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A Nightmare of Disorder: Arthurian Civilization and Its Discontents in Tennyson's Idyll "Balin and Balan".

Balin and Balan," the "Cinderella of the Idylls," was the last of Tennyson's cycle of Arthurian poems to be published and is in some ways his most disillusioned. (1) Whereas Malory's original story depicts Balin as a knight pursued by misfortune but largely lacking interiority, Tennyson turns him into a brooding figure tormented by feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and destructive impulses. Throughout the idyll, Balin displays an uncommon degree of self-knowledge. In this respect, he is a far more modern individual than the well-meaning but naive Arthur, who is blissfully ignorant of his wife's adultery and his best friend's betrayal. On the basis of Malory's original, Tennyson made significant changes to effect this transformation. The strategic inclusion into the idyll of subsidiary characters such as Lancelot, Guinevere, and Vivien allows him to depict Balin's struggle against himself in a way that Malory's two-dimensional narrative simply cannot. Read as a final testament to Tennyson's long preoccupation with Arthurian romance, "Balin and Balan" offers a psychologically bleak portrait of an individual caught between society (culture and civilization) and individual satisfaction (nature and instinct) and raises troubling questions about humanity's "wolf-like" nature.

From antiquity to the modern age, thinkers have commented on the savage nature of humanity, pithily expressed in the Latin proverb homo homini lupus (man is wolf to man). Sigmund Freud made the saying the cornerstone of his understanding of the predicament of the human animal. Compelled to join a group for protection and cultural advancement, instinctual humanity chafes under the yoke of civilization's repression of sexuality and violence. Instead of taming humanity's savage nature, civilization itself awakens atavistic longings that are only imperfectly contained by the veneer of culture. "Balin and Balan" offers a disturbing illustration of this paradox. In what follows, I read the figure of Balin, the idyll's protagonist, through the Freudian lens of civilizational malaise. I argue that Balin is an individual suffering not primarily from personal "madness," as scholars like Clyde L. Ryals and John Rosenberg have suggested, but from the constraints of civilization. (2)

In the late, great book Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1929, Freud offers a brilliant analysis of the conflicting principles that, in his view, drive humankind: Eros (love) and Thanatos (death). Written at a time when he had largely completed his psychoanalytical theory, the book may be read as a grand synthesis of his life's work. Similar to his other writings on culture, Civilization and Its Discontents combines psychoanalysis with findings from history and sociology. The result is an exceedingly bleak picture of the human condition. Forever caught in the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, which civilization tames but also aggravates, humanity is unable to find true happiness. "Life, as we find it, is too hard for us," Freud admits bluntly; "it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks." (3) Although some consolation may be found in religion or creative pursuits, these too are ultimately unable to resolve humanity's existential predicament.

To appreciate the ideological thrust of "Balin and Balan," it is necessary to revisit Freud's essay, penned during the rise of European fascism. Having lived through the fin-de-siecle, the unprecedented bloodshed and brutality of the First World War, and the great disillusionment of the turbulent 1920s, Freud was painfully aware of the burden that communal life imposes on individual fulfillment and on the fragile nature of the social compact. He wrote, "[I]t is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This 'cultural frustration' dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings" (pp. 51-52). The longer Freud pondered the course of human history, the more he came to see it as a mere "reflection of the dynamic conflicts among the ego, the id, and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual--the same events repeated on a wider stage." (4) Whether in individuals or entire civilizations, the costs of these conflicts are predictably high. (5) Applied to Tennyson's idyll, this means that both Camelot and Balin are doomed from the outset. (6)

Defenders of civilization like to emphasize its necessity for human survival, but they often go further, pointing out its manifold achievements in the realm of politics, philosophy, and the arts. Paradoxically, these achievements, though undoubtedly admirable, hold the seeds of its destruction. In Eros and Civilization, an ambitious philosophical inquiry into Freud, Herbert Marcuse outlines what he usefully calls the "dialectic of civilization." Eros is the builder of culture, but culture can only be built through continuous repression and sublimation, which eventually leads to a weakening of Eros. In fact, it is precisely the "desexualization" that civilization to a very large degree depends on that unleashes the destructive impulses. "Civilization is thus threatened by an instinctual de-fusion, in which the death instinct strives to gain ascendancy over the life instincts," Marcuse sums up Freud. "Originating in renunciation and developing under progressive renunciation, civilization tends toward self-destruction." (7) Applied to "Balin and Balan," this means that Camelot was on its way to self-destruction from the moment it was built. Nothing Arthur, Merlin, or anybody else might have done could have changed this.

It goes without saying that Tennyson did not have the Freudian psychoanalytic vocabulary at his disposal. The cultural heritage he drew on, however, was very similar to that of Freud. Tennyson lived at a time when interest in the nascent discipline of psychology was not only extremely widespread but, in Victorian Britain at least, transcending discursive boundaries. (8) Psychological discussions pervaded the popular press to an astonishing extent. (9) Tennyson was certainly affected by this intellectual climate. Through his membership in the Metaphysical Society, an informal organization that included such luminaries as Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, William Gladstone, John Ruskin, and Walter Bagehot, he was not only introduced to the field of "metaphysics" broadly conceived but also exposed to the latest developments in evolutionary psychology. (10) Tennyson's friendship with the novelist George Eliot and her partner, George Henry Lewes, whose Problems of Life and Mind Tennyson must have been familiar with, would have stoked his interest in psychological issues further (Batchelor, p. 293). Indeed, it is not difficult to see traces of Lewes's insight into the dual nature of humanity or Herbert Spencer's conception of humankind as a "predatory race" in "Balin and Balan." (11) Unlike these psychological pioneers, however, Tennyson explicitly connects individual discontent with the problem of civilization. (12)

