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Tennyson's Balin and Balan as the reconciliation of the divided self: a new reading of the final Idylls of the King.

W. H. Auden, according to his biographer Humphrey Carpenter, apparently informed his tutor at Oxford at his first tutorial, "'I am going to be a poet.' The tutor, Neville Coghill, replied patronisingly that this was a splendid way to start reading for an English degree, that it was an admirable idea to practise writing techniques and so on.... The young Auden scowled: 'You don't understand at all' he said. 'I mean a great poet.'" (1)

Alfred Tennyson's certainty about his vocation was at least as strong as Auden's. According to his younger brother Arthur, he announced at an early age, "I mean to be famous." His poetry had from the beginning, in his own mind, a public dimension. The necessary consequence of being a "great poet," however, with its Laureate responsibilities and, for his time, unparalleled fame, was, according to later critical consensus, a vitiating self-division. Henry James famously found, to his great disappointment, that Tennyson the man was not sufficiently "Tennysonian." (2) The tension is probably most explicit in the Idylls of the King, in which critics have often felt that Tennyson moves uneasily between public epic and private "psychodrama." (3) Within the Idylls, it is most evident in the last three to be written, The Last Tournament, Gareth and Lynette, and in particular Balin and Balan (not published until 1885). It may be, however, that a more nuanced contextual reading of these final Idylls will yield a different story and a different resolution, one in which Balin and Balan emerges as the ultimate psychological resolution of the cycle as a whole.

The final three Idylls were written from 1870 to 1873, when one of the issues troubling Tennyson was whether or not to formalize his own Fame by accepting a baronetcy. "I am become a Name," he had written of the aging Ulysses, when he himself was a young man of twenty-three. Now, in his sixties, he was quite literally in a position to choose "a Name" for himself. On 16 and 25 March 1873, while he was at work on Balin and Balan, he twice rejected Gladstone's offer of a baronetcy. Not until 1883 did he finally accept from Gladstone--not a baronetcy, but a full hereditary peerage. However, he still maintained his ambivalence about receiving the honour: "By Gladstone's advice I have consented to take the peerage, but for my own part I shall regret my simple name all my life." (4) The "Simple Name," his private self, was to be subsumed forever into "Baron Tennyson of Aldworth and Freshwater." It is tempting to see in those two names yet another version of the public/private split in his identity, Aldworth, near London, being much more linked to his public life, while Farringford (in Freshwater, Isle of Wight) meant Christmases, the family and home. The last three Idylls were, unlike the others, largely written at the poet's "public" home, Aldworth. Tennyson became a peer in 1883; two years later he finally published Balin and Balan and the Idylls of the King was complete.

Throughout the writing of these last three Idylls, then, Fame was much on Tennyson's mind and this is evident, not simply in the Baronetcy saga, but in many larger and smaller moments. In September 1871, for example, he had been offered the astronomical sum of 1000 [pounds sterling] by The Ledger magazine in New York for any poem, "even if not more than twelve lines long." He produced twenty lines (adapted from an earlier poem) but admitted to the American editor that he considered the sum offered "extravagant." (5) The power of Fame to distort, to magnify, to threaten integrity, must have been obvious to both Alfred and Emily, faced as they were every day with begging letters requesting very much smaller sums to make the writers' lives possible at all.

Other moments suggest Tennyson's concern during this period with the public/private dichotomy. On 3 November 1872 he was recalling his obscure Somersby boyhood in reciting Lincolnshire nursery rhymes for James Knowles. A few days later, at the opposite end of the scale, he was replying to an adulatory poem from a Dr. W. C. Bennett: his reply shows clearly his sense of the emptiness of Fame. He wished, he said, that he possessed what Swinburne had called "the divine arrogance of genius" so that he could simply accept the poem and "rejoice abundantly"; however, he could not help being reminded of Andrew Marvell's lines about "Time's winged chariot" and "deserts of vast eternity." In the same month, in a letter to T. H. Huxley, he praised the essential "humility" of his friend George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), despite her increasing reputation. In February 1873 Her Majesty the Queen herself invited him to travel to Windsor whenever he was in London, so that she could show him around Prince Albert's mausoleum. (6) In his daily life at this time he could not avoid the distortions, the self-divisions of what we would now call "Celebrity."

The period during which Tennyson worked on the last three Idylls began badly. 1870 was a particularly dismal year for him. He lost his close friend Sir John Simeon in May. In June, Charles Dickens died. Unusually for him, Tennyson attended both funerals. Before Sir John's, he dressed himself in Sir John's cloak and lay in his friend's garden, composing "In the Garden at Swainston." At Dickens's funeral in Westminster Abbey, he was aware of the congregation's fascinated attention as he tried to leave. It was not only his own fame: they had noticed his striking likeness to the man they were mourning. When he looked later at Millais's sketch of Dickens's dead face, Tennyson himself admitted, "He looks just like me!" Even Edward Fitzgerald mentioned the resemblance, observing that a beard "makes rather a Dickens" of his old friend. (7) From August for the rest of the year there was more misery when Tennyson was unable to walk because of the treatment prescribed for severe eczema on his leg. It was during this period of mourning and physical incarceration that he wrote the first of the final batch of Idylls, The Last Tournament.

