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  • A Nightmare of Disorder:Arthurian Civilization and Its Discontents in Tennyson's Idyll "Balin and Balan"
  • Susanne Hillman (bio)

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 naïve 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 [End Page 287] 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-siècle, 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...


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