To fully appreciate Balin's tormented state, we need to shift our focus from merely personal repression to the repressive role of a civilizing process that is inevitably at war with the world of instinct. Remarkably, the few major studies devoted to "Balin and Balan" deal with Balin largely as an individual problem. Scholars such as Valerie Purton, William E. Buckler, and J. M. Gray have analyzed the protagonist according to the doppelganger formula, that is, as a split self. (13) Some critics mention the theme of civilizational malaise in Tennyson's oeuvre but do not make the connection to "Balin and Balan." In an examination of Tennyson and Victorian social values, John Killham describes Tennyson's understanding of the human predicament--"the daily work which is the sublimation of the yearning of spirit and flesh, and recognition that man is born to bring civilization out of his own discontents"--in terms that are an unmistakable allusion to Freud's final work without, however, applying this insight to the Idylls, let alone to "Balin and Balan." (14) Linda Shires emphasizes the "almost inevitable internal strife" that she sees at the heart of male kinship and male identity in "Balin and Balan" and interprets the story as a warning against the threat of a "too fierce manhood." (15) Alternatively, William Brashear offers a Nietzschean reading of the Idylls by juxtaposing the "Apollonian illusion" of the "dream kingdom of Camelot" with Dionysian chaos. (16) While acknowledging the instability inherent in Western civilization, Clinton Machann does not explicitly draw on Freud's crucial insight on violence and its problematic link to the foundation of culture. (17) None of these scholars quite manages to uncouple the Idylls from the age in which they were written. As a result, they fail to make the leap from individual psychosexual discontent to the broader socio-cultural context.

Reading "Balin and Balan" alongside Freud's theory of civilization allows us to do justice to the social context of Balin's struggle. The idyll illustrates Tennyson's awareness of the warring impulses in the human mind and body and of civilization's inadequate power to resolve the problem. If Balin is beset by insoluble dilemmas, so is Camelot and everything it stands for. As the center of Arthurian civilization, its very erection was possible only because of a channeling of sexual and aggressive instincts into the artifice of culture. In fact, Camelot itself is the product of repression and sublimation. In the dedication, Tennyson suggests as much by referring to Prince Albert's "sublime repression of himself." (18) Whatever the relevance of "sublime repression" to Albert's, or indeed to Tennyson's, personal life, in the Idylls and nowhere more so than in "Balin and Balan," it may indeed be tied directly to the fall of Camelot. (19) Whether this repression is predominantly sexual, as Ian McGuire insists, or an expression of internalized violence, as David Goslee proposes, the idyll decidedly establishes a link between sexuality and violence and the straitjacket of social norms. (20)

What aggravates Balin's quandary is his strongly developed self-awareness. Unlike Arthur and many other characters in the Idylls, the ill-fated knight is fully aware of his tragic situation. His predicament mirrors that of any human being who honestly wrestles with the discontents of the human condition. Although the Arthurian world may have the potential to improve the human condition, as Alan Lupack maintains, "it seems that such an ideal is always frustrated by the failings and imperfections that are inherent in the world and in those who inhabit it." (21) In penning this last idyll, Tennyson, the "preeminent Victorian," as his biographer Joanna Richardson styles him, looks forward to the twentieth century and its apocalyptic excesses. (22)

Balin the Savage: The Burden of Self-Knowledge

"Balin and Balan" takes place during the "summer" of Arthur's reign. By this time, Arthur has managed to subdue and unify the surrounding rebel kingdoms, and Camelot is known far and wide as the seat of chivalric culture. Given this context, the reader might expect Tennyson to indulge in the nostalgia inherent in romantic medievalism that is so often the impulse behind Arthurian fiction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Vassals such as Pellam and Mark grumble at their enforced submission, and rumors are rife about Guinevere's adultery with Lancelot. It is in these outwardly glorious circumstances that Arthur learns of two brothers who are lingering at a well outside Camelot and attacking every knight who approaches. Perhaps spurred by a sudden burst of youthful energy, the king decides to take matters into his own hands. He finds the brothers sitting statue-like by the fountain outside the castle. He overcomes them both with ease and, returning to the castle, requests their presence at court.

The reader soon learns that Balin has been a member of Arthur's court before, exiled for three years after striking a thrall for slandering him. This background is important to the story because it highlights Balin's difficulties with reconciling his temper with the demands of the chivalric code. At the same time, it illuminates the seemingly arbitrary nature of the code. Clearly, the problem was not the act of violence as such but violence against an inferior (rather than against Arthur's cousin, as Malory has it) and over a trivial issue to boot. What distinguishes Balin from his fellow knights, then, is not so much his readiness to lash out but his use of physical force at the wrong moment or under the wrong circumstances. It is this that indicates his difficulty to become "civilized." Unlike other Arthurian heroes, Balin apparently has a hard time integrating himself into an all-male order that glorifies violence in combat and tournaments but that restricts its use according to seemingly abstruse rules.

Magnanimous as ever, Arthur accepts Balin back into the knightly fold, evidently trusting in the domesticating power of Camelot. By joining the community, Balin relinquishes his power and his liberty, which "constitutes the decisive step of civilization" (Freud, p. 49). At long last, he seems fully incorporated into the order, with all the privileges and duties this confers. Arthur expresses this status when he enjoins his wayward knight, "move / To music with thine Order and the King" (11. 73-74). Balin is greeted like the prodigal son, "The Lost one Found" (1. 78). Tennyson's biblical allusion seems highly ironic here. In contrast to the prodigal son or the lost sheep of the New Testament, Balin is not permanently "found." Indeed, the entire idyll suggests the impossibility of finding lasting happiness and salvation in this life. This is as it should be, for as Freud wryly remarks, "the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of'Creation'" (p. 25). Therefore, the human struggle to reconcile instinct and reason may be impossible to resolve.

Balin soon realizes that his problems are far from over. Arthur's injunction to learn from his mistakes ("As children learn, be thou / Wiser for falling!"; 11. 72-73) is particularly unhelpful in this case, since it completely ignores the difficulty of overcoming one's innate tendencies. Nor is Balan's advice to his brother to beware of his moods and to "shake them aside" like dreams more constructive (1. 139). In fact, this well-meant suggestion will prove fatal, for it is precisely when Balin shifts his attention from his inner demons to his external enemies that he is at his most destructive. As Freud well knew, we cannot simply declare our instinctual drives "outer fiends" and "shake them aside." To do so is to imperil our physical and mental well-being.