The poem itself centres on an act of displacement: Sir Lancelot takes King Arthur's place at the tournament (as he has already usurped his place in the heart of Queen Guinevere) while the King is away fighting the evil Red Knight. Hallam records that his father was already at work on it in November 1870. In February 1871 it received a fresh, strange impetus when Julia Margaret Cameron sent Tennyson a copy of Algernon Swinburne's new volume, Songs before Sunrise. To Tennyson this book was quite simply "blasphemous." Emily recorded that he spoke "despondingly of Swinburne's book and of the tone of literature in his set" and foresaw the "fiercest battle" between "good and evil, faith and unfaith." (8) By Spring 1871 he was completing The Last Tournament, and it may well have been at this point that he developed the section on Tristram and Isolt--in which Tristram exemplifies that destructive combination of atheism, hedonism and sensuality Tennyson saw and loathed in Swinburne (though he always remained a great admirer of the latter's poetic abilities). Late in May he read the finished poem to Emily, who found it, as she records in her Journal, "very grand and terrible." (9) In a complete departure from his usual procedure, Tennyson then published the Idyll alone in Contemporary Review (December, 1871). Perhaps illness and the deaths of friends had sharpened his sense of his own mortality; more probably, he felt that he urgently needed to set this poem in the public domain, as part of his duty as Laureate, in swift riposte to Swinburne.

The Last Tournament is a violent and deeply disturbing poem in which true Fame is set against false Fame (the original subtitle for the earliest batch of Idylls had been "The True and the False"), and in which doubling and counter-pointing of identities reach a new pitch of confusion. Even the narrative doubles back on itself and never quite reveals its true subject. Tennyson's desire to attack all that Swinburne represents gives this Idyll an urgency which results sometimes in a surreal compression of events and images, as when the interlocking of the public pursuit by Arthur and his knights of the brutal Red Knight with the private pursuit by Tristram of his two Iseults makes the external action seem part of Tristram's private dream. This crosscutting looks forward to modern cinematic techniques and backward to the medieval narrative of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The ironic juxtaposition achieves the powerful moral impact it has in Sir Gawain: Arthur's selfless hunting down of evil is silently contrasted in the parallel story with Tristram's selfish pursuit of erotic satisfaction. Each story ends in a death, with both the Red Knight and Tristram dying, it is implied, as a result of their own excesses.

The language, as it responds to Swinburne, itself becomes complex and even decadent. There are more compound words than in any other Idyll. The narrative too becomes contorted as if it, like the characters, shies away from actually telling the story of Guinevere's adultery. There is a sudden plunge into analepsis, to the inset story of Nestling, the surrogate child whom the Queen tries and fails to rear. The death of this Innocent gives its ambiguous title to the Tournament itself--"The Tournament of the Dead Innocence" being a way of concealing yet revealing the Queen's guilt. It is both a private reference to a dead child and a public indictment of the cancer at the heart of the Round Table. It is also a parodic reference to the "Tournament of Youth" in the Idyll intended to precede it in the final order, Pelleas and Ettarre. Altering Malory, who has the young Gareth set off in pursuit of the Red Knight (this presumably is why Tennyson paired this Idyll, in his imagination, with Gareth and Lynette), Tennyson instead focuses on Arthur: it is Arthur's job to tackle his self-confessed anti-type. The Red Knight has declared:
   Tell thou the King and all his liars, that I
   Have founded my Round Table in the North,
   And whatsoever his own knights have sworn
   My knights have sworn the counter to it. (10)

The Red Knight, of course, like everyone else in these last Idylls, is not what he seems: he is in fact the disillusioned and betrayed young Pelleas of the Idyll Tennyson had already written to precede this one in the finished cycle. Where in Pelleas and Ettarre the King had made a favorite of Pelleas, and tenderly protected him, now he must confront and destroy him. Pelleas had come to court as a fresh untried boy and had been irreparably damaged by the cynicism he found there: the moral complexity of Tennyson's vision is evident in the way he thus implicates the innocent Arthur himself in the slaying of innocence. The imagery surrounding Pelleas changes horribly when he becomes the Red Knight, deepening the effect of corruption surrounding the Round Table: when he arrived at Arthur's court, at the beginning of Pelleas and Ettarre, "the sweet smell of the fields / Past and the sunshine came along with him." When Arthur meets him as the Red Knight, Tennyson gives the metamorphosed Pelleas a melodramatic snarling speech in which he produces a lying (and implausible) reason for his spite:
   'The teeth of Hell flay bare and gnash thee flat!--
   Lo! Art thou not that eunuch-hearted King
   Who fain had clipt free manhood from the world--
   The woman-worshipper?...
   Slain was the brother of my paramour
   By a knight of thine.'

