The Knight with the Two Swords
Balaain, Balaan, Balin the Savage
Ill-fated Arthurian knight who delivered the Dolorous Stroke to King Pellam and slew his own brother, Balan. His story is told in the Post-Vulgate Cycle and in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. He may have originated with Varlan, the king who strikes the Dolorous Stroke in the Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal.
A “poor knight” born in Northumberland, Balin had the misfortune of killing a cousin of King Arthur in battle. After serving a year and a half in Arthur’s prison, he found difficulty regaining his status as a knight and went around dressed in beggar’s clothing. A damsel to whom Karr have arbitrarily assigned the name “Malvis” came to Camelot girded with the sword referred to as Balin’s Sword. When Balin, alone of the knights at court, had drawn the sword, the first English Lady of the Lake (not Nimue, but the one called ‘Nineve’) came to Arthur to demand either Balin’s head or that of “Malvis” in return for Excalibur. The Lady of the Lake claimed that Balin had slain her brother.
As Arthur tried to put her off, Balin saw her, heard she was asking for his head, and lopped off hers instead, explaining that she had caused his mother to be burnt, and she had killed a number of noble knights. Arthur, annoyed, dismissed Balin from the court.
On the road away from Camelot, he was challenged by a knight named Sir Lanceor of Ireland, who was jealous of Balin’s prowess and who had obtained Arthur’s permission to ride after him. Balin killed Lanceor in the first joust with his spear. Lanceor’s lady Colombe, finding him dead, impaled herself on his sword as Balin watched in horror. Balin’s brother Balan found him here, and shortly thereafter King Mark happened by. When Mark asked their names, Balan told him,
Sir... ye may see he beareth two swords, thereby ye may call him the Knight with the Two Swords.
Determined to regain the king’s favor, Balin hatched a plot to assassinate King Rions of North Wales (Ryons), who had gone to war against Arthur in order to obtain his beard. He soon met up with his brother Balan, who agreed to help him. They encountered Merlin, who showed them King Rions on his way to his lover’s bedside. The brothers ambushed Rions, captured him, and dragged him off to King Arthur. They subsequently assisted Arthur in the battle of Tarabel (Terrabil) against Kings Lot and Nero (late in Le Morte Darthur, Sir Lamorat (uncle of Lamorak) claims that Balin killed Lot, a deed formerly attributed to King Pellinore). Arthur praised their skill and welcomed them back to his court.
Oh, where si Balin and Balan and Pellinore? said King Arthur [after the battle]. As for Pellinore, said Merlin, he will meet you soon; and as for Balin he will not be long from you; but the other brother will depart, ye shall see him no more. By my faith, said Arthur, they are two marvellous knights, and namely Balin passeth of prewess of any knight that ever I found, for much beholden am I unto him; would God he would abide with me.
Balin did return to Arthur, but only very briefly. Seeing Sir Herlews le Berbeus and his lady ride by his pavilion toward the castle of Meliot, Arthur sent Balin after them, and on the way back Sirs Peryn of Montbeliard and Herlews was slain by Sir Garlon, brother of King Pellam, who rode invisible. Balin thereupon rode with Sir Herlew’s lady in pursuit of Garlon, whom they traced by his other murders and depredations. They stopped one night at the Castle of the Leprous Lady. Eventually tracking Garlon to King Pellam’s castle, during a great feast. He was hesitant about whether to confront Garlon in the middle of Pellam’s hall. Garlon made the decision easy by smacking Balin in the back of the head, which Balin repaid with a single deadly blow.
He and the lady lingered, however, to collect some of Garlon’s blood in order to heal a youth Garlon had left wounded. This gave Garlon’s brother Pellam, whom of course was furious, time to call for his weapon and go after Balin. Balin’s sword breaking at the first stroke, he fled from Pellam. Balin desperately ran from room to room, looking for a weapon, until he found a spear next to a prostate body in a bedchamber. Balin picked it up and thrust it into Pellam. Little did Balin know that his unworthy hands had hefted the holy Longinus’ Spear (the Bleeding Lance); the spear which the Roman soldier Longinus had stabbed Jesus Christ on the cross. Known as the Dolorous Stroke, the blow caused Pellam’s castle to crumble and caused the surrounding land, Listenois, to become the Waste Land. Sir Herlew’s lady died and three days later Merlin released Balin from the wreckage and sent him on his way.
After leaving the wasted land, Balin encountered Sir Garnysh of the Mount, a despondent lover. Determined to do something right, Balin encouraged the sad knight to visit his paramour’s nearby castle. Upon arrival, they found the woman in the arms of another man. Garnysh slew her, cursed Balin, and killed himself.
Coming finally to an island castle, Balin agreed to help the residents by dueling a fierce knight who guarded a bridge to the island. He accepted a new shield for the fight. Unknown to Balin, the guardian, in red armor, was his own brother, who failed to recognize Balin because of the new shield. The brothers fought savagely for hours, learning each other’s identity only after they were both mortally wounded. They died alongside each other and were buried in the same tomb. Merlin stuck Balin’s cursed sword into a block of marble and set it afloat. (The sword that Pellam had broken may have been the one Balin had, even before he drew that of ‘Malvis’; he wore only one of his two swords into the hall where he found and slew Garlon.) The same sword was drawn by Galahad at the beginning of the Grail Quest.
Although apparently never a companion of the Round Table, and seemingly doomed to do unfortunate deeds, Balin seems to have been a very sincere and well meaning knight as well as a capable and valorous one.
Tennyson portrays Balin as a knight eternally struggling against the
chained rage, which every yelped within him.
He tried to emulate Lancelot, whom he saw as gentle, and he had the queen’s crown engraved on his shield to remind him to act courtly rather than brutal. Upon learning of their infidelity from Vivien, his savagery ran wild and he destroyed his shield. When his brother Balan saw him trampling the queen’s crown, he attacked, leading to the same tragic results.
Balin is occasionally depicted with his own shield. The design of his shield can vary, but it often incorporates symbols related to his quest or his destiny, such as a grail or a sword.
Post-Vulgate Suite du Merlin | 1230-12440
Le Morte Darthur | Sir Thomas Malory, 1469-1470