Balin certainly does not lack the will to learn the ways of Camelot and to become "civilized." Motivated in equal part by his desire to blot out the bitterness of his exile and by his brother's warning, he is determined to accustom himself to "courtesy, / manhood, and knighthood" (11. 155-156), the pillars of the masculine Arthurian ideal. Obviously a man of volatile temper, he suffers from his inability to overcome his inner demons. Chivalric love alone, he wrongly surmises, can tame his "heats and violences" (1. 186) and give him a new purpose in life. His choice of Lancelot as his model dooms his effort from the start. As every reader of Arthuriana knows, the king's favorite knight is himself tainted by his guilty love for Guinevere. Since Lancelot struggles to fulfill what Freud refers to as "the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego" (p. 108), he is obviously not a suitable model for emulation.

While the Arthurian ideal not only allows but actively sanctions violence in the service of a quest, it suppresses the sexual instinct by demanding of its knights an almost celibate espousal of courtly love. In Arthur's long speech to the fallen Guinevere in a late idyll, he refers to "the maiden passion for a maid" as the subtlest "master under heaven": "Not only to keep down the base in man, I But teach high thought, and amiable words / And courtliness, and the desire of fame, / And love of truth, and all that makes a man" (11. 475-480). Chastity, in other words, is supposed to rein in man's libido as well as to foster intellectual maturity and manliness. In this view, woman is simultaneously the source of inspiration and frustration. Arthur's is a remarkable program for his knights, to say the least, especially if we consider that Arthur also views "love of truth" as the inevitable result of denying one's sexuality. This point cannot be overestimated. As some scholars have recognized, repression and sublimation are indeed the pillars of Arthurian civilization. "In Camelot, sexuality (in part a figure for any socially disruptive force) is sublimated into violence," McGuire explains. "Violence is then controlled by reference back to an etherealized form of sexuality (chivalric/Christian love)" (p. 392). This is true as far as it goes, but it does not acknowledge that this kind of control cannot be successful in the long run. It is doomed to failure because "the programme of the pleasure principle," as Freud insists, is "at loggerheads with the whole world, with the macrocosm as much as with the microcosm" (p. 25). Freud's comment about the severe impairment of "the sexual life of civilized man" is apposite here (p. 61). If this impairment operates even for married couples, in cases of enforced celibacy the problem is compounded. Since in Arthurian civilization marriage is the only way to satisfy one's carnal desire, knights such as Balin are condemned to a life of frustrated bachelorhood. In the long run, combat and tournaments provide an insufficient outlet for the knights' repressed sexual instincts. With Marcuse, we might say that it is simply impossible to escape the dialectic of civilization.

In Balin's view, Lancelot's relationship with Guinevere has an ennobling function in that his worship of her makes her honor him. Ignoring the morally questionable aspect of the relationship, Balin perceives the queen's admiration as the reason for Lancelot's greatness: "This was the sunshine that hath given the man / A growth, a name that branches o'er the rest" (11. 177-178). Guinevere's love inspires Lancelot to excel in combat, while the couple's mutual devotion illustrates the courtly ideal itself. Whether or not Balin is himself sexually attracted to the queen, he perceives the erotic impulse behind Lancelot's glory and seems to hope for a reflection of this glory on himself when asking Guinevere for "some goodly cognizance" (1. 191). By replacing the beast on his shield with Guinevere's crown-royal, he seals his entry into the civilized community but displaces his intense frustrations from the aggressive to the sexual realm. In accordance with Marcuse's dialectic, sexual repression will in turn give way to renewed aggression.

As Freud knew only too well, it is no easy thing to control, much less overcome, one's passions, civilization's soothing effects notwithstanding. Balin may have hoped to "exorcise his own obviously sexual aggressions" through his idealization of Guinevere, as Goslee perceptively suggests (p. 250), but he finds himself unable to live up to this ideal. Rather than elevating him, the aristocratic hierarchy of Camelot ends up paralyzing him. Balin soon realizes that despite his best efforts, he may be unable to truly lit into the refined culture of Camelot. With astonishing insight into his own psyche, he ponders,
   Too high this mount of Camelot for me:
   These high-set courtesies are not for me.
   Shall I not rather prove the worse for these?
   Fierier and stormier from restraining, break
   Into some madness even before the Queen? (ll. 221-225)

What madness is Balin afraid he might commit before Guinevere? His longing for her, coupled with envy of Lancelot ("I never can be close with her, as he / That brought her hither"; 11. 182-183), may well have driven him to question the strength of his self-control in her presence. Forced to hold his violent impulses in check, he seems to fear an eruption of his sexual impulses in the presence of the woman he desires to "worship" as Lancelot does.

Balin's recognition of the potentially harmful effect of excessive restraint betrays a clear understanding of the intimate relationship between violence and sexuality. From the point of view of instinctual repression, it is more harmful for Balin to hold back than to give in to his habitual aggression. Paradoxically, in avoiding violence against others, he is doing violence to his character. Buckler does not seem to recognize the implications of his statement fully when claiming that "Balin's most fundamental flaw is infidelity to himself" (pp. 173-174). Balin's "infidelity to himself consists precisely in his struggle to control his urges, and yet the demands of Arthurian civilization are such that he has no choice but to restrain his incipient "madness." David Staines seems similarly mistaken in ascribing Balin's torment to a denial and negation of his powerful passions. Although painfully aware of them, Balin, Staines asserts, "elects to deny their existence rather than accept them and master their excess." (23) In reality, the problem is not that Balin ignores his passions and willfully refuses to deal with them. Not only does he not deny their existence, but he also takes active steps to curb them when first reentering the court. Staines's claim that "[s]elf-control is a natural and necessary state in self-improvement, whereas self-denial can only lead to destruction" thus betrays wishful thinking that is not supported by the text (p. 139). What makes Balin's case so moving is precisely his desperate struggle to come to terms with the discontents imposed by civilization and his awareness of its futility. Unable to "strike" sexually, he will eventually strike with Pellam's lance, which thus becomes a substitute phallus.