This warped fantasy comes from elsewhere in Malory and is never explained here. When they fight, the King merely lets the Red Knight's own evil weight kill him, as, drunk, he overbalances and slowly falls "down into the swamp" to his death. As he does so, natural imagery returns (indeed, Lincolnshire imagery, reminiscent of the early poem "Mablethorpe"), as if the boy Pelleas has reappeared, beautified in death. He fell:
   ... as the crest of some slow-arching wave,
   Heard in dead night along that table-shore,
   Drops flat, and after, the great waters break
   Whitening for half a league, and thin themselves,
   Far over sands marbled with moon and cloud,
   From less and less to nothing....

In the parallel narrative at Camelot, a similar process of displacement and metamorphosis is enacted as Lancelot takes the place of the King to preside over the Tournament--again, a doubling which brings disaster; there is, as so often in this Idyll, an echo of the medieval Mystery plays as Lancelot, like Lucifer, climbs too high, into his Lord's place: "He ... with slow sad steps / Ascending, filled his double-dragoned chair" (1708). The two alliterations and the slippage between the pronoun (Lancelot) and the possessive adjective (Arthur), verbally enact Lancelot's usurpation of Arthur's rightful place.

This Tournament, with no moral authority behind it, becomes merely a farce, a crowd-pleasing spectacle. The True Fame of Arthur is replaced by the False Fame of Tristram. Tennyson presents, through imagery rather than exposition, the monstrously selfish and sensual Tristram as an embodiment of hedonism and decadence. Tristram is excessive in every sense. He pleases the unthinking crowd (another gibe at Swinburne) which had given him an unhealthily idolatrous welcome. Lancelot hears
   The voice that billowed round the barriers roar
   An ocean-sounding welcome to one knight,
   But newly-entered, taller than the rest,
   And armoured all in forest green, whereon
   There tript a hundred tiny silver deer,
   And wearing but a holly-spray for crest,
   With ever-scattering berries, and on shield
   A spear, a harp, a bugle--Tristram....

The images are signally pagan not Christian, suggesting fertility and a religion of hedonistic pleasure rather than Christian duty. The single sentence piles phrases and clauses on top of each other, delaying the declaration of the knight's identity until the final line--just as Tristram's over-elaborate dress seems to be insisting on sustained applause before his identity is known. The Idyll becomes a dizzying dance of false, mixed, doubled identities. Tristram insists that Lancelot is his double, his brother, and advises him too to become a hedonist, to restrain himself no longer and to enjoy life while he may: "Great brother, thou nor I have made this world / Be happy in thy fair Queen as I in mine." The verbal violence of Tristram's end (much more violent than in Malory's version) strongly suggests the rhetorical effort required for the poem to maintain its official public rejection of private sensuality. Malory merely gives a second-hand account: Lancelot tells "how shamefully that false traitor (King Marke) slew that noble knight as he sat harping before his lady, la belle Isolte, with a sharp grounded glaive thrust him behind to the heart." (11) This, in contrast, is Tennyson:
   But, while he bowed to kiss the jewelled throat,
   Out of the dark, just as the lips had touched,
   Behind him rose a shadow and a shriek--
   'Mark's way,' said Mark, and clove him through the brain.

The cruel thudding of that final line of monosyllables is brutally "un-Tennysonian"; it shockingly prompts a momentary, misplaced, relief in the reader, suggesting the triumph of unnaturalness, the displacement of true values by false, which is this Idyll's theme. The poem ends with Arthur's return to Camelot and discovery of Guinevere's guilty flight--the impact on Arthur being brilliantly displaced onto the King's Fool, Dagobert:
   about his feet
   A voice clung sobbing till he questioned it,
   'What art thou?' and the voice about his feet
   Sent up an answer, sobbing, 'I am thy Fool,
   And I shall never make thee smile again.'

There could be no more inward and intimate way to convey the simultaneous collapse of King Arthur's public and private selves than through the synecdoche of the "voice ... sobbing"--a projection of the King's collapse into childlike desolation. (This concern with escape from and return to childhood is gradually to emerge as a recurring motif, culminating in the final scene of the last Idyll of all.)

