Eileen A. Joy
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Peck Hall, Room 3206
Edwardsville, IL 62026
34th Annual Meeting: Southeastern Medieval Association
2-4 October 2008
Saint Louis University
“Eros and Event in Malory’s Tale of Balyn and Balan”
Desire your transformation. Be eager for the flame
into which each thing withdraws from you as it shines forth in its changes.
—Ranier Maria Rilke, from Sonnets for Orpheus
First, a brief précis of Malory’s Tale of Balyn and Balan, borrowed from Thomas Hanks, Jr.’s account in his essay “Malory’s Anti-Knights”:
Balin appears in the second sub-section of Malory’s Morte Darthur, the sub-section Vinaver calls “Balin le Sauvage, or the Knight with the Two Swords.” Malory gives us the best possible first impression of Balin: though he is poor, he is “a good man named of his body.” Furthermore, he alone out of Arthur’s entire court is able to remove the enchanted sword from its scabbard at a maiden’s side, thus proving that he is “a passynge good man of hys hondys and of hys dedis, and withoute velony other trechory and withoute treson.” As his story opens, in fact, he sounds like a typical Fair Unknown—a male Cinderella just coming into his own, acquiring a sword instead of a glass slipper. The maiden, relieved of the sword, says of him that he is “a passynge good knight and the beste that ever y founde, and moste of worship”: the supreme accolade in the Morte. At the same time, the damsel warns him that if he does not give the sword back to her, “that swerde shall be youre destruccion”—a warning she gives twice, but which Balin refuses to heed.
Destruction for others and eventually for himself follows the sword in Balin’s hands. Best of Arthur’s knights though he be, he and his sword are disasters to most around him. Consider the chain of doleful events: first, he shames Arthur by decapitating the Lady of the Lake in court, in Arthur’s presence; next, he slays an Irish knight, Launceor, in a joust, and allows Launceo’rs “damesel” to commit suicide in his presence; he assures safe conduct to Harleus de Berbeus, whom the invisible knight Garlon promptly slays in Balin’s presence; another knight, Peryne de Mounte Belyarde, joins Balin’s company, only to be slain in turn by Garlon; Balin finally meets Garlon visible and quickly slays him, which leads to Balin’s crippling King Pellam by striking him with a “Dolorous Stroke” which not only wounds Pellam but prompts a Godly death-blow which leaves “the peple dede slayne on every side” for miles around; he next comes to the aid of the lovelorn Garynysh of the Mownte, causing Garnysh not only to slay the woman he loves, but to also commit suicide; and to cap all this Balin slays his own brother Balan.
In my remarks here today, I want to focus on a moment so brief in Malory’s Tale of Balyn and Balan, that it could almost be called inconsequential and beside the point of everything. This moment—an aesthetic performance of both erotic grief and astonishment at that grief, which occurs during the scene where Launceor’s damsel commits suicide on Launceor’s sword in front of Balyn—is both so ubiquitous within Malory’s interlocking Arthurian narratives and simultaneously so anomalous, that it begs attention, I really believe, as what Deleuze, Derrida, John Caputo, and others have called an “event,” even an event-within-an-event. In Caputo’s words,
[t]he event is a kind of epistemic free radical that can migrate through many strata, the analysis of which reveals to us the sphere of the absolutely possible, of hitherto suppressed possibilities, previously undisclosed openings, and unimagined, unrealized unsuspected futures. While this is the sphere of hopes and dreams, it is no less the sphere of monsters and nightmares, since nothing guarantees that the unsuspected or undreamt of will not be unexpectedly terrible.
Further, Caputo writes that the “course cut by the event as it circulates through words and things traces out a general phenomenological or hermeneutic field for interpretation,” and this field, or event, constitutes a plane of “general transformations and transfigurations,” and “whereas the ‘world’ is tightly bound and confined,” the event “freely circulates,” especially through bodies whose flesh
is simultaneously a site of vulnerability and of pleasure, of bodies that so pulsate with sensation that their acting in the world is suspended and the flesh itself becomes all the world there is. These bodies are saturated with themselves, scenes of ‘auto-affection,’ as Michel Henry puts it.