The idyll's sexual subtext is strengthened further in the scene in the bower, a scene that captures the dilemma of the human being in culture. This dilemma consists in the apparent irreconcilability of the individual's sexual urges and the demands of the community, in this case a strictly patriarchal order. Freud spells this out as follows: "On the one hand love comes into opposition to the interests of civilization; on the other, civilization threatens love with substantial restrictions" (p. 58). Tennyson manifests a strong understanding of the complex interrelationship between cultural advancement and the creative but simultaneously subversive power of Eros. About halfway through the idyll, a chance encounter with Lancelot and the queen confronts Balin with the hollowness of the courtly ideal he has tried so hard to embrace. The spatial arrangement of the scene is highly significant. The bower is located at the intersection of a walk of roses running from door to door and a "long white walk of lilies" (1. 244). When Balin first catches sight of the couple, the queen comes down the path bordered by roses, while Lancelot paces the one bordered by lilies. By associating Guinevere with red, the color of blood, passion, and love, Tennyson singles her out as the guilty party in this encounter. Guinevere is undoubtedly aware of her desires. Rather than identifying with the lily, the symbol of virginal purity and "stainless maidenhood," she openly admits to preferring the "deep-hued and many-folded" garden rose, the "wild-wood hyacinth and the bloom of May" (11. 263-266). The meaning is clear: Guinevere is ready to embrace her sexual nature, in the full consciousness of her inclinations. The design of the bower thus signifies the crossroad at which Guinevere and Lancelot find themselves: at the point of intersection between desire (the roses) and moral conduct and continence (the lilies).

This is a key moment in the poem, for it is at this point that Balin's illusions begin to crack and he starts to see behind the facade of Camelot. Indeed, his "sexual idealism," to borrow Goslee's apt phrase, is first undermined in the bower scene (p. 254). As Guinevere reveals her adulterous intentions, Balin becomes aware of his own suppressed desires (Rosenberg, p. 79). Civilization itself--the courtly world of Camelot--has turned out to be less than he had hoped for. Recall that Balin initially sought refuge in chivalric love in the hope of taming his "heats and violences." Although Tennyson may have intended the word "heats" to refer to Balin's temper, I would like to suggest another reading. Like Arthur's other unmarried knights, Balin is celibate. Instead of being able to find carnal fulfillment in a relationship, he has to suppress his sexual urges by deflecting them onto an unattainable ideal. In view of the sexual frustration suffered by Balin and most of his fellow knights, it makes sense to read "heats" as a reference to the sexual urge. Witnessing the seduction scene (for such it really is) kindles the flames of his "heats" anew. The shock of the encounter makes him aware of his suppressed desires, and he redirects his contempt at himself, thus setting the stage for the triumph of the death instinct. By situating Balin's initial realization of Camelot's corruption within this bower, Tennyson emphasizes the irreconcilability of nature and culture, individual and group.

Mere disillusionment with the hypocrisy of the court would hardly have plunged Balin into confusion bordering on despair. The sexual aspect of the revelation in the bower has at least as much to do with his struggle as his barely contained aggression does. Kerry McSweeney's observation that "[t]he self-destructive irrationality latent in Balin's blood is stimulated by sexuality" is to the point here. (24) An unwilling witness to Guinevere and Lancelot's sexually charged encounter, Balin is so shaken that he no longer trusts his senses, and his self-doubts reach new heights: "I suffer from the things before me, know, / Learn nothing; am not worthy to be knight; / A churl, a clown!" (11. 279-281). Defeated in his clinging to Eros, the only solution now is violence, that is, a return to his old ways.

Tennyson's description of Balin's emotional turmoil in the sequence of the bower scene is a masterful psychological portrait. Alternating rage and gloom couple with increasing self-doubt and the nagging insight that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot overcome himself. His confrontation at Pellam's court reminds him that he is given to violence as strongly as ever. When GarIon mockingly refers to Guinevere's crest on his shield as a "crown-scandalous," Balin attacks him with his sword. Later still, he inadvertently kills his brother, Balan, with Pellam's holy spear, wrongly believing Balan to be a wood demon.

Throughout the poem, Balin's weapons and shield function as an index for his progress toward and away from civilization. It is noteworthy in this context that whereas Malory identifies Balin as the "knight of the two swords," thus elevating his status, Tennyson emphasizes Balin's "barbaric temperament," in Gray's phrase, by associating him predominantly with spears, weapons that played no part in skillful combat and that were generally used by huntsmen and serfs (p. 10nl). Balin's shield similarly symbolizes its owner's status in regard to civilization. As we have seen, his old shield sports a savage beast, which he then replaces with the crown-royal. After the bloody skirmish with Pellam's men, he takes the shield off and hangs it "high on a branch" (1. 426), as if to put a greater distance between his own unworthy self and the courtly ideal that he still holds onto, if only just. His final break with civilization comes when he destroys the shield. Provoked by Vivien's lies, he turns into a regular beast:
   He ground his teeth together, sprang with a yell,
   Tore from the branch, and cast on earth, the shield,
   Drove his mailed heel athwart the royal crown,
   Stampt all into defacement, hurled it from him
   Among the forest weeds, and cursed the tale,
   The told-of, and the teller. (ll. 530-535)

The crushing of the shield and of Guinevere's talisman signifies more than just a rejection of the once-admired queen: it is nothing less than a rejection of civilization as such. By first stamping the shield into the dirt and then flinging it into the weeds, Balin symbolically consigns civilization back to earth--the wasteland from whence it sprang. In the terms of my analysis, this means that once Balin has removed himself from civilization, the realm of Eros, the death instinct takes over. It seems entirely fitting, therefore, that he ends up being crushed by his own horse, a death that signifies destruction by the beast within (Gray, p. 9).