There is a blithe return, however, from tragedy to comedy in the second of the three last idylls, Gareth and Lynette. It is by far the most straightforward of the three and the only one of the twelve in which there is a single linear narrative with no doubling back. Though it too repays sustained attention, its place in the present paper must simply be as an introduction to Balin and Balan. Gareth and Lynette was designed to be the second of the completed twelve books, establishing the "rising action," the youth of Camelot, an example of romance and fairytale with no dark undertones. The circumstances of this Idyll's production are well-recorded. It had been begun before The Last Tournament, but had proved unexpectedly difficult to write. There may even be some subliminal link with Tennyson's demurring about the baronetcy, his desire to pass on to his (now teenage) sons the Name, the Honor, that he insisted he would only accept for their sakes. The boy Gareth invents a parable to persuade his widowed mother to let him go to Arthur's court, saying he longs to reject the importunings of the "red-faced bride" Shame and to embrace instead the beauteous figure of Fame. This, the simplest and most allegorical of the Idylls, explores the notion that Fame is after all a chimera. When Gareth, at Court, puts in his own bid to be noticed, the King reprimands him--condemning the notion that one should fight for public Reputation alone:
   'But wherefore would ye men should wonder at you?
   Nay, rather for the sake of me, the king,
   And the deed's sake my knighthood do the deed,
   Than to be noised of.'...

Fame is presented as a temptation to be resisted, just as Tennyson had initially resisted the temptation of the baronetcy. "We will be happy to go on being Mr and Mrs Tennyson." (12) Tristram in The Last Tournament has already shown the hollowness of mere public renown. Gareth learns his lesson. After his first success in battle he takes to heart the King's admonition and accepts no reward, telling Lynette, "for the deed's sake have I done the deed, / In uttermost obedience to the King" (811-12).

The poem is notable for homely Lincolnshire images like the "field of charlock in the sudden sun / Between two showers" (380-81), and for its parallel obsession with the nature of public achievement, as when Gareth compares himself with his two brothers, Gawain and Modred:
   And under every shield a knight was named:
   For this was Arthur's custom in his hall;
   When some good knight had done one noble deed,
   His arms were carven only; but if twain
   His arms were blazoned also but if none
   The shield was blank and bare without a sign
   Saving the name beneath; and Gareth saw
   The shield of Gawain blazoned rich and bright,
   And Modred's blank as death....

Like The Last Tournament, it is also about the blurring, doubling, shifting of identities, of the impossibility of distinguishing who characters "really" are. In the final battle, Mors (Death), the most terrifying knight of all, turns out to be simply "a blooming boy" hidden in the armour of knighthood in order to terrify Lyonors. As in The Last Tournament (and later in Balin and Balan) Tennyson shows that even Evil is dissolving, unreal, as the Red Knight dissolves into "nothing," and Balan discovers that the monster he took for a "wood-devil" is in fact his beloved brother. The story ends mischievously:
   And he that told the tale in olden times
   Says that Sir Gareth wedded Lyonors,
   But he, that told it later, says Lynette.

"He that told the tale in olden times" is obviously Malory. Tennyson thus follows through the "doubling" principle to include himself--questioning his own relationship to his literary antecedents. What is his relationship to Malory, whom he read first as a boy? How far can any achievement be truly called one's own? Is Malory yet another double?

Tennyson's playfulness in this Idyll should not disguise its structural and thematic links with The Last Tournament, with which it was published in October 1872. They are the Spring and Autumn of the final cycle, being placed symmetrically second and tenth of the eventual twelve books. Both show the emptiness and transience of Fame, the first through the comically allegorical enemies whom Gareth must meet (rather reminiscent of characters in another book published in 1872, Through the Looking Glass), the second through the grotesque parody of the "Tournament of the Dead Innocence."

The last Idyll written, Balin and Balan, has been called by its great apologist J. M. Gray "perhaps the saddest" of them all. (13) Hallam Tennyson's account of its composition is that it was "written mostly at Aldworth, soon after Gareth and Lynette [completed 1872].... The story of the poem is largely original." (14) Everyone who has written about this deeply puzzling poem has struggled with two issues: the first is, does its status as the final Idyll to be written give it any special significance? Was there something special about this poem that made Tennyson feel, when he had written it, that he had at long last completed the cycle? The second is, why the long delay in publication? Completed by 1874, the poem was not published until its inclusion at the end of The Ancient Sage and Other Poems volume in 1885.

Responses to the first question, about the Idyll's special significance, have been divided. Many early critics felt that the design and intention of the whole cycle is evident without Balin and Balan, that it is at best incidental, at worst, a dreadful rehash of Malory. Only Theodore Watts (later Watts-Dutton) in the 1885 Athenaeum boldly argued that "its structural value in the scheme is beyond all exaggeration." He was in a tiny minority until the 1970s, when two major critics, John Rosenberg and J. M. Gray, championed Balin and Balan on quite different grounds, as a psychologically fascinating exercise in the Doppelganger tale, providing rich proof of Tennyson's own divided personality. (15) Gray praised its "compression and symbolism" and claimed it was "one of the poet's subtlest modifications of Malory," Tennyson having created "a fully coherent tale out of the most intractable materials." By the end of the poem, he claims, Tennyson has, in his own words, "faced the spectres of the mind / And laid them." (16) More recent critics like Linda Shires have preferred to stress the gender issue, Shires arguing that the poem is an implicit critique of "the sexual and domestic codes of Victorian England" driven by "intense male sexual energy." (17)

