(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Although in 1570 Roger Ascham attributed the popularity of Sir Thomas Malory’s work to an unhealthy interest in “open manslaughter and bold bawdy,” the continuing popularity of Le Morte d’Arthur is itself evidence of this medieval author’s remarkable grasp of narrative technique. The aesthetic principles governing Malory’s art have been a matter of debate since the discovery of the Winchester manuscript in 1934. Eugène Vinaver, who edited the modern standard edition, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory (1947), has argued that Malory unraveled the complicated entrelacement of his French sources, focusing on narrative units which approach the unity readers expect in modern short stories. Since the appearance of his edition, critics have argued that whatever Malory’s intentions, Le Morte d’Arthur is one work with a cumulative effect. This controversy seems to have subsided, with most scholars agreeing that Malory wrote eight separate tales rather than one unified narrative and that each of the tales exists within a well-defined cycle. Malory’s work thus represents an important transition from the medieval romance to the modern narrative or short story.

“The Tale of King Arthur”

“The Tale of King Arthur,” Malory’s first treatment of Arthur, describes Arthur’s battles to consolidate England as one kingdom. Within this one large unit, there are a number of tales which, although linked to the overall theme of Arthur’s conquests, illustrate Malory’s narrative techniques. “The Tale of Balin,” for example, is a self-contained story in which one learns all that is needed to know about Balin; on the other hand, Malory includes inscriptions on tombs, puzzling prophecies by Merlin, and other interpolations which allude to incidents in the stories of Galahad, Lancelot, and Tristram. These vestiges of the medieval entrelacement supply information which is not necessary to an understanding of Balin’s adventures; their existence makes it impossible to claim “The Tale of Balin” an absolute unity of effect. Nevertheless, the presence of this unnecessary information does not make the story of Balin any less a self-contained and independent narrative unit. This story affords a particularly interesting example of Malory’s characteristic style and use of techniques which were to find their greatest themes in “The Quest of the Holy Grail” and “The Death of King Arthur.”

“The Tale of Balin”

“The Tale of Balin” begins when a mysterious damsel appears at Arthur’s court, wearing a sword that can only be drawn out of its sheath by a virtuous knight. All of Arthur’s knights try and fail to unsheathe the sword. Balin, however, draws out the sword only to be told by the damsel that if he keeps it, he will destroy his best friend and the man whom he most loves. It is then that the Lady of the Lake appears, demanding that Arthur give her the heads of Balin and the sword-damsel. Hearing this, Balin claims that the sword-damsel caused his mother’s death and cuts off her head. By this action Balin violates Arthur’s safe conduct and loses his favor.

In the incidents which follow, Balin tries to regain Arthur’s favor by conquering his enemies; however, in adventure after adventure Balin’s success as a knight, the greatest in the world, is juxtaposed with prophecies of disaster and tragedy. He unintentionally causes the suicides of two sets of lovers and strikes a “dolorous stroke” in self-defense which lays waste three kingdoms. Finally, he meets his brother Balan, his best friend and the person he most loves. Disguised with unfamiliar shields, they fail to recognize each other and fight to the death. Just before they die, they recognize each other and ask to be buried in the same tomb.

While readers accept the supernatural prophecies as tragic foreshadowings, Balin refuses to believe them. Reluctant as he is to accept the validity of the prophetic warnings, he accepts the disasters themselves with a simple fortitude. At three different points in the narrative, he says: “I shall take the aventure that God woll ordayne me.” This courageous acceptance of a tragic fate becomes a compelling secondary theme in the tale.

Of the foreshadowings, the most significant occurs just before the final episode in which Balin and his brother engage in fatal battle. Balin hears a horn blow “as it had ben the dethe of a best. ‘That blast,’ said Balyn, ‘is blowen...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)