Balin le Savage or
the Knight of the Two Swords
Balin le Savage was a knight down on his luck with powerful enemies, who even though warned of tragic
future consequences is drawn into a fateful quest. Balin has recently been released from imprisonment for the death of one
of Arthur's cousins. Friends and powerful men at court had secured his release but his fortunes are far from assured.
And events are about to occur that will cause his star to rise and then turn to ashes.
A damsel arrives at Arthur's court wearing a sword gifted her by the Lady of the Lake. She seeks the true
and noble warrior that will be able to draw it from its scabbard. In her words to Arthur, it is never made clear that the warrior
that achieves the task will enter on a quest to revenge the death of her lover. And Malory confuses the interwoven issues of
revenge and feud, leaving the reader without full knowledge of the final outcome. Of all the great men at court, only Balin is
able to draw the sword. But he refuses to return the sword to the damsel even though she warns him that he will kill his best
friend with the sword and it shall be his destruction. Malory does not tell us if the damsel related her quest to Balin but he prepares
to leave the court as if he knows his task.
The following is speculation on my part as to the sword and the plot. Balin was ambidextrous with a strong
tendency toward the sinister or left-hand. If a sword and scabbard are designed so that there is a tongue and groove lock, i.e.
a groove cut in the sword or pommel that matches up to a downward pointing latch on the scabbard that interlock when the
sword is drawn by a right-handed person but would not catch when pulled by a left-hander. The damsel wears the sword in
normal fashion along her left side. A person attempting to draw the sword would reach with their right hand and pull (a sword
is drawn in a continuous fluid motion). The sword starts up pulling away from the wearer but then the latch mechanism along
the outer edge catches and the sword is stuck. But a left handed individual would grasp it and draw it almost as if they were the
person wearing the sword, across the damsel's body and away from the latch. This tendency toward left-handedness follows
along with a further supposition discussed in the Balan article that the brothers are fraternal twins and mirrors of each other. I
have noted in several of the Celtic legends that twins are considered to be a single individual split in two by some fate of the gods.
In most of the stories, the twins are light and dark, good and evil, mirrors of each other such as Nissyen and Evnissyen, the
twins in the story of Bran. I believe that Balin is a tragic story of the destruction of a family opposed to the Lady of the Lake.
The brother that the damsel is seeking to kill for the death of her lover is none other than Balan and the fates through the
action of the sword have sealed the act with the selection of his own twin.
Almost upon the heels of the damsel's arrival, Lady Lile of Avelion, the Lady of the Lake arrives and
demands that Arthur give her the head of the knight that won the sword or the damsel that brought it. The Lady claims that
Balin slew her brother and the damsel caused her father's death. Balin sees this audience and interrupts, accusing the Lady
and executing her before Arthur's eyes. Balin claims that he had been pursuing her for three years because she had
caused his mother's death and had been the destruction of many good knights. The issue with Balin is easier to understand
than the damsel's. Based upon the statements, it would appear that a blood feud existed between Balin's family and
the Lady Lile's, each side causing the death of members of the opposite party. But the damsel's story is confusing in
the least. Merlin tells us that she is false. She obtained the sword from the Lady to revenge her lover's death upon her own
brother. The Lady of the Lake provides her with a magic sword that will seek the best man to obtain revenge, but as soon as the
damsel procures the sword and sets out to find the champion, Lady Lile must have followed for she arrives before Balin can
begin the quest. She claims that the damsel caused her father's death. The only explanation I can come up with and it is
mere supposition, is that Malory confused the story. If instead, the Lady claimed that Balin had killed her father and the damsel
would be the causer of her brother's death, it would make more logical sense. The Lady would be upset if she learned that
the person she had just gifted a magic sword to intended it's use to kill her own brother and she might have cause to
pursue and try to get the sword back. Once she arrives, she sees that the sword has been won by her own enemy and requests
justice from the king that owes her a gift.
Balin is banished for the act of killing the Lady and determines to set out to destroy King Rience, hoping that such
an act will reinstate him into Arthur's favour. We may ask what happened to the quest associated with the drawing of the
As the story progresses, we will be confronted by events related to Balin's failure to understand
the depth that love can drive us to. On his journey from Camelot (which Malory specifically states is Winchester but may
really mean Caerwent) toward Cornwall, Balin is overtaken by Lanceor, son of an Irish king and a warrior of Arthur. Lanceor
is killed in the joust, deepening Balin's fear of loss of Arthur's favor. Lanceor's love, Colombe, arrives and is
overcome with the loss of her love taking her own life. Quickly the scene fills up with others. Balan, his brother, appears having
heard Balin had been released from his imprisonment, followed by a dwarf who chastises Balin for the deaths. Next on this busy
road, Merlin appears. From Merlin, Balin learns that his failure to stop Colombe's suicide will lead him to strike a stroke
more dolorous than ever man struck except for the wound Jesus received upon the cross. Balin is sorrowful for the deaths but
determines that he must pursue his adventure whatever may occur and sets out with Balan to capture Rience.
Much later in the story after the dolorous stroke has been given, Balin will encounter a young knight named
Garnish of the Mount, a poor man's son that had won favor through his prowess and had fallen in love with his duke's
daughter. When his love fails to keep a tryst, he is ready to kill himself. Perhaps remembering the earlier episode of Colombe
where his failure to intervene caused such disaster, Balin promises his help. They ride from the knight's tower to the
castle and Balin enters and finds the lady asleep in the arms of another. Balin tells Garnish and brings him to the lovers. For
pure sorrow, Garnish kills the lovers and then blames Balin, stating that if Balin had not shown him the lovers, he might have
passed his sorrow. Balin proclaims that he did it to give him courage that he might know her falsehood and allow him to move
on. In pain, Garnish kills himself, in the exact same manner as Colombe. Balin quickly leaves, fearing that others might think
him the cause of the deaths. In both cases, Balin failed to understand the depths that love can drag one to, once for failing to
intervene and once for intervening. This last failure may have led him to drop his guard and be led to his destruction on the
island in the fight against his own brother.
