Chapter 1 King Arthur must fight many battles in order to conquer all of England, which is currently divided under many different kings. Arthur is in London when he hears from a knight that King Rience of Northern Wales has gotten many fighters together to prepare for battle against Arthur. Arthur decides to call all his lords and knights to a castle called Camelot for a council and jousting. A lady comes to Arthur, sent from the great lady Lile of Avelion, equipped with a sword. She says that only a good, faithful, and not treasonous knight will be able to pull the sword from the sheath. Arthur cannot, so he asks all the knights of the Round Table to do so, but none can. The lady is disappointed, having thought that these were the best knights anywhere.
While Arthur has proved himself as the rightful king of England, he still has not managed to secure a stable hold over the areas beyond his immediate purview. Arthur’s decision to set a tournament when he hears of the impending threat from Rience highlights the intermixture of game and war at the heart of this culture. The sword that only a worthy knight can pull out of its sheathe is an obvious echo of Arthur’s first claim to kingship (the sword in the stone), but is also a trope that will appear again in Malory.
Chapter 2 Meanwhile a knight called Balin has been imprisoned for several months for killing another knight. Because he is a good man, he is released into court. As the lady is preparing to leave, Balin asks permission to try and draw the sword, even though he is shabbily dressed. He draws the sword out easily. The lady cries out in joy. She asks Balin for her sword back, but Balin refuses, saying he’ll keep it. The lady warns him that if he does so, he will kill his best friend with that sword, which will also be his own destruction. It may be God’s will, but he will keep the sword, Balin says. The lady leaves, sorrowful about Balin’s fate. Balin prepares to leave for an adventure, and Arthur says he’ll be welcome back any time.
This scene seems full of contradictions: Balin, by pulling the sword out successfully, proves himself to be a “good” and “faithful” knight, and yet he immediately refuses to listen to the lady’s careful warning because he simply likes and wants to keep his new possession. All the knights in Arthur’s court possess this mix of virtue and vice, honor and goodness combined with petty jealousy and pride, which if nothing else makes them more complicated (although often inscrutable) as characters.
Chapter 3 The Lady of the Lake arrives at court and asks for her gift. Arthur asks her what the name of his sword is, and she says Excalibur. The Lady then asks for the head of Arthur—since he killed the Lady’s brother—or else for the head of the woman that brought Balin’s sword, since she caused the Lady of the Lake’s father’s death. Arthur refuses. Balin sees the Lady of the Lake, who had killed Balin’s mother, and strikes off her head. Arthur cries that Balin has shamed him, since the Lady came to him in peace, and Arthur will never forgive him. Balin explains that this lady has, through her sorcery, caused despair to many knights, but Arthur says that Balin must be exiled. Arthur buries the Lady with great riches.
Unlike Merlin, the Lady of the Lake asks for a return favor that proves abhorrent to Arthur—who, unlike his father, is forced to refuse to fulfill this end of the bargain. While Balin breaks the stalemate by killing the Lady of the Lake, Arthur cannot bring himself to celebrate this turn of events. Though he knows the Lady was in the wrong, and though he has loved Balin as one of his knights, the rules of honor—in which killing a guest (especially a lady) is a great sin—forces him to exile Balin.
Chapter 4 A knight named Lanceor is jealous of Balin for having achieved the sword, so he asks permission from Arthur to avenge himself. Arthur, still angry at Balin, agrees. Merlin comes to court, and explains that the lady who brought the sword to court was a treacherous lady. Her brother, a knight, had killed her lover, so she sought a way to avenge herself on her own brother.
While revenge is a common theme throughout the book, Arthur may well have denied the request for two of his own knights to fight against each other, if he were not himself already angry because of Balin’s open defiance of the rules of court.
Chapter 5 The grieving lady had gone to Lady Lile of Avelion, who had given her the sword, telling her that whoever succeeded in pulling it out would kill the grieving lady’s brother. Merlin says he pities Balin for drawing the sword, because whoever do so will be destroyed by it. Lanceor rides out against Balin and they take their spears and fight. Balin kills Lanceor.
Merlin here helps contextualize the scene of the lady with the sword. As is often the case, women are shown to be untrustworthy and even dangerous: men have to remain on their guard against their wily ways or else suffer, as Balin will.
Chapter 6 A lady rides up, crying that she was Lanceor’s lover, and, wailing, she takes Lanceor’s sword and kills herself. Balin cries that he regrets having killed Lanceor. Then he turns and sees his brother Balan, and they embrace. Balan says he has come to find his brother, having heard of his deeds at Arthur’s court. Balin is upset that Arthur is angry at him, he confides, and he suggests they go to fight against King Rience so that he can be forgiven.