One thing that I need to establish first is that Balyn himself is an event, a bodily site of auto-affection. Balyn is often described as one of Malory’s “lesser” or “minor” knights and even (by Hanks) as a kind of “anti-knight,” and he certainly operates within his tale—comically or tragically, depending on your viewpoint—as a kind of free radical known as “the man of moste proues of . . . hondis lyvynge” (p. 57) and from whose hands every imaginable disaster is produced, such as the Dolorous Stroke (mentioned above), when Balyn runs a spear through King Pellam, maiming him and causing Pellam’s castle—roof and walls—to break apart and fall to pieces and almost everyone in the neighboring cities and countryside to fall down dead or into a kind of deep sleep and sickness for years until Galahad shows up to heal the King. In this instance, Balyn, as event, literally stops the time of the narrative and places (or rather, violently shoves) the supposedly beautiful men and “aventures” of Camelot into uncanny, nightmarish coma. Balyn is also a reckless killing machine who, everywhere he goes, heads fall off and bodies are split asunder, either by him, or by others while he is simply watching, perhaps in a state of bewilderment at the mayhem he has unwittingly caused. Indeed, Balyn pretty much never gets anything right and no matter how many times Arthur and Merlin intervene to try and stop him and give him counsel, he simply and willfully ignores it, and therefore, he cannot be contained—in the same ways knights such as Lancelot and Gareth and Galahad and Gawain are—by what might be called the system or assemblage of Camelot, which system nevertheless establishes the fairy-world through which Balyn moves and acts and for which he claims his every bumbling action and will is directed.
More than once in the text he claims that “Arthur is the moste worshypfullist kynge that regnith now in erthe; and his love I woll gete—othir ellis I woll putte my lyff in adventure” (p. 46). But then, when Merlin informs Balyn at one point that Balyn has done himself “grete hurte” by not preventing Launceor’s damsel’s suicide over her dead lover’s body—the scene of erotic grief and astonishment to which I will shortly return—and also tells Balyn that because of that lady’s death, he will “stryke a stroke moste dolorous that ever man stroke” by hurting “the trewyst knight and the man of moste worship now lyvith” (King Pellam), Balyn proclaims somewhat ridiculously that he will never do that (but how does he know?), but if he knew that what Merlin said was true, he would “do so perleous a dede” that he would slay himself to make Merlin a liar (p. 48). In other words, Balyn is the kind of pig-headed (and baroquely, ridiculously violent) man who says, “I’ll kill myself to prove you wrong!” and might even actually do it. Like Antigone, Balyn is a kind of pure negation, but he is also a movement, a sensation that Deleuze might say acts as “a break within the flow of absolute consciousness,” with the absolute consciousness in this case being, again, the system or assemblage of Camelot.
And Camelot is an assemblage, I would argue, in the way that Manuel Delanda describes Deleuze’s thinking on such systems: it is characterized by “relations of exteriority,” which imply that “the properties of the component parts [a knight’s “doughty hondes,” for example, or the generic whip of the scolding dwarf, or the “fayre foreste,” or the call of a distressed damsel for help] can never explain [on their own] the relations which constitute the whole [Camelot, or, the “machine” of Arthurian romance], that is, ‘relations do not have as their causes the properties of the [component parts] between which they are established,’ although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities.” A knight or lady or angry dwarf, as singular components, in other words, may be plugged into any number of different literary assemblages (other than Malory’s Camelot)—and their interactions with other components cannot be predicted in advance, but place these things in relation to each other within the spatial boundaries of a medieval romance (a knight seeking “aventure” riding through the “fayre foreste” with a lady running toward him and crying out that her lover has been wrongfully killed), and we know what happens next, or rather, one of just a few outcomes, or further “relations,” can be predicted in advance. There is a good reason, when we teach Arthurian romance, that our students struggle to keep characters, locations, and separate “adventures” straight: they are all, more or less, exactly the same, and only the names change. Every knight is the truest, the most worshipful, of the “moste” prowess, and the “beste” of all knights; every lady is “fayre” and rides a “fayre palfrey” or else she is “fowle” and untrue; every “Castell Terrable” possesses labyrinths of rooms containing mise-en-abymes of a simulacrum of a castle; every battle is the greatest battle ever fought between two men, so much so that they wade in blood up to their waists; and so on and so forth.
