“The Tale of Balyn and Balan”

from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte darthur [“Winchester Manuscript”: London, British Library, Add. MS. 59,678, with emendations from Caxton’s 1485 edition, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York copy]

Basic Narrative Structure

Arthur, in London, learns that King Royns of Northe Walis has raised an army against Arthur and is burning and slashing his way through England; Arthur and his army withdraw to Camelot. [fol. 22r]

A damsel sent from the Lady Lyle of Avilion shows up at Camelot begirt with a “noble sworde” and claims that she can only be delivered of that sword by a knight that is “a passynge good man of hys hondys and of his dedis, and withoute velony other trechory, and withoute treson”; most of the barons, and also Arthur, try and fail. [fol. 22v]

Balyn, a “poore” knight from Northumberland (known as Balyne le Saveage) recently released from Arthur’s prison, asks the damsel if he can try; initially she rebuffs him because of his shabby attire, to which Balyn responds, “worthynes and good tacchis and also good dedis is nat only in araymente, but manhode and worship [ys hyd] within a mannes person”; Balyn succeeds in extracting the sword with no effort. [fol. 23r]

The damsel tries to convince Balyn to return the sword to her and warns him that he will slay his best friend with it and also bring about his own destruction; Balyn refuses to give the sword back, asserting that he “shall take the aventure . . . that God woll ordayne for me” (Balyn is hereafter known as the Knight with Two Swords); Balyn prepares to depart the court. [fol. 23v]

The Lady of the Lake shows up and asks Arthur to give her Balyn’s head, or else the head of the damsel who gave Balyn the sword, in return for Balyn (supposedly) having slain her brother; Arthur refuses the request, but Balyn, asserting that the Lady of the Lake is responsible for his mother’s death, promptly runs up to her, still standing in front of Arthur, and cuts off her head; under the gloom of Arthur’s displeasure, Balyn sends the head to his friends as a sign of his vengeance and leaves Camelot with the intention of destroying King Royns in order to gain back Arthur’s favor. [fols. 24r-25v]

An Irish knight, Launceor, leaves Camelot with Arthur’s permission to chase after Balyn and revenge Balyn’s “despite” in Arthur’s court; Balyn handily defeats him, at which point Launceor’s damsel lover, Colombe, shows up, swoons from grief over Launceor’s death, berates Balyn for murdering “two hertes in one body, and two soules,” then runs herself through Launceor’s sword and dies. [fol. 25v]

Balyn’s brother Balan suddenly appears and the two brothers resolve to find King Royns and fight him together on Arthur’s behalf; Merlin shows up and tells Balyn that because of Colombe’s suicide, Balyn will “stryke a stroke most dolorous that ever man stroke . . . for thou shall hurt the trewyst knyght and the man of moste worshipe that now liveth. And thorow that stroke three kyngdomys shall be brought into great poverté, miseri, and wrecchednesse, twelve yere—and the knight shall not be hole of that wounde many yerys.” [fols. 25v-26v]

Merlin, in disguise, meets up (again) with Balyn and Balan and advises them as to how they can surprise King Royns when he is only with a small host of his soldiers; the brothers kill the King’s men and take Royns prisoner and deliver him to Arthur’s encampment. [fols. 27r-27v]

Arthur and his forces meet Royns’s brother Nero and his ten battalions in battle the next morning in the field before the Castell Terrable; Balyn and his brother fight “mervaylously” and everyone marvels at their “hell-sent” force; there is a lot of carnage on both sides and then King Lot, who has a grudge against Arthur, also shows up with forces to battle Arthur; King Pellinor slays Lot and Lot’s soldiers flee; Arthur wins the war and buries the dead with pomp and ceremony; Balyn and Balan, meanwhile, have slipped away. [fols. 27v-28v]

At some indeterminate, later point, while Arthur is trying to sleep under his tent pitched in a meadow, Balyn comes riding up (seemingly out of nowhere) and agrees to chase down a knight who earlier passed by Arthur’s tent making “great mone” and would not stop when Arthur asked him to; Balyn finds the knight with a damsel in the forest and convinces him to come back with him to Arthur’s pavilion, just outside of which an invisible knight, Garlonde, slays the knight in Balyn’s conduct; just before dying, the knight asks Balyn to take his horse, go back for his damsel, and continue the quest he was on before Balyn interrupted him. [fols. 29r-29v]

Balyn and the damsel ride into the forest and meet another knight who is hunting and who wants to help Balyn in his distress; as all three approach a hermitage on their journey, Garlonde shows up again and slays this knight, Peryne de Mounte Belyarde; Balyn and the hermit bury Peryne. [fol. 29v]

Balyn and the damsel continue riding through the forest and come upon a castle when Balyn is let in but the damsel is surrounded by knights who tell Balyn that all women who come by there have to give a silver dish-full of their blood to help heal the king’s daughter, who is gravely ill; the damsel provides the blood, reluctantly, and they rest there for one night. [fols. 29v-30r]

After three or four more days of riding, Balyn and the damsel are lodged with a gentleman whose son has been gravely wounded by Garlonde (who we now learn is King Pellam’s brother) and he cannot be cured except by Garlonde’s blood; Balyn promises to get it and all three ride off in the morning for Pellam’s castle. [fols. 30r-30v]

After fifteen or so days’ journey, Balyn and company arrive at Pellam’s castle; at dinner, Balyn cuts off Garlonde’s head, after which he also spears his body with the truncheon Garlonde used to kill the damsel’s lover; Pellam and his knights rise from the table to attack Balyn; Pellam breaks Balyn’s sword (but which one? this is unclear) and Balyn runs out of the room looking for another weapon, with Pellam following; in a room, on a gold table, is a “mervaylous spere strangely wrought” with which Balyn smites Pellam, who falls down in a swoon; this is the Dolorous Stroke that maims Pellam and causes his castle plus three surrounding kingdoms to fall apart (and many people to die, including the damsel and gentleman he brought with him); Balyn and Pellam lie sleeping for three days. [fols. 30v-31v]

Balyn rides through the wastelands and destroyed kingdoms he has created by spearing Pellam, and after about eight or nine days, he meets up with a knight, Garnysh of the Mownte, who is grieving because his lady has not met him at the time they set to meet each other at a tower in the forest; Balyn promises to help Garnysh find his lady; they ride about 6 miles until they come to her father’s castle and Balyn finds the lady sleeping with “the fowlest knyghte” in a little garden; Garnysh cuts off both of their heads and then kills himself; Balyn flees. [fols. 31v-32r]

After about three days Balyn rides by a cross on which is written, “IT IS NOT FOR NO KNYGHT ALONE TO RYDE TOWARD THIS CASTEL”; 100 ladies and many knights greet Balyn and tell him that the custom of their castle is that any visitor must joust with a knight who guards an island before they can pass through; Balyn is given a new shield to joust with and meets on the island a red knight, who is actually his brother Balan; neither brother recognizes the other because they are both wearing borrowed armor and they slay each other; before dying, Balyn and Balan request that they be buried in one grave together, just as they once both came out of the same mother’s “bely.”