Unlike Balan, who is deluded to the very end, Balin is bitterly aware of his own failings. This is nowhere more prominent than when he refuses Vivien's request to take him to Camelot. Camelot, he realizes, is not for him. His realm is the forest instead: "here I dwell / Savage among the savage woods, here die--/ Die: let the wolves' black maws ensepulchre / Their brother beast, whose anger was his lord" (11. 478-481). Intentionally or not, the words "here I dwell" evoke Martin Luther's famous, if apocryphal, statement at the Diet of Worms before the emperor ("here I stand, I can do no other, may God help me"). Whereas Luther's stance is limited to the question of belief, Balin's profession goes far beyond. Rather than merely taking a stance, which after all can be reversed, Balin recognizes that he dwells in barbarism, a beast among beasts. Instead of a god to whom he can appeal, his anger is his lord. (25) In the final reckoning, self-knowledge is what makes Balin's story so tragic. Unlike his fellow knights at Camelot, he is unable either to deny or to surmount his own wolf-like nature.

Civilization and Barbarism: Camelot versus the Wasteland

Despite civilization's harrowing costs in individual fulfillment, it is necessary precisely because of what we tend to call humanity's animalistic inclinations. Freud, for one, was fully aware of the human potential for violence. "[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked," he warned; "they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness" (p. 68). Tennyson certainly shared these concerns, as is evinced throughout the Idylls. Not surprisingly, the wolf vocabulary is present in several idylls including, most prominently, "Balin and Balan." As we have seen, Balin likens himself to a wolf and accepts being devoured by his "brother beasts" almost eagerly. Elsewhere in the idyll, Tennyson refers to King Pellam's men rushing by Balin's chapel as passing "like wolves / Howling" (11. 401-402). The implication of the recurring comparison of human and wolf is stark indeed: even under Arthur's benevolent rule, humans do not (in fact, cannot) overcome their wolf-like nature. Civilization may be a panacea for humanity's existential ills, but it can never be the cure. Henry Kozicki is therefore right when stating that Camelot was doomed from the outset: "from the start, a Pellam was incipient in the quest for purity and a Vivien in the sexual desire on which Arthur built the state." (26) This ever-present danger of the emergence of a Pellam and a Vivien explains the sense of doom that hovers over the Idylls. Since Arthur never succeeds in destroying the beast but merely in pushing it to the periphery of the kingdom, the shadow of unreality that hovers over Camelot from the start seems appropriate (Brashear, p. 32).

To appreciate the fragility of Arthurian civilization, we need to go back to the first idyll, "The Coming of Arthur." Before Arthur comes to power, the land is nothing much but "great tracts of wilderness" inhabited by beasts and beast-like men (1. 10). The few humans who live in pre-Arthurian England have trouble holding the wild animals at bay. Not only are the roles between human and beast reversed, but the distinction between them is being erased as well, as wolves sometimes steal children and raise them as their own. Significantly, these children "grew up to wolf-like men, / Worse than the wolves" (11. 32-33). Although Tennyson uses the figure of the wolf here to indicate wildness, this early negative reference to "wolf-like men" sets the tone for the evolution of Arthurian civilization. It is a tribute to Arthur's determination and moral strength that he succeeds not only in taming these "wolf-like men" but also in unifying the rebel kings, at least temporarily, around the ideal of his Table Round, a quasi-celibate order dedicated to duty, peace, and chivalry.

How does Arthur achieve this mission? Freud's explanation of the factors that transform a group of loosely affiliated individuals into a "civilized" community throws light on this issue. In Freud's view, mere bonds of common work and play are insufficient to truly bind individuals together. To achieve this, a redirection of the energy inherent in sexuality from the individual to the community is necessary. In other words, civilization "summons up aim-inhibited libido on the largest scale so as to strengthen the communal bond by relations of friendship" (p. 65). The price for this strengthening is a severely restricted sexual life. Applied to the Arthurian context, this means that the ideal of male brotherhood dedicated to chivalry provides the allure that makes the knights forgo their animal urges and to willingly put aside the wolf in themselves. As the case of Balin demonstrates, this transition demands a heavy price.

At the center of Arthurian civilization stands Camelot, both the court and the idea. From its inception, there is something slightly surreal about this place. Considering that Merlin helped build the city, this should come as no surprise. Take the following passage from Gareth and Lynette:
   Camelot, a city of shadowy palaces
   And stately, rich in emblem and the work
   Of ancient kings who did their days in stone;
   Which Merlin's hand, the Mage at Arthur's court,
   Knowing all arts, had touched, and everywhere
   At Arthur's ordinance, tipt with lessening peak
   And pinnacle, and had made it to spire to heaven. (ll. 296-302)

The care lavished on Camelot and its fantastic artwork signals the essential role that beauty plays in civilization, despite its obvious uselessness (Freud, p. 33). Furthermore, it indicates the process of sublimation of instinct, which Freud considered "an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development" (p. 51). Simultaneously a boon and a vicissitude, sublimation enables scientific, artistic, and ideological activities but exacts a tremendous psychological toll (Freud, pp. 51-52). Need we wonder that the preceding description contains more than a hint of the Tower of Babel? This is rather remarkable. Although Arthur is generally described as the quintessential Christian monarch, magnanimous and selflessly devoted to his kingdom, his "ordinance" to Merlin to erect such a gigantic structure smacks of uncharacteristic hubris. Arthur's guilt (or is it merely lack of realism?) is further compounded by the fact that he resorts to the help of a wizard. Essentially a fake, Camelot is the result of wishful thinking, a beautiful vision that human beings cannot ever translate into reality. The contrast between the city, Arthur's realm, and the beast-infested wasteland, Balin's realm, could not be greater. While we might applaud Arthur for his grand vision, his blindness in the face of reality stands as a warning to all those who overreach themselves in an attempt to establish heaven on earth. Camelot's fall is thus foreshadowed from the very beginning of its existence.

