnysh that his love is “upon a quylt of grene samyte, and a knyght in her armes fast halsynge eyther other.” Garnysh, anguished, kills both of them, and then himself. While Balin explains that he showed Garnysh “that ye myght see and knowe her falshede, and to cause yow to leve love of suche a lady,” Garnysh’s response is “now is my sorou doubel that I may not endure, now have I slayne that I moost loved in al my lyf!” Balin tried to do right, but the effects of his actions are disastrous – just as with Columbe and the resultant “dolorous stroke,” and just as with the sword as he tried to follow “the adventure that God woll ordayne.”
Nothing results from this episode with Garnysh, and the next occurrence is Balin entering the castle from which he will venture forth to fight the knight who turns out to be his brother. Is this episode then in some way a comment on human agency and responsibility? The chain of vengeance, the complex relationships, the ignorance of characters as to each others’ identities, and this apparently stand-alone episode in the midst of Balin’s narrative arc, all point to the impossibility of knowing exactly what the consequences of any action will be.