There is a high degree of internal homogeneity and territorialization in the world of Arthurian romance, which contains certain well-defined spatial boundaries (there is always a forest, always a castle, always a perilous bridge, always a set of tents in which Arthur can be found holding court, etc.) as well as non-spatial “sorting processes” whereby certain characters are allowed in this world, others are kept out, and face-to-face relations are predetermined to a certain extent by generic scripts that constrain possibilities, but this is not to say, of course, that each medieval romance is not utterly different from each other medieval romance, which is why it also has to be argued that Malory’s Arthurian world is only really an assemblage, not only because of its internal homogeneity and symbiosis (which, left to itself, makes that world more of a stratum), but because it is a system of bodies, actions, passions, statements, expressions, and enunciations that, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari, “swing between a stratum state and a movement of destratafication . . . between a territorial closure that tends to restratify them and a deterritorializing movement that connects them to the Cosmos.”
And it may be that the generic yet idiosyncratic anti-knight Balyn is an agent, or cutting edge, of deterritorialization, a kind of contagion who seeks to carry the whole assemblage away with him, almost literally, on the wind of his urgent hurry to run headlong into the void of his own death at the hands of his brother Balan, an end predicted to him, with dire seriousness, several times throughout his tale. During their penultimate battle on an island that Balyn has to get to by ignoring the sign, “IT IS NOT FOR NO KNYGHT ALONE TO RYDE TOWARD THIS CASTEL,” and because both Balyn and Balan are wearing borrowed armor, they do not recognize each other, and being equally matched, they are wounded and die simultaneously, demonstrating—in a kind of beautiful miniature of the entire genre—the flaw in the system: there are no individual lives, only expressions or enunciations of the system, which is masculine, homosocial, violent, destructive, and all the protestations of undying love to the contrary, highly impersonal. After Balyn, finally realizing he has mortally wounded his brother Balan, falls backward from grief, Balan removes Balyn’s helmet and does not “know him by the visage, it was so full hewen and bledde” (p. 60): for the most part, this is a truly faceless world—Balyn never possessed a face even before his non-face was shredded by his brother—but it is also a magical, possibilistic one . . .
. . . which brings us back once more to Caputo’s thinking on event and eventfulness vis-à-vis Deleuze’s writings on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, for Malory’s Arthurian world is also, like Alice’s world (and for Caputo, like the world of the New Testament), “astir with literary-magic power,” and it is a “primary scene” of the event as well as an exercise “in freedom in which the human imagination breaks the bonds of logic and physics and dreams of being otherwise and of what is otherwise than being.” Further, this world has “causal powers that are released from the constraints of actuality, like making inanimate physical objects move with a mere word,” and thus it provides “the opportunity to put the potencies of the event on full display, to release the powers of the possible, the possibility of the impossible.” For me, the primary scene with regard to the possibility of the impossible in Balyn’s story is the moment when, after killing the Irish knight Launceor, Launceor’s damsel lover arrives to announce to Balyn, “two bodyes thou hast slayne in one herte, and two hertes in one body, and two soules thou has lost,” and immediately after saying this and making “grete dole oute of mesure,” she takes her lover’s sword and after struggling for a bit with Balyn who is trying to wrest that sword from her, she sets “the pommel to the grounde, and rove hirselff thorowoute the body” (p. 46). This scene is not, in and of itself, extraordinary within Malory or even the larger corpus of medieval romance. Knights are always accidentally killing someone’s lover—male and female—and you can almost always count on the injured party to show up, give vent to sorrow “oute of all mesure,” and then throw themselves on their lover’s sword, and if enough people are there to witness it, they will also tear their hair, throw themselves on the ground, and shed a reservoir of tears. Hell, in Chretien’s Yvain, even Yvain’s lion tries to run himself through on Yvain’s sword when he mistakenly believes at one point that Yvain is dead. But what is unique in this scene is that, immediately after the damsel’s suicide, Balyn is so struck with wonder at the woman's will to self-destruction over her love for the dead knight, and so ashamed of himself for causing that self-destruction, that, as Malory writes, “for sorow he myght no lenger beholde them, but turned hys horse and loked toward a fayre foreste” (p. 46).
