In all of the traits of Stevenson's characters they resemble the knights of King Arthur's disintegrating realm in Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1857-88). Caught between Arthur's ideals and the realities of human longing and lust most of these characters represent deeply divided people. For Tennyson as for Stevenson, natural man threatened moral and social man. Ideals that aim too high here again lead to hypocrisy and unleash concealed bestiality. Most of the Idylls deal with this subject in one way or another, but "Balin and Balan," written in 1885 — when Stevenson was also at work on Jekyll and Hyde — delves deepest into the devils and doubles that result from misplaced ideals. Its Balin, "the Savage," becomes [120/121] a near-tragic monster of self-destruction, carrying along with him his own twin brother, Balan.
Like Jekyll, Balin wants to meet the high expectations of his culture. He models himself on Lancelot, chief knight of the Round Table, who seems to move "far beyond him." (mentioned in Hellman, 160). At the outset of Tennyson's idyll, Balin desires to redeem himself in his own and Arthur's eyes because in anger he had once smitten a churl of Arthur's court. Forgiven by Arthur for his earlier offense, he remains at court to learn courtesy and self-restraint, while his twin rides out to destroy a "demon of the woods," a fiend who "strikes from behind" (PT, 128). As he leaves, Balan tells Balin to externalize his own demon, to subdue his violent moods by holding them as "outer fiends" (PT, 138), capable of defeat. But Balin doubts himself:
"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?" [PT, 221-225]
Balin's self-diagnosis is perceptive. Like Hyde — who "came out roaring" (SC, go) after strong restraining — he will "rather prove the worse" for "high-set courtesies."
What triggers Balin's monstrous bestiality is his discovery of the liaison between Lancelot and Guinevere. Wild to ease his disillusionment, Balin rides out to remove the "demon of the woods." Recalling his brother's advice, he looks for an external monster to kill rather than tearing himself apart with rage. "Savage among savage woods" (PT, 479), Balin nevertheless feeds that rage in encounters with Arthur's enemies, who reinforce his anger over the hypocrisy of Lancelot and Guinevere. When a teasing and vicious Vivien completes this disillusionment, Balin screams out a "weird yell / Unearthlier than all shriek of bird or beast" (PT, 535-536). With awful irony, Balan hears the shriek and mistakes it for that of the wood-devil he had come to quell. Blindly, the brothers clash and eventually destroy one another.
As Tennyson surely knew, twins like Balin and Balan make perfect doubles. In this case, one is courteous man and one natural man, but like Jekyll/Hyde, they are mortally bound to each other. Thus "Balin and Balan" becomes Tennyson's parable about monstrous other selves who must die. As Rank points out (Rank, 84), twins function like the shadow, with the guardian angel — in this case Balan — becoming transformed into an omen of death. Balan knows that his twin/double must kill inner demons, but in counselling him to destroy them as though they [121/122] were outer fiends, he signs the death warrant for both brothers. Balan himself becomes a demon in his search for the wood-devil and is thus aptly but tragically murdered by a knightly twin who knows how to quell monsters but riot how to manage unpredictable brothers.
Of course the brothers together represent divided Victorians. Tennyson, more than Stevenson, was fearful of humankind's bestial instincts. He saw them as far more dangerous than humankind's depressive side. His Tristram, heedless of everything but his own physical desires and natural instincts, is brutally cloven through the head by a betrayed King Mark. Likewise Balan dies at the hand of a beast who is his own angry, subterranean and uncontrollable half. Balin and Tristram signal the end of Arthur's reign, moch as Tennyson thought unbridled naturalism and materialism might signal the end of Victoria's. This is why, unlike Stevenson, Tennyson sought to quell monsters through a continued presentation of the ideal. Arthur might pass, might lose both his Round Table and his life to the dark forces within his knights as they "reeled back" to the beast, but without him there would never have been a ray of light in the first place. Tennyson saw that Victorian hypocrisy stemmed from a discrepancy between what human nature could aspire to and what it could accomplish, but he did not hold idealism accountable for a bestiality that bore its own seeds of self-destruction.
Included on this site 10 April 2001; last modified 7 September 2012