Here Balin’s requirement of fighting with anyone who wants to joust with him clashes with his avowed duty, as a knight, to protect women. It’s also a reminder of the difficulty of predicting the ultimate result of any action. The brothers’ decision shows how battle prowess can be intertwined with loyalty.
Chapter 7 Balin and Balan come across a dwarf from the city of Camelot, who reproaches Balin for having killed Lanceor, a great knight. A king, Mark, rides forward and grieves Lanceor and his lover’s deaths, and finds a great tomb in which to place the two.
Dwarves are other characters in these stories who seem both subservient to knights and to often possess greater knowledge than they do, serving as both servants and messengers in the realm.
Chapter 8 Merlin comes to see King Mark and prophesies that in this place there will be a greater battle than there has ever been between two knights, but neither knight will slay the other. Merlin writes the two knights’ names in gold on Lanceor’s tomb: Launcelot du Lake and Tristram. King Mark asks Merlin’s name, but he refuses to tell. Merlin tells Balin that he did wrong in not trying to save Lanceor’s lover’s life. Balin protests that it was too sudden, but Merlin says Balin will pay by one day hurting the truest knight of the realm, which will send three kingdoms into twelve years of poverty and misery. Balin says if he knew this to be the case, he’d kill himself right away. Merlin vanishes.
Merlin’s numerous prophecies set up, in many ways, the plan for the rest of the book—already we know how things will end. But much will have to happen before that, including the famous battle between Launcelot and Tristram. We also see in action how people’s flouting of honor and virtue will have direct consequences, as Merlin warns Balin of what will happen to him. While Merlin is respected, it is difficult for proud knights like Balin to believe what they don’t wish to hear.
Balin and Balan ride towards King Rience and meet Merlin, who is disguised. Merlin refuses to tell Balin his name, but Balin guesses, and asks for his counsel.
Once again Merlin decides to disguise himself for no particular reason—a common trope in many cultures’ myths.
Chapter 9 Merlin shows the brothers how to find King Rience, who is riding. They meet him and wound him severely, killing forty of his men. Rience asks them not to kill him, and they deliver him to King Arthur’s porters. Arthur asks Rience who has defeated him, but Rience doesn’t know the knights’ names. Merlin shares that it was Balin and his brother Balan, who will not be alive for long, he says. Arthur is sorry for this, since they have done him such a great service by capturing Rience. Merlin says that Balan will help him again, and he warns Arthur that Rience’s brother Nero is preparing to fight him.
The fight against Rience to win back Arthur’s friendship and trust seems easily enough accomplished, a quest aided by the support of Merlin, who is never afraid to choose sides in knights’ battles. Though he is able to prolong the success of Balin and Balan somewhat, he seems unable to prevent their ultimate fate and downfall—one that Arthur also seems to accept as inevitable, given Merlin’s warning.
Chapter 10 Arthur prepares for battle. Though Nero has many more fighters, Arthur’s knights perform better than all. Balin and Balan do better than anyone, and Arthur marvels at them. Meanwhile Merlin distracts King Lot through sorcery, keeping him from helping Nero until a knight comes to share that Nero is being destroyed. Lot laments that he was distracted by Merlin. Merlin had known that one king would be killed that day, and he had rather Lot die than Arthur. The knight then tells Lot to set upon Arthur, and they ride to join the battle. Pellinore joins the fight and strikes King Lot, killing him (which, years later, Sir Gawaine will avenge by killing Pellinore). All the dead are buried in Camelot.
On one hand, Arthur’s knights really do seem like they’re more successful than anyone else on the battlefield. On the other hand, Merlin obviously has a hand in keeping Arthur and the knights of his court out of harm, and ensuring that the decks are stacked against Arthur’s enemies as much as possible. Merlin’s powers are very ambiguous here: he can tell that one king will die, but he doesn’t know which king, and he still seems to be able to affect which king dies, even if he’s not able to prevent the death itself.
Chapter 11 For the burial of King Lot his wife Margawse comes with her four sons, as well as King Uriens and his wife Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister. Merlin through magic covers the tombs with golden images and a taper of burning wax. He tells Arthur that the wax will cease to burn at Merlin’s death, soon before the adventures of the Sangreal. Arthur asks about Pellinore, Balin, and Balan. Arthur will soon meet Balin and Pellinore, but he will never meet Balan again, Merlin says. He reminds Arthur to keep his scabbard with him. Arthur takes it for safekeeping to Morgan le Fay. But she loves another knight and disdains her brother, so she makes a copy and gives the real scabbard to her lover: Sir Accolon of Gaul.
