Pellam, one of the former allies of Lot of Orkney, refuses to pay his tribute, and Arthur orders his treasurer to go and collect it. The old man informs the king that outside Camelot there are two unknown knights who challenge and overthrow all knights who pass by. Arthur orders the treasurer to avoid them since he is past the age for fighting.
Later on, the king disguises himself and rides out to meet these knights. They announce that their purpose is to discredit the prowess of all members of the Round Table. Arthur accepts their challenge and defeats them both with great ease.
Afterward, a herald is sent to call the two knights to the court. On their arrival, Arthur asks their names. One of them replies that they are brothers; he is Balin the Savage and the other is Balan. He explains that three years before, in a fit of rage, he struck one of Arthur's servants and was exiled for this crime. He has always been subject to fits of melancholy or madness, and these have intensified since then. Often he would have done violence to himself, but for the interference of Balan, who is a better and more worthy man than himself. During these three bitter years he decided to defeat a large number of the Round Table's knights. He had thought that these victories would force Arthur to acknowledge that he was a great knight and he would be readmitted to the king's court. He was accompanied in this venture by his devoted brother, Balan. But today, he continues, his boasts were ended by an unidentified knight who unhorsed them both.
Arthur commends Balin for telling the truth and invites them both to rejoin the Round Table. He says:
"As children learn, be thou
Wiser for falling! walk with me, and move
To music with thine Order and the King. . . ."
A few days later, the embassy to Pellam returns, reporting that King Pellam, who had once been an irreligious and dangerous enemy, has now become very devout. He thinks to prosper in the name of religion, as has Arthur. Pellam claims descent from Joseph of Arimathea, maintains all sorts of religious vigils and obligations, and asserts that he has possession of the very spear with which the Romans pierced the side of Christ.
Pellam claims to have no further interest in worldly matters and has put his realm into the control of Garlon, his heir. This man has paid the tribute, but only after many complaints and insults. On their return, the embassy discovered a murdered knight in the woods near Pellam's castle. They had thought Garlon to blame but soon learned that an evil demon that inhabited the woods was really responsible. Arthur asks for a volunteer to hunt the killer. Balan offers his services and rides off on the quest. Before leaving, he embraces his brother affectionately. He advises Balin to control his moods and not be so fearful that others seek to harm him.
In Balan's absence, Balin tries his best to improve himself. He makes a serious effort to become a better knight and to learn the meaning of courtesy and chivalry. Lancelot, the greatest of all knights, becomes his ideal, and he seeks to emulate him in every way. He is also very much under the influence of Guinevere, whom he regards highly, and he bears her token on his shield. With this guidance, Balin soon becomes a figure of respect and admiration in the court. Dark moods still come over him, but he is able to control them, even though the strain is often great.
One day Balin chances to observe a secret rendezvous between Lancelot and Guinevere. He is shocked by this discovery and his new world begins to fall apart. He loses all faith in himself and his new standards when he sees those whom he respects so much in such a compromising situation. His madness comes upon him again, and he dashes from the palace in an insane fit.
The deranged knight wanders off in the direction taken by his brother. In his rage he nearly kills a forester and then attempts to find the demon that infests the woods, hoping to vent his fury on the beast and to purge himself of his madness. Riding carelessly and paying no heed to the warnings he receives, Balin is attacked by the demon. Because of his confused state, he is unable to defend himself; he breaks his lance and loses his horse. Finally, much distraught, he arrives on foot at the castle of Pellam.
He is welcomed there and entertained by Garlon. Balin speaks highly of the queen, but Garlon sneers and repeats the worst scandals that besmirch her reputation. Balin nearly attacks his host in anger, but is able to restrain himself and, instead, tries to deny the gossip.
Nonetheless, Garlon's remarks have upset Balin and trouble him deeply. The next day Garlon taunts him again. Balin attacks him, but shatters his sword in his rage. Garlon is rescued by his soldiers and Balin takes refuge in the chapel, where he finds the sacred lance. Using this weapon, he fights his way out of the castle. For many miles he stumbles aimlessly through the woods until he evades his pursuers. He finds his horse again, and, ashamed to have defiled the queen's token, he throws his shield away. Balin then bemoans his inability to cope with his madness until he falls into an exhausted sleep.
As Balin lies there, Vivien and her squire ride by on their way to Arthur's court. She is a devotee of the old pagan religion and an enemy of Arthur and his new moral order. She hopes to be able to undermine his power when she arrives at the palace, and she sings one of the ancient sun hymns and comments to her squire:
"This fire of heaven,
This old sun-worship, boy, will rise again,
And beat the Cross to earth, and break the King
And all his Table."
When Balin awakens, Vivien asks him to guide her to the court. He refuses, saying that he is no longer worthy to be in the royal presence, and adds that he will stay in the savage woods, where he, another savage, really belongs. He will remain in the forest until his death.
Vivien laughs and Balin thinks she is mocking him. She begs his pardon and tries to convince him that he has no cause for shame since there is so much vice and corruption at Camelot, anyway. She supports her statement by lies and distorted truths. Once again Balin's madness overwhelms him, and, cursing himself and them, he dashes deeper into the woods.
Meanwhile, Balan is also in the forest, seeking the demon. He hears Balin's screams and thinks he has found his prey. Snatching his squire's shield, he leaps on his horse and rides to the attack. He and Balin fight bitterly, for neither realizes who the other is.
Vivien and her squire observe these events, and then continue on the way to Camelot. They are both indifferent to what they have seen and are unable to comprehend the reason for Balin's feelings of shame and guilt.
The two brothers, meanwhile, fatally wound each other. As they lie side by side, they each discover the real identity of their former opponent and realize what a tragic thing has just taken place. Balin moans:
"Oh brother . . . woe is me!
My madness all thy life has been thy doom,
Thy curse, and darken'd all thy day; and now
The night has come. I scarce can see thee now.
Good night! for we shall never bid again
Good morrow — Dark my doom was here, and dark
It will be there. I see thee now no more.
I would not mine again should darken thine;
Good night, true brother."
Balan answer'd low,
"Good night, true brother, here! good morrow 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 lock'd in either's arm.