Throughout the Idylls, Arthur may be the only one to ever believe in the reality of his vision and of the justification of his rule. By asking Merlin to create sculptures of his mythical forebears (the ancient kings in stone), he obtains his very own lineage, which he sorely needs in view of the rumors surrounding his murky parentage. Yet this sculptural masterpiece of invented genealogy, while visually stunning, cannot obscure the taint of illegitimacy that clings to him. Nor can it squash the discontent of renegade vassals such as Mark or Pellam. Even, or perhaps especially, Arthur's most powerful supporter, Merlin, is fully aware of the fairy-tale nature of Camelot. When urged to relate the city's origin, Merlin explains to Gareth,
   For truly as thou sayest, a Fairy King
   And Fairy Queens have built the city, son;
   They came from out a sacred mountain-cleft
   Toward the sunrise, each with harp in hand,
   And built it to the music of their harps.
   And, as thou sayest, it is enchanted, son,
   For there is nothing in it as it seems
   Saving the King; though some there be that hold
   The King a shadow, and the city real. (ll. 254-262)

With typical wit, Merlin evades Gareth's question, and neither Gareth nor the reader ever receives a proper answer. Cunning wizard that Merlin is, he plays with our suspicions that Arthur's Camelot, like its ruler, is simply too good to be true.

Camelot, whether real or not, is associated with music and harmony. This is a recurring motif in "Balin and Balan," where it signifies being part of something beautiful and communal (the order). As noted earlier, when Arthur accepts Balin back into the knightly fold, he does so by enjoining him to "move I To music with thine Order and the King" (11. 73-74). Becoming part of the music of Camelot plainly means regulating one's conduct in accordance with a particular melody or composition. In other words, it connotes subordination to a prescribed rule or score. Dissonant notes need to be repressed. Basking in the light of the knights' approval, Balin briefly becomes part of the music of the order ("he felt his being move / In music with his Order, and the King"; 11. 207-208), yet the experience is short-lived. Fairly soon, his violent temper gets the better of him, and the music of civilization "seemed to change, and grow / Faint and far-off' (11. 213-214). In the long run, Balin is simply unable to tolerate the frustration that society imposes on its members "in the service of its cultural ideals," to quote Freud (p. 39). The result is neurosis.

Tennyson extends the theme of civilization and corruption with his description of Pellam's court. If Camelot signifies human dominance over nature, Pellam's castle stands for the reverse. All but reclaimed by nature, it is "lichen-bearded, grayly draped / With streaming grass, ... / The ruinous donjon as a knoll of moss, / The battlement overtopt with ivytods / A home of bats, in every tower an owl" (11. 327-331). The hall itself presents a sad spectacle of desolation and decay: "Leaves / Laid their green faces flat against the panes, / Sprays grated, and the cankered boughs without / Whined in the wood" (11. 338-341). To reinforce the sense of deterioration and paralysis that grips the place, Tennyson repeats the image almost verbatim when describing Balin's awakening the next morning: "dim through leaves / Blinkt the white morn, sprays grated, and old boughs / Whined in the wood" (11. 378-380). The music of Arthur's order has been replaced by the discordant note of the wind toying with aging branches. Camelot's corruption will follow a similar course.

By the time of the quest for the Holy Grail (the eighth idyll), Camelot has become a shadow of its former self, abandoned and petrified. The splendid artwork that used to grace the entrance and that is now in a state of advanced decay is a testament to the moral destruction that has brought the court to its knees. This is how Percivale describes the desolate sight:

O, when we reached The city, our horses stumbling as they trode On heaps of ruin, hornless unicorns, Cracked basilisks, and splintered cockatrices, And shattered talbots, which had left the stones Raw, that they fell from, brought us to the hall. ("The Holy Grail," 11. 712-717)

Unlike Pellam's court, Camelot is not even inhabited by animals. Nor is it being reclaimed by nature. Like Arthur, it sits on its "dais-throne," that is, the hill it is built on, shorn of majesty and devoid of purpose, a desolate mirror of destruction. No wonder that one knight laments, "The glory of our Round Table is no more" (1. 212). Like Balin at the fountain, Arthur is finally paralyzed. Yet in the case of the former, there is at least a hint of living nature, which Tennyson conveys by placing Balin next to a bubbling fountain. With Arthur, there is only frozen immobility and despair.

By painting such a bleak picture of the aging king, Tennyson seems to emphasize the dead end of his high-minded ideal. In the end, Arthur himself is bound to acknowledge that his struggle has been in vain: "all my realm / Reels back into the beast, and is no more" (11. 25-26). What Arthur fails to realize is that his civilization, established as a bulwark against both external and internal chaos, has never been secure from the threat of the beast. In Jerome Buckley's evocative phrase, Camelot had never been more than Arthur's "protest against the bestial wasteland that constantly encroaches upon his culture." (27) As we have seen, "Balin and Balan" offers an example of this constant encroachment in the person of its tragic hero. According to Rosenberg, "The dualities within Balin are reflected in the dualities without; conversely, Balin symbolizes the warring elements that are wrecking the realm: the contest between the King and chaos, garden and wilderness, music and discord, reason and bestiality" (p. 77). If these dualities strike us as characteristic of the human condition in modernity, this is surely as Tennyson intended. In this most psychologically complex of idylls, he makes short shrift of the "dream of order" that was at the heart of the Victorian medievalist revival and reminds his reader that Camelot was ever only a fiction. (28)

Tennyson and Medievalism: A Nightmare of Disorder

Toward the end of Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud poses what he considers to be the "fateful question" facing human beings: will their cultural development "succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction?" (p. 111). Put simply, is there hope for the future of humanity? In "The Tale of Balin," Malory gives Balin and Balan the chance to return to the court and to impress their audience with their prowess. "[T]hey did such marvelous feats of arms that the king and all the knights marveled at them," Malory tells us. "Everyone who saw them said that they were either angels sent from heaven or devils sent from hell." (29) Although Tennyson did not use this particular episode in "Balin and Balan," Malory's description of the brothers' supernatural appearance may have inspired him to portray Balin as a being torn between "angelic" and "devilish" forces. Struggling between the forces of Eros and Thanatos, Balin craves but is denied sexual fulfillment and is ultimately unable to subdue the violent instincts that ineluctably propel him toward his own death. In short, the chivalric love that was meant to assuage the costs of the sexual repression on which Arthur's order is built fails to control his innate aggression. Balin is thus the exemplification of "Freudian man in culture," to quote Peter Gay: "He is man beset by his unconscious needs, with his incurable ambivalence, his primitive, passionate loves and hates, barely kept in check by external constraints and intimate feelings of guilt" (p. 547). This portrait, Gay emphasizes, pertains to the human being in any culture.