Funerals and burials are the occasion for great ceremonies throughout these stories: they also are often the site of prophecies, as the end of one knight’s quest prompts the beginning of another. Merlin seems able even to foretell his own death—though perhaps, again, not to prevent it—and able to invest Arthur’s scabbard with magic, or at least see that magic is there. At the same time, however, Merlin is unable to foretell that Arthur will not keep the scabbard with him, but will entrust it to his treacherous sister. Morgan le Fay is an important character, and appears here for the first time.
Chapter 12 After a day or two Arthur grows sick and lies down. A knight in mourning comes by him, refusing to tell Arthur why he’s sad. Arthur sends Balin to find out. Balin finds the knight with a damsel (a young, unmarried woman of noble birth) in the forest and asks him to accompany Balin to Arthur. On their way, an invisible knight strikes down Balin’s companion. On the verge of death, the companion says it was the invisible knight Garlon. He asks Balin to ride with the damsel and take up his quest (which the damsel will help him with), avenging his death when he can. Balin swears to do so.
These encounters in the forest are typical of the knightly adventures recounted in Le Morte d’Arthur, in which adventures are always available, and unknown knights conceal hidden pasts and mysterious relationships (and there are many literal “damsels in distress”). It’s worth noting that in Malory, the idea of an “adventure” is more along the lines of a dangerous task that must be undertaken, rather than its modern meaning of something exciting or novel.
Chapter 13 Balin and the damsel ride into the forest and meet a knight who joins them. But Garlon slays that knight. Balin and the damsel continue to a castle. Balin enters but the gate shuts behind him, and many men surround the lady. Balin races to the tower and leaps down to fight the men. They say their queen has been sick for many years, and can only be cured from a dish of blood from a maid and king’s daughter. Balin collects some blood from the damsel, but it doesn’t help. They rest that night in the castle.
Balin’s adventures continue, as he continues to confront different kinds of obstacles in his attempt to maintain his honor, to avenge the knight’s death, to protect the damsel, and to continue on the path of the dead knight’s quest—a quest he knows little about but is bound by honor to pursue. The castle men, meanwhile, have their own agenda, and seek to defend their own queen.
Chapter 13 Balin and the damsel ride for several days before lodging with a rich man. Their host says he had jousted with King Pellam’s brother and struck him down twice: the man wounded the host’s son in revenge, and his son cannot be cured until the host has the blood of Pellam’s brother. The knight is invisible, he says, and he doesn’t know his name: Balin recognizes this as Garlon. The host shares that King Pellam will hold a great feast in twenty days for all his knights and their wives or lovers, so Garlon will surely be there. They all ride there together.
By chance, as often tends to happen on these adventures, Balin learns the true identity of the invisible knight Garlon, along with another tale of just how dangerous Garlon, brother to King Pellam, can be. A feast will surely be an opportunity for Balin to figure out who Garlon is and to fight him, thus fulfilling part of the quest he is now on. In the tale of Garlon the invisible knight, magic seems to serve as a kind of metaphor for great knightly prowess, but also for deceit and trickery.
At the feast Balin asks another knight to point out Garlon. He does so, saying that he’s the greatest knight alive, since he can become invisible. Garlon sees Balin staring at him, and strikes his face. Balin rises up and asks the damsel for a stick, with which he strikes Garlon down and kills him. He then calls to his host to retrieve Garlon’s blood, so as to heal his son.
Garlon can only imagine, seeing Balin look at him, that Balin has guessed his secret and is about to reveal his identity. But there is nothing like a difficult battle here: instead Balin draws on the damsel’s help to immediately kill Garlon.
Chapter 15 King Pellam rises fiercely, exclaiming that Balin has killed his brother Garlon and must now die or depart. Pellam strikes at Balin, and Balin defends himself, but his sword breaks in two. He runs from room to room looking for a sword. He finally grasps a magnificent spear from a richly wrought bedchamber and strikes Pellam. Then the whole castle crumbles to the ground, and Balin and Pellam remain under the rubble for three days.
Balin seems to have gotten into a habit of disregarding the usual customs of hospitality in kingly courts—here it is even more egregious that he’s killed the king’s brother in front of everyone. Balin’s quest is also full of mysteries and magical events—here it seems clear that the spear has some powerful quality to it.
Chapter 26 Merlin arrives and saves Balin. But the damsel is dead, and King Pellam will lie wounded for many years (and will later be healed by Galahad in the quest of the Sangreal). It’s revealed that the blood of Jesus Christ was in the castle, and the spear was that used by Longnus to strike Jesus. Balin rides forth and sees people dead in all the surrounding cities and countryside, and those that are alive cry that Balin has caused great damage, and will have to be avenged.