The second question, over the delay in publication, has produced equally contradictory responses. Sir Charles Tennyson had a typically practical and kindly suggestion: "I think it ... likely that [Tennyson] did not want to disturb the sales of the 1872 volume by introducing a new one, and that he felt it would hardly be fair to those who had bought these volumes as a complete poem to issue a new edition, which would so soon make its predecessor out of date." (18) In contrast, Gray feels that it is the "unusual and revealing nature" of the poem that made Tennyson reluctant to publish it. He claims that by "taking as his subject his own psyche the poet exorcised his creative demons and came to terms with the forces within his fiction." Linda Shires agrees to an extent but explains the delay more specifically as the result of Tennyson's reticence at revealing "the gender conflicts within himself." (19)

I would like to make a slightly different claim for the poem from those of the critics cited. Read in the context of Tennyson's life in the 1870s and of the other two Idylls written at that time, it seems to me to chart his increasing disillusionment with public achievement, his horror of the excesses of adult sexuality, and his turning back to a pre-sexual world, the intensely private world of his own origins. The conclusion of Balin and Balan does, I believe, merit special consideration beyond its place in the finished narrative, as the place where Tennyson finds his own resolution to the conflict between his public and private selves and finally recognises the origins of his own poetic Fame.

The most helpful way into this Idyll is via a comparison with Malory. Malory's story is entitled "Balin Or The Knight with the Two Swords" and it is pivotal, coming in Book 2 immediately after the opening story of Merlin. Balin is cursed at the very beginning of the tale by winning and then refusing to give up, a sword belonging to "a damsel sent by the Lady Lyle of Avilion." Once he is in possession of this sword, which she warns him will cause him to kill "the best friend you have and the man you love most in the world," his every action seems to lead, in spite of himself, to the deaths of innocent people all around him. (20) After the death (for which he is not directly responsible) of a young lady under his protection, Merlin appears and warns Balin that because of this lady's death he, Balin, is destined to strike "the most dolorous stroke that ever man stroke, except the stroke of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (54). This "dolorous stroke" is the spear-thrust in the side which the centurion gave Christ on the cross. The prophecy comes true much later in the story when Balin, trying to escape from King Pellam's castle, finds in a chamber richly decorated with cloth of gold "a marvellous spear strangely wrought" (64)--the actual spear with which the centurion pierced Christ's side. Balin grasps this holy object and uses it to wound King Pellam who represents Christianity itself, having been descended from Joseph of Arimathea, the man who had originally brought the spear, together with the Holy Grail, to England from the Holy Land.

At the moment of this blasphemous attack, "the castle break, roof and walls, and fell down to the earth." Everyone else, including the lady Balin is trying to help, is killed. Balin rides forth "through the fair countries and cities and found the people dead, slain on every side, and all that ever were on live [everyone still alive] cried and said, 'Ah, Balin! Thou hast done and caused great dommage in these countries! For the dolorous stroke thou gave unto King Pellam these countries are destroyed. And doubt not but that vengeance will fall on thee at the last!'" (65). This is surely one source of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land. It is an apocalyptic moment, dramatically achieved in Malory, and is followed, of course, after many more adventures, by the inevitable encounter between Balin and his beloved younger brother, Balan. Both are carrying shields not their own, which prevents them from recognising each other: they fight until both are mortally wounded and only then realise what they have done and before they die, beg to be buried together.

Tennyson's version is very clearly a Victorian appropriation of fifteenth-century values but also a deeply personal reworking. He was obviously fascinated by the "Dolorous Stroke" and used the phrase as the title for his initial prose draft of this Idyll. Yet in his final version, its significance is greatly changed. Whereas in Malory it represents a tangible holy relic, in Tennyson it has become symbolic of a force for good or evil within human nature. It is the same issue that Tennyson had faced when struggling to write The Holy Grail in the 1860s: Malory's unshaken Catholic belief in the physical reality of the Grail had to be translated to accommodate the ontological uncertainties of the newly-sceptical mid-Victorians. In Malory the curse clearly comes from without, from the female temptress who offers the sword at the beginning of the story. In the 1870s, belief in external evil had become more problematical. Interest in individual psychology was growing. In Tennyson, therefore, Balin's tragedy comes from within, from the uncontrollable, self-destructive violence of his nature, highlighted at the beginning of the poem when he confesses that he "[h] ad often wrought some fury on myself, / Saving for Balan." (At the lowest point in his story he moans "My violences! My violences!") Balan moves up to take his place in the title as a projection of the other, restraining side of Balin's nature. The two brothers are presented from the outset as two sides of the same coin:
   Balin and Balan sitting statuelike,
   Brethren ...
   And on the right of Balin Balin's horse
   Was fast beside an alder, on the left
   Of Balan Balan's near a poplartree.
      (22-23, 26-28)

