This is legit one of my favorite books in the whole collection. It is mostly the story of two brothers, confusingly named Balin and Balan, sprinkled around with some other bits of plot. There is a level of “mistakes were made” here that one seldom encounters in modern storytelling, and the whole thing is just wild.
Balin is a poor knight who has been imprisoned for six months because he killed one of Arthur’s cousins (Arthur later decides that he has been misinformed on that account, but given what happens… was he really?). When a mysterious damsel appears at court with a magic sword, looking for the sole virtuous knight who can draw it from the scabbard, Balin is the only one who can do so; his poverty and ill appearance after being in prison belie his true nature (or again, given what happens… does it?).
Balin refuses to give the lady back her sword when she asks for it. She prophesies that he will regret it, and goes away.
The Lady of the Lake arrives, and asks Arthur to fulfill his promise of a return gift made when she gave him Excalibur. She demands the head of the knight who won the sword and that of the damsel who brought it, on account of them having killed her brother and father, respectively.
Balin, for his part, says that the Lady of the Lake is the reason his mother was burned at the stake, and so he cuts off her head right then and there and goes out on his adventure.
Merlin shows up to assure Arthur & Co. belatedly, as he usually does, that the mysterious damsel, whose name is Lady Lile, is in fact evil and the sword will cause whoever drew it to slay his own brother, which is a real shame because he’s a great fighter.
Thanks for nothing, Merlin.
One of Arthur’s knights, a fellow named Lanceor, pursues Balin to punish him for having embarrassed Arthur by killing the Lady of the Lake. He gets killed. To make it worse, Lanceor’s lover happens along, finds him dead, and kills herself. Then things turn around, however, as Balin encounters his brother Balan. To pacify Arthur, the brothers make a plan to take down King Reince, one of the alliance against Arthur.
There is an interlude here for some foreshadowing. King Mark (the villain in the Tristram story, which takes up a significant chunk of the later books) happens along, finds the bodies of Lanceor and his lady, and has a tomb built for them. Merlin shows up to foretell that two great knights (Lancelot and Tristram) will fight at that spot in the future but not kill each other, and also to tell off Balin for not stopping the suicide. Merlin departs but later rejoins the two brothers as they set out to take on King Reince. With Merlin’s advice, they prevail and take him to Arthur, who feels much more kindly towards Balin now.
There is a further digression to tell about Arthur defeating Reince’s brother Nero, owing to Merlin coming up with a ruse to delay King Lot and his force from taking part. Then there’s the follow-up battle with Lot. There’s a mention of Mordred here, again with the Morgause-mother version. Lot is killed by Pellinor, touching off another feud that goes straight through the saga as Lot’s sons and Pellinor’s find every conceivable occasion to fight each other. Balin and Balan are at both of the battles, at the end of which all of the kings who had banded together against Arthur are dead. There’s another burial scene–this one does include Morgan–and some more prophesies from Merlin, and then we return to the main plot.
Which immediately gets confusing. Balin is still hanging out with Arthur. Arthur wants Balin to fetch a sorrowing knight so the king can talk to him. Balin does so, but while they’re on their way to Arthur, the strange knight gets killed by an invisible knight. The dying knight charges Balin to avenge him. Balin and the knight’s girlfriend ride forth and meet yet another knight along the way, who is also killed by the invisible knight. They fetch up at a castle for some Grail Quest foreshadowing, and a few days later strike the trail of the invisible knight Garlon. Not only is Garlon invisible, but he inflicts wounds that can only be healed by the application of his own blood.
Balin kills Garlon in a refreshingly straightforward fight at the dinner table, but then has to fight Garlon’s brother (and their current host), King Pellam. Balin’s sword breaks. Balin has been carrying two swords most of this time, his own and the one he got from Lile–he is actually known as the Knight with Two Swords–and the magic one shows up again at the end of the story, but where it is in this scene is not accounted for.
There’s a running fight through the castle as he looks for another weapon. He finds an amazing-looking spear, runs Pellam through, and the entire castle falls down, because that was the spear of Longinus, and Balin has just dealt the Dolorous Stroke with it. Almost everyone in the surrounding countryside (including the first dead knight’s girlfriend) is killed, and Pellam remains unhealed until Galahad shows up as part of the Grail stuff at the end.
Balin recuperates and rides off, slightly chagrined by all of this. He meets a knight whose lady loves another. All three members of the love triangle end up dead, so a typical Balin adventure there. He goes on to a castle, where he is welcomed but told that their custom requires that he joust a knight on a nearby island before he can stay. He borrows a better shield than the one he came with–his final mistake–and despite being tired from traveling, goes to fight the other knight.
A mighty battle ensues, and both are mortally wounded before either of them asks the other his name. As foretold at the beginning of the story, the strange knight is Balin’s brother Balan, who didn’t recognize him because of the different shield, and now they have killed each other. They are buried in one tomb on the island by the people of the weird castle.
I am not being ironic in the slightest when I ask what is not to love about this epic disaster of a story? It’s got literally everything: weird magic, mysterious damsels, invisible knights, Merlin prophesying, and random intersecting love triangles. It is both prototypical in its elements and 180 degrees off from the stereotypical idea of what these stories were like. (Gareth’s story a few books later conforms much more neatly to expectations.)
Balin is supposed to be a virtuous knight as well as a good fighter, and at no point does the text say otherwise, but his only accomplishment is taking down Reince. He is deceived by Lile at the outset, doesn’t make any situations better when he interferes, and his rashness in killing Garlon leads directly to countless deaths. If one infers that Lile just wanted to cause trouble, picked a patsy, and has been watching all of this from elsewhere and laughing herself sick, I think one could defend the reading.
At the end, because no lily or tomb can go ungilded in this book, and because everything has to eventually lead to the Grail story, Merlin shows up to write the brothers’ epitaph in gold letters, and also for some of his unique brand of fun. First, he puts a bed in the tomb that will drive anyone mad should he sleep in it. (Dude… what?) Second, he takes the sword that started this whole wild ride, puts a new pommel on it, and sticks it in a great piece of marble that can float, which is how Galahad eventually gets it.
Yep! Galahad, the purest and bestest knight ever, ends up using a sword that came originally from an evil damsel and was used in multiple murders and a fratricide.
Then Merlin goes off to tell Arthur about what happened to Balin. “The greatest pity that ever I heard tell of two knights” sums it up pretty well.