Review: Balin, or the Knight with the Two Swords, by Thomas Malory

Balyne le Saveage’s character can be gleaned from the following passage:

Than hit befalle so that tyme there was a poore knyght with kynge Arthure that had bene presonere with hym half a yere for sleyng of a knyght which was cosyne unto kynge Arthure. And the name of thys knyght was called Balyne, and by good meanys of the barownes he was delyverde oute of preson, for he was a good man named of his body. (Malory, Works, 1971 collection ed. by Vinaver, p. 39)

The two main points that emerge are 1) that Balin often kills when he shouldn’t and 2) that Balin is self-righteous (because “a good man named of his body” may mean “a man who esteemed himself good”). The latter defect may account for the former, but in any case the combination of the two defects isn’t promising.

Balin’s self-righteousness becomes evident a few lines later, when he draws the sword from the damsel’s scabbard (which no others had been able to do) and is overly glad to believe her claim (suspected by Merlin to be counterfeit) that only good knights could so obtain the weapon. He refuses her request that he return it to her and gazes upon the false proof of his goodness with immoderate pleasure.

Balin’s tendency to kill too much – to kill at least one person too many – is evident throughout the rest of the story. First, he kills the Lady of the Lake, whom be holds responsible for the death of his mother (his righteous excuse). Then, he slays Sir Launceor, who indeed had it coming, but wrongfully watches when Launceor’s paramour kills herself out of grief. Later, he shows Sir Garnyssh the infidelity of his paramour, causing Garnyssh, likewise, to kill himself. These latter two deaths, among many that occur wherever Balin goes, are deaths of love, which, if God is love, can perhaps be described as sacrilegious. Of course, the ultimate unfortunate blow is the Dolorous Stroke, a stab at good King Pellam collateral to the justifiable killing of the evil knight Garlon, which results in the blighting of three kingdoms.

I hypothesize that Balin’s “two swords” are not swords at all but the representation of his penchant for excess, especially excessive self-regard. One sword should be enough for any knight. Readers of the story may try to count the swords Balin carries at any given time, and unless there is an unnamed sword or swords in his valise, it never amounts to two. The meaning of the story might be that all faith in oneself is misplaced (for it belongs with You Know Whom) and can do tremendous damage in proportion to its strength – or in proportion to the strength of its possessor.

Book Review: Amadis of Gaul, Books III & IV

I read the Place and Behm translation, which puts Books I and II in Volume One and Books III and IV in Volume Two. I waited over a year between volumes. As a result, I forgot what had contributed to the main conflict narrated in Volume Two, and I also forgot many of the characters, especially the many whose names begin with G. I would advise readers to tackle the whole thing straight through, if possible.

Volume Two drags. There is a lot of preparation for the Big Battle, and the pacing is quite slow during the preparation. The beginning, covering Amadis’s eastern adventures, and the end, covering a couple of extra adventures, are the most exciting parts.

One thing that continues to strike me about chivalric literature is the paucity of emotional narration accompanying dialogue (or action). One example is:

“Beware, sire, for you are committing great cruelty and a great sin, and very quickly you could receive such a lashing from the Lord on high that your great brilliance and fame might be greatly obscured….”

“Good uncle,” said the king, “I well remember all that you have said to me before, but I cannot do anything more….”

“Then, sire,” said the count, “I ask of you permission to leave for my own estate.”

“God be with you,” said the king. (p. 281)

One might have expected the king to “redden” or “bristle” as he is reprimanded and abandoned by one of his vassals (his own uncle, no less), or for the narration to spare a phrase or two to convey his feelings. However, the sixteenth-century text, like many others of the time, remains minimalist and leaves the psychoanalyzing to the reader. Perhaps the emotional narration is absent when the emotion should be obvious.

On the other hand, when emotion is not discernible from a character’s speech or behavior – as usually occurs when the character’s speech is counterfeit or his behavior ironic – the omniscient narrator does intervene. For example, after a certain knight loses a battle and is then treated cordially by his former foes, he dutifully returns the cordiality; but he is inwardly angry, for, as the narrator explains:

He was not satisfied in his desire, because all this honor and gain had come to him after being overcome and reduced to dire straits….He consoled himself and dissimulated as a man of great prudence so that no one might perceive that his thought was concerned with anything other than considering himself the lord and superior of everyone, and believing that with great honor he had won it. So with this pretended joy and with a very complacent appearance he came to where the queen was. (pp. 565-566)

In sum, the omniscient narrator only appears when there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. He is a guide only to what is hidden. If nothing is consciously being hidden, then his services are unnecessary. Unless otherwise stated, then, all is as it seems.

By way of comparison, Thomas Malory, who was active a full century earlier than Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (the compiler of Amadis), did not, I recall, employ omniscient narration in such a way. In fact, Malory’s more consistent disinclination to explain his characters’ actions leaves a great deal of very pleasant work in the hands of the reader, as he is compelled to supply motives and draw lessons from Malory’s often mysterious, bare-bones narration. My conclusion is that Malory is more of a puzzle than Montalvo, more challenging and perhaps, therefore, more rewarding.