The notion of the Doppelganger had developed in the 1870s from much earlier Gothic novels like Frankenstein into more mainstream literature in the works of, for example, Emily Bronte, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and R. L. Stevenson. A Freudian reading (which would, according to its adherents, merely give Tennyson a vocabulary he lacked for insights he undoubtedly had), might see Balan as the controlling ego and Balin as the Id, the uncontrollable subconscious self. (If that seems anachronistic, there is a perfectly good theory of the split self in Plato, which we can be sure Tennyson did know.) (21) A reading of the poem in its later 1885 context, placed at the end of the Ancient Sage volume, also supports the theory that Tennyson quite consciously thought of the brothers as projections of the divided self. "The Ancient Sage" sounds, in fact, as if it was written when Tennyson himself had, after twelve years, reread Balin and Balan:
   Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
   Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
   Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:

   Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
   Am not thyself in converse with thyself.
      (59-61, 64-65)

Balan, the more controlled, self-disciplined brother, sets off on a quest. Balin, lost without his brother's restraining influence, turns desperately for help to Queen Guinevere, who lends him her crown, to him the "golden earnest of a gentler life." Trusting her utterly (though she warns him it is merely "a shadow's shadow"), Balin falls completely under her spell. Then comes what I take to be a pivotal moment in the Idylls though it is rarely recognised as such, despite the fact that Tennyson places it with great precision at the exact central point of the finished cycle. Balin accidentally eavesdrops on Lancelot and Guinevere at the very moment at which, it is implied, Lancelot's worship of the Queen topples from the spiritual to the sensual. "The Soul" in Tennyson's own terms, can no longer control "the Senses." As Balin is re-establishing control over his passions, Lancelot, in a reverse movement, loses control of his--bringing down Camelot with him. Here, in what he planned to be Book 6 of the Idylls, Tennyson unobtrusively makes the crucial move on his moral chessboard:
   And down that range of roses the great Queen
   Came with slow steps, the morning in her face;
   And all in shadow from the counter door
   Sir Lancelot as to meet her, then at once,
   As if he saw not, glanced aside, and paced
   The long white walk of lilies toward the bower.

Refusing to read the signs as they are presented to him, Balin rushes off, "mad for strange adventures," into "the skyless woods," in the psychological reading the darkness of the subconscious self. Tennyson, like Malory, uses typology and doubling in the Idylls, but to make psychological and social, rather than religious points. Here, Lancelot's loss of control is translated into Balin's mad gallop to self-destruction.

After a surreal series of combats and some of Tennyson's liveliest narrative writing, Balin, while fleeing from his pursuers through King Pellam's castle, comes upon the Spear which is to give "the dolorous stroke." In Malory it is a holy object, "a marvellous spear, strangely wrought." In Tennyson the spear becomes instead a grotesque phallic symbol, luridly revealing the corrupt sensuality Tennyson identifies, not in Arthur's time but in his own 1870s, with superstition, sensuousness and the Roman Catholic Church:
   ... while he stared about the shrine,
   In which he scarce could spy the Christ for Saints,
   Beheld before a golden altar lie
   The longest lance his eyes had ever seen,
   Point-painted red.... [emphasis mine]

Grasping it, Balin gives up the restraining shield
   ... and turned aside into the woods,
   And there in gloom cast himself all along,
   Moaning 'My violences, my violences!'

Both in Malory and in Tennyson, Balin is "Balin the Sauvage," literally a creature of the woods. Malory's woods, places of darkness and disorder where wild beasts roam, are in Tennyson simultaneously part of a psychic landscape. Here, at this moment when Balin's self-control and self-belief are at their lowest ebb, appears that demonic figure of pagan sensuality, enemy of Arthur's serf-repressing Christian Puritanism, Vivien. She is in a direct line from Spenser's Duessa in The Faerie Queen--and, like her predecessor, somehow contrives to embody female sexuality, paganism and the Roman Catholic Church. She is accompanied by a boy, an "unfledged" squire ("Sir Chick" she calls him), who provides yet another doubling of Balin and Balan's own innocence and another suggestion of the importance of childhood. (It is also, perhaps, one of many echoes in these late Idylls of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a powerful queen adopts a 'little ... boy').

Vivien lies to Balin about a scene of love she declares she has seen between Lancelot and Guinevere, but the lie forces him to recognize the implications of what he has already seen:
   She lied with ease; but horror-stricken he,
   Remembering that dark bower at Camelot,
   Breathed in a dismal whisper, 'It is the truth.'

Vivien's story, as we have seen, comes true in The Last Tournament. Her "lie" is merely a clever anticipation of the truth. Despite the official pull of the narrative, truth and illusion blur so that moral judgement becomes impossible.

