Human Agency and Responsibility in Malory's "Balin or the Knight with the Two Swords"

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.

Historia Calamitatum

Most of the time, when someone first finds out I study Arthurian literature, they mention Monty Python. I smile and nod and move the conversation on as quickly as I can, because – I’d never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Until today. As I’ve been putting together material for the Indiegogo campaign, inevitably Monty Python came up in discussions with friends who were offering help and encouragement. I reacted the way I usually do, saying that “that’s not real Arthurian stuff.” And then I realized I can’t possibly say that without ever having seen more than a few clips of it. Besides, it’s supposed to be funny, right? So worst that can happen is I have a fun, mindless couple of hours. It was definitely fun. But it was far from mindless. See, part of my fascination with Arthurian legend – most of my fascination with Arthurian legend – is rooted in its adaptability. I love modern retellings of Arthurian tales, including YA books like Meg Cabot’s Avalon High series, which is set completely in the twenty-first century and yet I still consider it Arthurian! And I’ve been saying for a long time that I love A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court because of the way Mark Twain plays with the legend – but that’s exactly what Monty Python does, albeit in a decidedly different manner. I also resisted watching it because I thought it was untrue to the “Arthurian spirit.” I still think that. It is. But it departs from the Arthurian spirit with obvious thought and deliberation as to how and why to do so. In the end, what Monty Python does with the legend is exactly what I’ve been saying I admire about how the legend lives on. Every new retelling, every variation, puts its own spin on it, molds the legend to fit its own purposes. The modern re-enactors I saw who do call themselves knights – they use the Arthurian legend unironically, and I think it’s amazing the way they use centuries-old traditions of honor and chivalry to inform their daily lives. Monty Python uses the Arthurian legend ironically in order to comment on absurdities and inconsistencies in both the legend itself and in contemporary times (if you consider 1975 contemporary). And both of these are valid and important uses of the legend and tradition, and both of these should be studied. I consider myself suitably chastened and have adjusted my view to encompass more of that “everything” I thought it already did.

Le Conte du Graal

I’ve been drawn to Arthurian legend for as long as I can remember.

When I realized a few years ago that I didn’t have an answer as to why I’m interested in the tradition, I thought about it and figured it must have started with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (Mark Twain), which I read an abridged version of when I was about 10 or 11.

connecticut yankee

One of my favorite scenes from that book: when Hank smokes through his helmet and they all think he’s a fire-belching dragon. Also the pigs/princesses, especially because the book I read (above) had an illustration there with actual pigs and not princesses. I can’t find an image of that online, but  interestingly, I found this:


What’s interesting is that I liked the illustrations in the edition I read because it showed reality while everyone was hallucinating or making things up, and here the illustration shows Hank as a fire-belching dragon. In fact, I found this image as part of “centaur alternatives.” How does an editor/illustrator choose to show reality or the fantasy? Now there’s something fun to think about…

As an undergrad, I tried a few times to take a course on Arthurian literature, but every time I registered or almost registered for a class, something came up and I couldn’t take it.

I wrote my senior thesis on Arthurian literature without ever having formally studied the tradition itself. I had an amazing thesis director who guided me in reading texts that could help me get the basics in addition to the scholarship needed specifically for my paper.

But I never gave up on the dream of systematic study of Arthurian literature and legend.

Now that might be happening…

The University of Exeter is offering a summer course on Arthurian legend this year, and I was so excited when I found out about it, I just applied right away.

But it’s kind of expensive, what with airfare on top of tuition.

The program offered me a partial scholarship, which helps tremendously, and I’m working on applying for academic grants. I also set up an Indiegogo campaign to supplement that.

I desperately want to get to this program. The syllabus touches on so many aspects of Arthurian legend that interest me: history, kingship, chivalry, court life, magic, and the continuation of the legend in contemporary media.

Besides, I’ve been dreaming of traveling in the UK for so many years. Maybe even since I read The Secret Garden and heard the sound of the wind on the moors.

I was also always interested in accents, which made me want to visit the UK even more. There are some really bad movies I watched just because they were set in Scotland or Wales or somewhere with a recognizable accent.

This is my Grail, and I’m chasing it!

Mundus et Infans

I was browsing through my old reading lists recently, and I came across the title Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and memories came flooding back.

This was the first book I read, I think, that got me started on my medieval obsession. I read that book so many times, I felt like I knew Adam as a best friend. I must have been around 10 when I first read it. I got it from the Brooklyn Public Library’s RIF (Reading is FUNdamental) program – is it any wonder I love public libraries so much?

And now I think of it, when we read the mystery plays in my undergrad early British lit survey class, I had the picture I’d created from this book in my mind! The scene of the “hue and cry” is at the back of my mind every time I read or hear that phrase. When we discussed hunting laws in our animals studies class a few weeks ago, I had a clear picture in my mind though I’d forgotten it came from this book.

Wow. I’m kind of blown away right now. I have to find my old copy.

Maybe the answer to that question I’ve been asked for years now lies here – why study medieval literature? I think this was the first “world” I was introduced to through reading that I recognized as different from my own in significant and fascinating ways.

I’d read favorites like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess before this book, I’d probably read Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna too by that point. But for all their differences in location and time from my own life, they were still familiar. Adam lives in circumstances so far removed from my own, and yet I still felt his despair, hope, joy, love…

I thought I’d stumbled across something significant when I remembered Adam, but just writing this post has opened floodgates into how I came to this place right here in my academic work.

And since I plan on doing work on both medieval literature and children’s literature, both together and separately, I’m definitely going to try to work Adam into it somewhere!

The Wanderer

Hey there! I’m starting this blog partly as a way for me to share my excitement about all the great things I’m learning about, and partly as a way for me to keep track of the things I’m thinking about.

I’m a bit of a wanderer when it comes to the texts I read and approaches I use, but it always comes back around to the same thing(s).

I started out focusing on Arthurian texts and wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on Old Welsh and Old French Arthurian tales with a New Historicist/Reception Theory approach.

Before starting grad school, I took a graduate course on the French of England and realized I wanted to work on romance more generally, and I narrowed my main focus to Middle English and Anglo-Norman. I started dabbling in theoretical approaches new to me as I wrote a paper about Boeve de Hamtoun’s relationship with the Saracens via his horse and the Saracen princess who becomes his wife.

Once I started grad school, I read a lot more theory – and I mean a lot – and started taking classes that leave me breathless after each session and continue with animated discussions with my colleagues in the lounge and on social media for the rest of the week (and sometimes longer).

Now there are so many angles and entryways into so many different texts that I’ve revised my “one-liner” about what I want to work on so that it could encompass just about everything:

  • I study medieval literature, particularly Middle English and Anglo-Norman romance, looking at the construction, maintenance, and fluidity of boundaries, and the translations, transformations, conversions, and adaptations that occur across those boundaries.

I do want to stay in medieval literature, and I do want to focus on romance during this time period, but I also want to work on Anglo-Saxon literature and literatures of other languages such as French, Welsh, Norse, Irish – I’m writing a paper this semester on the Middle Scots Morall Fabillis of Robert Henryson – and I want to learn more about animal studies, postcolonialism, posthumanism, affect theory, disability theory, and textual studies – among others.

There are so many little tidbits that get me all fired up but won’t necessarily make it into a paper or presentation, so this will be my space to share those!