Species: Imported garden laurel tree (?Laurus nobilis ; Prunus Laurocerasus?)
Source: ‘Balyn & Balan’ in Le Morte Darthur.
Date: Complete by 1469-70, first printed 1485 A.D.
Highlights: Sir Balyn is the least subtle knight that’s ever lived. Once Balyn brought a sad, jilted knight to visit his lover. She was otherwise engaged. Balyn snuck his friend in anyway. Balyn can’t be held responsible for EVERY murder right?
Sir Balyn is the worst knight ever to live. He is he hero of a short story called ‘Balyn and Balan’, which is one of the chivalric tales written by Thomas Malory in Le Morte Darthur.
In his story, Balyn goes from disaster to disaster. He travels the world looking for adventures but always ends up spoiling them, often because of his lack of tact. The Lady of the Lake is an enchantress, so when she visits King Arthur’s court he kills her in cold blood (Shepherd, 2004: 43), Balyn’s answer is a quick stab. No more Lady of the Lake. She was a main character.
Later on in the story he repeatedly encounters an invisible knight who cannot be beaten because he can turn invisible. He happens to be invited to the same dinner party as the invisible knight (p.55). Stabbidy-stab. Problem solved.
Later still, chased around the castle by the angry host of said dinner party, he tries his luck with a spear instead of a sword (p.56). Stab.
This stabbing was such a bad idea it causes the whole kingdom to go wrong, and half of the Knights of the Round Table have to die to find the Holy Grail to sort it out.
One of the reasons Sir Balyn is such a bad knight is because he is not rich like all of the other knights in Le Morte Darthur. It’s a class thing. Balyn was ‘poore and poorely arayde’ and from peripheral Northumberland (p.41). He is actually not a knight of the Round Table at all, but in prison for killing someone (stab-stab). That may have set Balyn up for failure with Malory’s audience, but he probably has more in common with modern readers than the noble knights do. Personally, I can’t help sympathising with his practical ideas. In a world with objectively good and bad people, perhaps stab-stab>problem-solved should be a valid approach.
Another reason is that at the beginning of the adventure he manages to acquire a magic sword. Technically it’s a cursed sword but details aren’t important. By taking it, Bayn becomes super-powered and oh-so TRAGIC fate like all your favourite heroes. To be honest, I’m not sure if he wasn’t already destined to stab too much even without that curséd sword.
One of my favourite episodes in Balyn is where he tries to help a jilted knight (p.57). He finds a knight called Garnysh crying on the ground and goes over to sympathise. He gets the usual answer, sob-sob, ‘Leave me alone! I don’t want to talk about it!’ (original language more pretentious, p.57). Balyn offers to help, and rides with Garnysh to Garnysh’s girlfriend’s castle/pad. Balyn searches through it and finally finds:
Thenne Balyn looked into a fayr litil garden, and under a laurel tre he sawe her lye upon a quylt of grene samyte, and a knyght in her armes, fast halsynge eyther other, and under their hedes grass and herbes. Whan Balyn saw her lye so—with the fowlest knyte that ever he sawe, and she a fair lady—thenne Balyn wente thurgh all the chambers ageyne and told the knyghte how he fond her as she had slepte fast, and so brough hym in the place there she lay fast slepeing. (p.57-8)
Apparently this was not the best thing for Garnysh to see because he took a leaf from Balyn’s book and killed the two lovers and then himself. At this point Balyn seems to doubt the wisdom of his actions and feel real remorse–ohwaitno:
When Balyn sawe that, he dressid hym thensward [ran away], lest folke wold say he had slayne them, and so he rode forth. (p.58)
How anyone could possibly suspect Balyn of having anything to do with three corpses is beyond me.
THE LAUREL TREE
When I discussed the significance of the laurel tree with a class of undergraduate students this year they were full of good ideas. Some pointed to the classical portrayal of the laurel crown as a symbol of triumph for conquering emperors. I think the symbolism is simpler than this though.
There is some confusion in what the term laurel could refer to. Usually today in Britain laurel refers to Prunus laurocerasus, and we use the term bay or bay-leaf to refer to what horticulturalists have identified as the laurel proper (Laurus Nobilis). However there seems to have been some medieval confusion between the two. Culpeper uses the term laurel-tree for the bayleaf (Culpeper, 1996 ed: 24, 593). Regardless, both are usually native to the Mediterranean and both are evergreen and were probably introduced to Britain expressly as a garden species. Both may have had a high status in the medieval period, if they was only found in the gardens of those rich and fashionable enough to plant them. Since bayleaf has some herbal and culinary impotence, laurel may have been the higher status of the two.
Either way, in our story, laurel could be read as just a small representative of the idyllic ‘fayre litil garden’ setting. The two lovers are sleeping in this high-status yet innocent landscape when Balyn rudely (and illegally) intrudes. The symbolism suggests that he is the one who is out of place and intruding in this elite, private environment.
Balyn brings Garnysh from the place where he was lamenting his loss in a socially-acceptable setting, to experience the full-force of his loss in a private environment. From a knightly-elite point of view, by doing this, Balyn bears some responsibility for the consequences. But Balyn does not see the world from this sophisticated point of view. From his practical, unrefined perspective he has found faithless lady and an ugly knight doing something wrong and treacherous, and he reveals it to the world. Here is the knight who won a magic sword by being entirely ‘withoute vylony or trechory’ (p.42). He is also unable to disassemble or cover-up. With Sir Balyn I would argue that Malory presents the idea that the perfect knight needs to balance being true and noble with being worldly and clever, aspects we do not usually associate with chivalry.
Culpeper N (1995 ed) Culpeper’s Complete Herbal. Wordsworth, Kent.
Shepherd SHA (2004) Le Morte Darthur. Norton, London.