It is at this point, when Vivien has destroyed his restraining belief in Guinevere, that Balin loses all control and seems to want to escape from the narrative altogether:
   She ceased; his evil spirit upon him leapt,
   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.

Balan, still on his knightly quest close by, hears "that weird yell," sees the trampling of the Queen's shield and attacks what he takes to be "that Wood-devil I came to quell." He is in a way quite accurate in his aim: Balin is now indeed the "devil" it has always been Balan's job to keep under control. In Malory the resulting fight between the two brothers is a prolonged and bloodthirsty combat. They unhorse each other with lances but fight hand-to-hand with swords, causing terrible injuries. Tennyson, in contrast, has only lances--with the hugely symbolic "dolorous stroke" being made by the holy spear from Balin to Balan. The great act of global destruction so memorably described by Malory seems now to be presented by Tennyson as merely a private act of self-destruction between two brothers. This was presumably what caused Gladstone's disappointment with the later Idylls and led him to conclude that they had shrunk from national epic to mere private symbolism. However, the implications, in a Christian reading, are still cosmic: that symbol of human violence which violated Christ on the cross now pierces and mortally wounds Balin's better self, Balan, and through him, symbolically, all humanity. Balin himself is destroyed, not by his brother, but by his own horse falling upon him, by, as it were, his own bestiality. (There is an echo here of the death of Pelleas in The Last Tournament.) The scene is another masterpiece of economy and urgent narration. Balin
   ... vaulted on his horse, and so they crashed
   In onset, and King Pellam's holy spear,
   Reputed to be red with sinless blood,
   Reddened at once with sinful, for the point
   Across the maiden shield of Balan pricked
   The hauberk to the flesh; and Balin's horse
   Was wearied to the death, and, when they clashed,
   Rolling back upon Balin, crushed the man
   Inward, and either fell, and swooned away.

Thus Lancelot and Guinevere's adulterous love, itself, in Tennyson's terms, a giving way to "the beast in man" claims its first two victims. There is, however, a sort of ecstasy, rather than brutality, about this violence, suggested by the "maiden shield" and the "swooning," a merging of identifies between the brothers--certainly no relish in male violence. Tennyson seems to draw heavily on Malory for these final moments, but there are powerful and telling differences. This is Malory:

Then Balan went on all four, feet and hands, and put off the helm of his brother, and might not know him by the visage, it was so full hewn and be-bled; but when he awoke, he said, "Oh Balan, my brother, thou hast slain me, and I thee, wherefore all the wide world shall speak of us both." (68) [emphasis mine]

Tennyson has:
   But when their foreheads felt the cooling air,
   Balin first woke, and seeing that true face,
   Familiar up from cradle-time, so wan,
   Crawled slowly with low moans to where he lay,
   And on his dying brother cast himself
   Dying; and he lifted his faint eyes; he felt
   One near him; all at once they found the world,
   Stating wild-wide; then with a childlike wail,
   And drawing down the dim disastrous brow
   That o'er him hung, he kissed it, moaned and spake.

It is fascinating that in both versions the very intimate childlike "unselving" is accompanied by a reference to "the world." Certainly in Malory the implication is that the brothers have achieved undying public fame through the manner of their deaths. In Tennyson, in contrast, there seems to be a deliberate rejection of that public world, no mention of fame, only an intimate tenderness.

Those few critics who have recognised the importance of Balin and Balan all see this scene as some sort of final statement by the poet. Cecil Y. Lang in his "Tennyson's Psychodrama" even reads it as a displacement of Tennyson's anxious love for his sons, Hallam and Lionel. Gray interprets the scene as Tennyson at long last laying the frightening ghosts of his childhood, which I take to mean his very specific childhood fear that the terrifying masculine violence of his father might harm his gentle mother. Others have developed this idea to suggest that it is a social critique of the unnaturally rigid separation of male and female impulses imposed by the Victorian "Separate Spheres" ideology, which drives both to extremes and ultimately to mutual destruction. Yet others have seen it as a final condemnation by Tennyson of Swinburnian excess, and a vindication of Christianity's "divine repression of oneself." My own reading is perhaps more straightforwardly biographical and contextual yet, I hope, none the less suggestive for that. I would argue that, in that strange move from violence to "swooning," there is actually a recoiling from the endless confusions over identity, the divisiveness of adult sexuality (the horrors of Swinburne, of Vivien, of Lancelot and Guinevere) and a reversion to the pre-gendered safety of childhood. For me, the tenderness of these final moments of this very last Idyll is reminiscent, quite simply, of Tennyson's actual experience of brotherly love, as expressed in his "Prefatory Poem To My Brother's Sonnets," written a month after the death of his beloved, gentle, and sweet-natured brother Charles:
   And thou hast vanished from thine own
   To that which looks like rest,
   True brother, only to be known
   By those who love thee best.