As I have shown, Balin's desire to emulate the chivalric ideal is a classic example of what we might call the Arthurian civilizing mission. An undomesticated "savage" given to outbursts of violence and temper, he deliberately seeks the taming power of Camelot, and especially of Camelot's queen. In return for giving up his unruly ways, he tries to become part of a broader and more civilized community, little anticipating the discontents that doing so will impose on him. Balin's double tragedy consists in the fact that he is fully aware of his limitations and failings and that, despite this self-knowledge, he is incapable of averting calamity. About to turn his back on civilization, Balin turns "aside into the woods," flings himself on the ground, and deplores his penchant for violence (1. 427). Sadly, his awareness of his "violences" does not prevent the killing of his beloved brother. Although the brothers are finally united in death, the doppelganger formula that scholars such as Purton have employed to read the idyll does not grasp the full extent of Balin's psychological and existential predicament.

As I have demonstrated in this article, the twin figures of Balin and Balan cannot simply be read as two aspects of the same person. Balan is not a projection of Balin's positive aspects because he, Balin, has positive aspects within his own self. Unfortunately, they are not strong enough to overcome his more troublesome traits such as his violence and persistent self-doubt. A reading that draws on Freud's insights into the discontents caused by civilization demonstrates the hopelessness of Balin's situation. Interpretations that stress Balin's individual madness or pathology fail to take the civilizational constraints into consideration and thus can only partially account for his calamity. Balin is "doomed to undo himself" not because of "an adherence to rigid cultural codes," as Shires claims, but because he is a human being (p. 415).

In a recent survey of modern medievalism, Tilson Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl describe Idylls of the King as an uncomplicated "paean to the Middle Ages." (30) This simplistic assessment is problematic in that it fails utterly to recognize Tennyson's refusal to idealize the mythical world of Arthur and his Table Round. While Tennyson undoubtedly draws on many of the main tropes of medievalism, he does so in a manner that is completely devoid of the "nostalgic impulse" that is at the heart of the medievalist venture. (31) In the seminal study A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature, Alice Chandler describes Victorian medievalism as a quest for a Golden Age associated with the Middle Ages. Medievalist writers idealized the Middle Ages "as a period of faith, order, joy, munificence, and creativity." (32) In this view, society and tradition ensured metaphysical harmony by holding humanity's selfishness and irrationality in check. Tennyson's Camelot is anything but the archetype of harmony that this description suggests.

Although Tennyson shared the pessimistic view of humanity as essentially fallible, he lacked faith in the redemptive power of civilization. In the twelve poems that constitute the cycle, he does not depict a Golden Age, nor do tradition and submission to the king's order lessen the difficulties of his characters. Randy J. Fertel's emphasis on the cycle's antipastoral thrust is apposite here. Through a liberal use of pastoral associations, "Tennyson endeavors to make us see the potential hollowness of the yearning for lost natural harmony, heroic innocence, and a perfect but static society." (33) In other words, Tennyson conjures pastoral ideals such as nature's benignity primarily to call them into question. While he may have wished to depict an ideal world centered on a noble vision of order and chivalry, his keen insight into the psychosexual dilemma of civilized man would not allow him to succumb to the allure of this vision. His idealism regarding the chivalric code notwithstanding, Tennyson's gift of observing the world he inhabited, Catherine Phillips reminds us, "produced a less rosy understanding of man's nature." (34) This "less rosy understanding" finds its most powerful expression in "Balin and Balan."

Unlike medievalist writers such as Ruskin or Thomas Carlyle, Tennyson fails to support what Chandler calls the "metaphysical assumption of the medieval revival," namely, "that the universe had meaning and could be made to have meaning for man as long as his society was rightly ordered" (p. 233). What Tennyson questions in "Balin and Balan" is nothing less than the existential dilemma of humankind. Put differently, man's place in the greater order is exceedingly problematic, and the idea of order is itself an illusion. To be sure, his depiction of King Arthur may be read as an attempt to portray the perfect monarch as just and magnanimous, but Arthur's decline and fall complicate the matter significantly. Even if we consider Tennyson's preoccupation with Arthurian romance medievalist, it is certainly not of the romantic and backward-looking kind. More than any other idyll, "Balin and Balan" conjures the insoluble discontents imposed by civilization. In the end, these discontents are the inevitable result of the incommensurability of nature and culture. Gerald L. Bruns puts it in a nutshell: "if the wilderness of nature dwells also in the human interior, then the problem of problems is likely to be, not merely the 'culture of the inward man,' but whether, and to what extent, man finally possesses the capacity to be a fully human being." (35) If and until we realize this capacity for humanity, the dream of order cherished by Victorian medievalist writers continues to be a nightmare of disorder.


(1) J. M. Gray, Tentryson's Doppelganger: Balin and Balan (Lincoln, U.K.: Tennyson Research Centre, 1971), p. 7.

(2) Clyde de L. Ryals, From the Great Deep: Essays on Idylls of the King (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 1967); John Rosenberg, The Fall of Camelot: A Study in Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973).

(3) Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 23. All future quotations from Freud's text refer to this edition.

(4) Freud, quoted in Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Times (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 547; italics added.

(5) Carl Schorske, "Freud: The Psycho-Archaeology of Civilization," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 92 (1980): 52.