This spear, also known as the Holy Lance, was an important part of Christian symbolism, as the spear used to strike Jesus in the side as he hung on the cross. In these stories, such holy objects exert material power seemingly entirely separate from their religious significance, and anyone who presumes to take their power for himself, as Balin does, will have to face the consequences.
Balin rides for a week before finding a horse tied to a tree and a knight in great mourning. The knight cries that his lover has promised to meet him in that place at noon, and has betrayed him: he prepares to kill himself with his sword. Balin promises to help the knight find his lady. He gives the man his knight’s name, the Knight with the Two Swords, and the man says he is Garnish of the Mount, a poor man’s son made knight by Duke Hermel, whose daughter he loves. They ride to the Duke’s castle, which Balin enters. He finally finds her in a garden, in the arms of another knight. He quickly returns and tells Garnish.
Knights in mourning seem to be scattered throughout these landscapes: as a motif, they suggest small, individual tragedies that knights like Balin can avenge in support of their quests. But here, as has happened before, Balin’s lofty intentions backfire, as his attempt to find the knight’s lady only results in exposing her infidelity to Garnish, in another example of female treachery.
Chapter 27 Garnish goes to the couple and, in grief, cuts off both their heads. Then he cries that Balin has given him great sorrow by showing him the truth. Balin insists that he wanted to give Garnish courage by showing him the truth, but Garnish suddenly drives his sword into his own heart.
By accusing Balin, Garnish suggests that blame lies not so much in the betrayal as in the exposure of betrayal, especially since it involves here being shamed by another man taking one’s lover. This theme will be more prominent later in the “love triangle” between Arthur, Guenever, and Launcelot.
Balin quickly leaves so that no one believes he has killed the three. After a few days he sees a cross that says no knight should ride towards this castle. An old man warns Balin to turn around, and then vanishes. But Balin continues, approaching a crowd of ladies and knights who seem to welcome him cheerfully. They lead him into the castle. Then the lady says he must joust with a knight on an island nearby, as this is the only way for Balin to pass by.
Balin is usually warned about the consequences of his actions, as he is here and in his taking of the sword at Arthur’s court, but his inability to obey suggests both his embrace of adventures and quests, and his questionable virtue, since he seems to believe that normal rules for a questing knight do not apply to him.
A knight lends Balin his shield, and Balin leaves his own behind. Balin rides to the island, where he meets a damsel, who says he was wrong to leave his shield: it’s the only way he can be recognized. He regrets it, Balin says, but now it would be shameful to turn back.
It’s important to remember that with all their armor, knights are often recognizable only through identifying features such as a shield.
Chapter 28 A knight rides out of the castle. It’s Balan, and he thinks he sees his brother, but since Balin isn’t carrying his shield Balan decides he must be wrong. The brothers each strike each other again and again, wounding each other heavily. At last Balan gains the upper hand. Balin asks who his enemy is. Balan tells him his name, and Balin cries out and faints. Upon awakening he exclaims that he is Balan’s brother and they have slain each other. Balan relates that he had killed the knight who had kept this island, and so now was condemned to live there: now neither will escape.
The theme of mistaken identity becomes an occasion for the first major tragic event of the story—the tragic irony of two brothers fighting to the death because they don’t recognize each other. Because of the nature of battles by sword, it often takes awhile for the knights involved to die, even if they’re wounded. This gives them the chance to make discoveries and final speeches before they die.
The lady of the tower rides down, and Balan asks her to bury them in the same place. She sends for a priest. Balan dies shortly, and Balin dies the night after.
Merlin’s prophecy has been tragically fulfilled as the brothers die together.
Chapter 29 The next morning Merlin writes Balin’s name on the tomb, since the lady had only known Balan’s. Merlin takes Balin’s sword, and asks a knight he comes across to try to handle it. The man cannot, and Merlin laughs, saying that only the best knight in the world will be able to handle it, either Sir Launcelot or his son Galahad. Launcelot will, with this sword, kill the man he loves best, Sir Gawaine, Merlin foretells. Merlin constructs an iron and steel bridge onto the island, and enchants it so that only a good knight can ever cross. He leaves the scabbard of Balin’s sword on the island for Galahad to find. Then Merlin goes to Arthur and tells him the whole tale.
Merlin enters here to, in a way, tie up the loose ends of this tale, ensuring that all proper identities are restored, and—by sharing the story with Arthur—that the story of Balin and Balan won’t be forgotten, as indeed Malory’s book shows it was not. Merlin also shows how the various plot strands in Le Morte d’Arthur never stand alone, but are always interrelated. Here, they are connected to later stories of Launcelot, Galahad, and Gawaine through the same sword.