   But thou art silent underground,
   And o'er thee streams the rain,
   True poet, surely to be found
   When Truth is found again.

   And through this midnight breaks the sun
   Of sixty years away,
   The light of days when life begun,
   The days that seem today,

   When all my griefs were shared with thee,
   As all my hopes were thine--
   As all thou wert was one with me,
   May all thou art be mine!'
      (5-8, 13-16, 21-28) [emphasis mine]

That final verse, with its antithetical "griefs" and "hopes," "wert" and "art" and its intricate interlocking of possessive pronouns and adjectives, is grammatically very much like the merging of identities at the close of Balin and Balan. As early as October 1871, when Tennyson was working on the last three Idylls, Brother Charles had already been noticeably frail. Emily Tennyson recorded in her Journal that he looked "so fragile that it makes one count the days with him." (22) Balin and Balan was finished by 1874 and Charles died in April 1879. Tennyson was ill after the death, almost certainly because of his grief, and in May the following year Hallam took him to Venice to recover. He wrote "Frater Ave atque Vale" on the way home at Lake Garda, an elegy for Charles in which, typically, he united two poems of Catullus, one a joyful paean to the lake, the other a mournful elegy to a lost brother.

It was not until the 1885 volume, The Ancient Sage and Other Poems, that Tennyson felt able to publish Balin and Balan. Perhaps he could not have brought himself to publish it in Charles's lifetime. Perhaps it was only ripe for publication when Tennyson himself had realized more clearly its significance, not only in the larger scheme of this strangely personal epic, but within his own life. Charles it was who, as a small child, had set Alfred, his even smaller brother, the task of filling a slate with his very earliest poetry. It was Charles who had shared his first publication, in 1827, the joint venture Poems by Two Brothers. Here, at the end of his career, Tennyson comes full circle. Brother Charles himself becomes a sort of buried Holy Grail (13-16). Charles had always been associated in Tennyson's mind with poetry and poetic inspiration. It is no coincidence that the "Prefatory Sonnet" parallels in successive verses "true brother" with "true poet." At the end of Balin and Balan Tennyson has completed what he had always regarded as his lifetime's work, his great epic--and he ends it, not with pomp and circumstance or with any sense of achievement, or recognition of undying Fame, but with a return to his earliest childhood, which he recognizes at last was, after all, the origin of even his most public poetry. "All ladders start ... in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." The answer to the riddle, as Wittgenstein realised, is that there is no riddle at all.
   Balin answered low
   'Goodnight, true brother here! goodmorrow there!
   We two were born together, and we die
   Together by one doom.' And while he spoke
   Closed his death-drowsing eyes, and slept the sleep
   With Balin, either locked in either's arm.

Anglia Ruskin University


(1) Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), 54.

(2) Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (Oxford U. Press, 1980), 519.

(3) See for example, John D. Rosenberg, Elegy For An Age (London: Anthem Press, 2005); Richard Shannon, "Tennyson and Gladstone: From Courtship to Mutual Disenchantment," The Times Literary Supplement, 2 October 1992, 4-6; Cecil Y. Lang, Tennyson s Arthurian Psych, drama (Lincoln: Tennyson Society, 1983). Also Linda Hughes and Michael Lund's discussion of the Idylls of the King in The Victorian Serial (Virginia U. Press, 1991).

(4) Martin, 542.

(5) F. B. Pinion, A Tennyson Chronology (Basingstoke: Macmillan), 128.

(6) Ibid., 132-33.

(7) Martin, 488-99.

(8) Pinion, 126.

(9) Ibid., 127.

(10) Alfred Tennyson, The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Longmans, Green, 1969), 77-80. All subsequent quotations from Tennyson's poems are taken from this edition and cited byline numbers.

(11) Sir Thomas Malory, Works, ed. Eugene Vinaver (Oxford U. Press, 1957), 828. All subsequent quotations from Malory s works are from this edition.

(12) Martin, 501.

(13) J. M. Gray, Tennyson's Doppelganger: Balin and Balan (Lincoln: Tennyson Society, 1971), 7.

(14) Ricks, 1576.

(15) John D. Rosenberg, The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson's Idylls of the King (Harvard U. Press, 1972.)

(16) Gray, 24.

(17) Linda Shires, "Patriarchy, Dead Men and Tennyson's Idylls of the King," reprinted in Tennyson, ed. Rebecca Stott (London: Longman, 1996), 176.

(18) Sir Charles Tennyson, Alfred Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1950), 403.

(19) Gray, 24; Shires, 178.

(20) Malory, Works, 45.

(21) In the Phaedrus, for example, Plato talks of the human will having to control, as a charioteer does his horses, the contending energies of the body and the spirit.

(22) Pinion, 129.
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Title Annotation:Alfred Tennyson
Author:Purton, Valerie
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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