(6) Freud's sobering assessment of the costs exacted by civilization should not obscure his recognition of its necessity. Similar to Thomas Hobbes, Freud clearly saw the need for the community to take power in order to curb the individual use of violence. Put differently, humanity's wolf-like nature makes the step into culture indispensable. Freud is explicit on this point when defining the dual purpose of civilization as the protection of "men against nature" and the adjustment of "their mutual relations" (p. 42). At the same time, this step also sets "the stage for the discontents to which all societies are susceptible," as Peter Gay explains: it entails "the most drastic interference with the passionate desires of the individual, the suppression--and repression--of instinctual needs, which continue to fester in the unconscious and seek explosive utterance" (p. 546). Civilization, then, is a compromise at best and an illusion at worst.

(7) Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon, 1969), p. 83; italics added.

(8) Rick Rylance, Victorian Psychology and British Culture, 1850-1880 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 3, 14.

(9) Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth, introduction to Embodied Selves: An Anthology of Psychological Texts, 1830-1890, ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor and Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1998), p. xvii.

(10) Robert Young, Darwin's Metaphor: Nature's Place in Victorian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), p. 152. The Metaphysical Society, originally called the Metaphysical and Psychological Society, was founded in 1869 and held a total of ninety meetings in the course of decade, eleven of which Tennyson attended. Its agenda focused on the examination of "mental and moral phenomena, the faculties of lower animals, the grounds of belief, the logic of the physical and social sciences, the immortality and identity of the soul, the existence and personality of God, conscience, and materialism" (Young, pp. 151-152). See also John Batchelor, Tennyson: To Strive, to Seek, to Find (London: Chatto and Windus, 2012), pp. 287-289.

(11) Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Psychology, vol. 2, 3rd ed. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1890), p. 570.

(12) Beyond Spencer and Lewes, the work of the British surgeon J. G. Millingen throws light on some of the concerns that animated Tennyson and that found such striking expression in his latest idyll. In an original treatise on human emotions, Millingen contemplates the dangers of passion with the grim composure of the avowed pessimist (Rylance, p. 127). Whether or not Tennyson ever read Millingen, there is an astonishing affinity between the two men's concern with the savage nature of civilized man. Similar to the author of "Balin and Balan," Millingen conceives of human and inhuman nature as battlefields (one of his preferred metaphors) "on which fight the theoretically underdeveloped forerunners of Freud's Eros and Thanatos, the life and death instincts," in Rylance's apt paraphrase (p. 118). Civilization not only fails to provide a remedy against discontent but is actually one of its reasons. Thus, Millingen says, "We now find the advance of civilization opening the sluice-gates of every evil passion." Millingen, The Passions: or, Mind or Matter, 2nd ed. (London: John and Daniel A. Darling, 1848), p. 266. Freud himself could not have expressed it more starkly or pessimistically. Like Spencer, Lewes, and indeed Tennyson, then, Millingen's work prefigures some of Freud's later ideas.

(13) See Gray, Tennyson's Doppelganger; William E. Buckler, Man and His Myths: Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" in Critical Context (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1984); and Valerie Purton, "Tennyson's Balin and Balan as the Reconciliation of the Divided Self: A New Reading of the Final Idylls of the King," Philological Quarterly 84, no. 3 (2005): 357-376.

(14) John Killham, "Tennyson and Victorian Social Values," in Tennyson, ed. D. J. Palmer (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1973), p. 178.

(15) Linda M. Shires, "Patriarchy, Dead Men, and Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King,'" VP 30, nos. 3-4 (1980): 413.

(16) William Brashear, "Tennyson's Tragic Vitalism: 'Idylls of the King,'" VP 6, no. 1 (1968): 31.

(17) Clinton Machann, "Tennyson's King Arthur and the Violence of Manliness," VP 38, no. 2 (2000): 202.

(18) Alfred Tennyson, "Idylls of the King in Twelve Books," in The Poems of Tennyson, vol. 3, 2nd ed., ed. Christopher Ricks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), p. 264, 1. 18. All future quotations from the Idylls refer to this edition.

(19) Ann C. Colley, Tennyson and Madness (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1983), p. 116.

(20) Ian McGuire, "Epistemology of Empire in 'Idylls of the King,'" VP 30, nos. 3-4 (1992): 387; David Goslee, "The Stages in Tennyson's Composition of 'Balin and Balan,'" Huntington Library Quarterly 38, no. 3 (1975): 250.

(21) Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005), p. 147.

(22) Joanna Richardson, The Preeminent Victorian: A Study of Tennyson. London: J. Cape, 1962.

(23) David Staines, Tennyson's Camelot: The Idylls of the King and Its Medieval Sources (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 1982), p. 139.

24 Kerry McSweeney, "Tennyson's Quarrel with Himself: The Tristram Group of 'Idylls,'" VP 15, no. 1 (1977): 52.

(25) Is Tennyson permitting himself a subtle jibe at the belief in an omnipotent and benevolent Father-God here?

(26) Henry Kozicki, Tennyson and Clio: History in the Major Poems (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1979), p. 132.

(27) Jerome H. Buckley, Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 186; italics added.

(28) I am indebted for this insight to Tishna Asim.

(29) Thomas Malory, Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur: A New Modern English Translation Based on the Winchester Manuscript, ed. and trans. Dorsey Armstrong (West Lafayette, Ind.: Parlor, 2009), p. 42.

(30) Tilson Pugh and Angela Jane Weisl, Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present (London: Routledge, 2013), p. 40.

(31) M. J. Toswell, "The Tropes of Medievalism," in Defining Medievalism(s), Studies in Medievalism 17, ed. Karl Fugelso (Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 2009), pp. 69-70.

(32) Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970), p. 1.

(33) Randy J. Fertel, "Antipastoral and the Attack on Naturalism in Tennyson's 'Idylls of the Kings,'" VP 19, no. 4 (1981): 339.

(34) Catherine Phillips, "'Charades from the Middle Ages'? Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King' and the Chivalric Code," VP 40, no. 3 (2002): 251.

(35) Gerald L. Bruns, "The Irony of Nature: Tennyson's 'Idylls' and the Problem of Culture," Bulletin of the Midwestern Modern Language Association 5 (1972): 43.
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Date:Sep 22, 2017
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