Following Lanceor's and Colombe's deaths, with Merlin's help, Balin and Balan capture and
deliver Rience up to Arthur. We encounter Malory's 'time-and-distance-mean-nothing' for somehow either
Arthur and his court are transported during this short time to Castle Terrabil or a vast army can march across the distance
from Winchester to the ends of Cornwall overnight for the next day after Balin delivers Rience, Arthur's army must fight
Rience's army, commanded by his brother Nero and King Lot before the gates of Castle Terrabil. You can believe that
Malory did not relate the timeframes correctly and that Arthur's army was on the march to intercept Rience's
which had invaded Cornwall. Balin and his brother do marvelous deeds of arms in the battle and help to insure Arthur's
victory. Balin is once again in Arthur's graces but does not remain at court.
Next, we have the strange case of the invisible knight Garlon. One day while Arthur is resting in his pavilion
in a meadow, a sorrowful knight rides by with Balin close on his heels. Arthur gives Balin leave to bring the knight back to
explain his sadness. Balin convinces the knight and his lady to return but even as they arrive before Arthur, an invisible
warrior strikes a blow killing the sorrowful knight, Sir Herlews le Berbeus. Before Herlews' last breath, Balin swears to
take up his quest and avenge him. On the quest whose purpose is unknown or unexplained, Balin and the damsel meet another
knight, Perin de Mountbeliard, who agrees to take up their cause. As the group is riding by the church of a hermit, the invisible
knight Garlon strikes again, smiting down Perin. Malory never explains why Garlon traveling under a cloak of invisibility
would attack Sir Herlews and Perin but not Balin. After Perin's burial, Balin and the damsel ride forth until they come
to a castle where the damsel must give blood to try to cure the lady of the castle. Her blood does not provide the cure, a process
that will reappear with the quest of the Sangreal.
But revenge is coming for Garlon. Balin and the damsel lodge with a rich gentleman and discover that an
invisible knight, brother to King Pellam, wounded the man's son as vengeance for his defeat at a jousting. The son can
not be healed without the knight's blood that wounded him. Balin and the gentleman make plans to attend a feast to be
given by Pellam of Listeneise and there to seek their revenge. At the feast, Garlon notes the harsh looks from Balin and
challenges him. Balin strikes him down and takes the piece of the spear he had used to kill Herlews and smote him through
the body with it; calling the gentleman to take the blood he needed to cure his son.
In rage, Pellam and his knights rise from their feast to revenge Garlon. In the fight, Pellam strikes a blow that
shatters Balin's sword forcing him to seek from chamber to chamber for a weapon. He comes upon a strangely wrought
spear and strikes the dolorous blow, for Pellam was of the bloodline of Joseph of Arimathea and the spear was the very spear
Longinus smote Jesus with. Pellam falls into a swoon and the castle roof and walls break, crashing down on everyone. A
question always raises its head at this point - if Balin was the knight of two swords, where was his second sword when the
first is broken in the fight with Pellam? If because of the customs of Pellam's court, Balin was able to only carry one
sword, would not that sword have been the sword achieved from the damsel? And therefore, the quest sword would have
been broken (perhaps this is why Merlin replaces the pommel of the sword after Balin's death.
Balin is rescued from the wreakage by Merlin three days later. He is set on his way and passes through a vast
area of destruction and death. He encounters the young knight, Garnish of the Mount, as previously discussed and three days
later passes a cross with a warning that no knight alone should ride this way. To add to the warning, an old gentleman (based
upon Malory's general processes, this would be Merlin in disguise) approaches him and calls him by name, telling him
that he passes his bounds and only by turning aside will it avail him. The old man disappears as a horn sounding like a dying
beast blares. Balin senses that the horn sounds for him but he does not turn from the path. In a scene much like the feasting of
a mortal in the Otherworld, Balin encounters a castle where he is feasted and made merry. The chief lady of the castle informs
him that he must joust with a knight nearby that keepeth an island. Though weary, Balin allows himself to take a larger
unknown shield and rides to the island where he enters a boat and crosses over. A damsel before the castle asks him why he
left his own shield, for by it he would have been known. Balin senses the strings pulling him to destruction but will not turn
aside for shame. A red knight appears from the castle and they do marvelous battle until they are both wounded mortally.
After Balin swoons, Balan learns it is his brother. He explains how he had passed this way and had killed the previous keeper
of the isle and had been required to take his place. If Balin had killed him, he would have become the protector of the island.
Balin asks of the lady of the island's tower that his brother and he should be buried together. Balan dies and later after
midnight so passes Balin.
Merlin appears in the morning and writes Balin's name on the tomb alongside his brother's. Malory
states that Merlin let make there a bed, that should any man lie therein, he would go out of his mind, yet Launcelot would. I
believe that Malory misunderstood his source, in that Merlin raised a bedd not a bed, in other words, he made a tomb, bedd
being a grave. Next Merlin took the quest sword that Balin had won and refitted the pommel, writing in it that no man would
be able to handle the sword except Launcelot or his son, Galahad. Merlin made a bridge over to the island of iron and steel a
bare half foot wide. He left the scabbard in the island and by subtle crafts, he placed the sword upright in a great marble stone
that floated on the waters of the island and many years later it would swim down the waters to Camelot where it would be
achieved by Galahad.