It is only for a moment that Balyn turns away, and the sight of his brother riding out of the forest toward him quickly breaks the scene, but I consider it to be one of the most important moments in the entire Morte Darthur. In that singular instance of both being struck with amazement at the power of eros—of a fierce attachment to the world, and more pointedly, to one particular body in that world, without whom this world has been drained of reason and possibility—and also in turning away from the sight of two particular loving-destroying bodies, Balyn reveals his capacity for what remains unthinkable for him in every other moment of his story: the ability to stop, to pause in astonishment at the sight of an event that reveals the wonder of the sudden presence of bodies who are “so saturated with themselves” that they are opting out of the system in order to go on as lovers, even without bodies. Further, this scene of erotic, bodily grief and astonishment—as event, even as a cutting through of Balyn himself as event—deterritorializes the strata of Balyn’s world and threatens to “carry away” what is already being “carried away” by Balyn: the impersonal world of Arthurian “system.” But Balyn’s astonishment, which causes him to turn away from the sight of the thing which we might say he cannot bear, which threatens to carry him away from himself, is almost immediately broken by the sight of his brother Balan riding toward him out of the “fayre forest,” which, in Malory’s world at least, is the classic route of escape as well as the domain of otherworldy affairs. It is also the image of an incorruptible beauty, because it is not really a beautiful forest, but an idea of one, seen at a distance: the very frame of the aesthetic. And the two dead lovers, left behind and forgotten, shimmer in their eventfulness, which the narrative hurries to cover over and look away from. The only way forward, then, is to Balyn’s own catastrophic death—to be slain himself by his own brother whom he himself will slay, bringing him back, perhaps ironically, to this earlier scene in which two hearts in one body and two souls have been irrevocably lost together (and always will be)—this is the foregone conclusion of a life devoted to the idea of knighthood, to its aesthetic beauty and chaos of mistaken identities, and ultimately, its supposedly “higher” impersonality. And yet . . .
. . . because Malory’s world re-unfolds each time we return to it as readers, its events—Balyn himself as anti-knight and the moment of his own astonishment (as well as his and his brother's uncannily doubled death which is also a return to their mother's womb, as if they had never been born at all)—remain always in the future. Although the characters are, as it were, shut up in a narrative in which the same things happen to them over and over again with no possibility of a different ending—every time we read Anna Karenina, Anna will always commit suicide and Vronsky will always retain his chilly indifference to her suffering—yet, there is an apophatic element inscribed in the body of the language of Malory’s (or any literary) text that Caputo would say is a “function of the event”—an event, moreover, that is “inexhaustible, possessed of unplumbable depths, an inner restlessness and dynamic by virtue of which the event is never given a final expression in words and never reaches a final realization in things.” This then, as I see it, is the task of literary criticism today: to trace the inexhaustible dimensions of that which is always still unfolding and becoming in these texts, what swings between the system and the outer reaches of the world in which each thing that withdraws from us also shines forth in its changes.
My thanks to Michael O'Rourke for sending me the essay by John Caputo, "Bodies Still Unrisen, Events Still Unsaid."
1. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr., “Malory’s Anti-Knights: Balin and Breunys,” in The Social and Literary Contexts of Malory’s Morte DArthur, ed. D. Thomas Hanks, Jr. and Jessica Gentry Brogdon (Cambridge, Eng.: D.S. Brewer, 2000), pp. 96–97 [94–110].
5. All citations of “The Tale of Balyn and Balan” are from the Norton Critical Edition of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte DArthur, or The Hoole Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knyghtes of the Round Table, ed. Stephen H. Shepherd (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004).
7. Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (London: Continuum, 2006), pp. 10, 11. The quote within the citation from DeLanda is from Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 98.