Havelok the Dane is one of the most interesting of the romances produced in medieval England. It displays the customary patterns of romance: The hero is noble, brave, and pure. The heroine is noble, beautiful, and pure. The poem is exceptional for its rousing, energetic spirit of adventure. As one is carried along by the intricacy and suspense of the plot, one notices the unusually realistic detail that is the poem’s most outstanding asset.
Havelok the Dane is not generally considered among the great works of Middle English literature, but this is as much the fault of critical neglect as it is of any weakness of the poem itself. Havelok the Dane may lack the literary polish of the works of, for example, Geoffrey Chaucer, but the poem should be appreciated on its own terms and enjoyed for what it has to offer. Along with King Horn (c. 1225)—often associated with Havelok the Dane in literary history because of common themes, though the two works are clearly by different authors—Havelok the Dane offers a compelling story of adventure, love, honor, and personal vindication.
Havelok the Dane is one of the most approachable known Middle English poems. The protagonist is likeable, and it is easy for a reader to understand his adventures on a human level. Unlike the idealized courtly romances that flourished on the European continent, Havelok the Dane is among the most realistic of medieval poems. Although often conventional in its characters and plot, its ability to capture English geography and temperament makes it the link between the Anglo-Saxon period of centuries before and the great poems of the alliterative revival that were to come in the second half of the fourteenth century, shortly thereafter. (The latter include such works as Pearl [c. 1380] and Piers Plowman [c. 1362], both written by anonymous authors.)
Often, medieval romances appear to contemporary readers as formulaic arrangements of conventional codes and manners. These poems, therefore, whatever their eloquence of composition, lack the emotional pulse that such readers find in novels. Havelok the Dane is an exception to this rule. Rather than feeling outside a self-contained courtly ethic, some readers feel that the poem creates a world to which they can relate. Although the poem’s action is pleasingly fantastic, it affirms the inner lives of the poem’s characters.
One of the motifs in the poem that helps testify to its affirmation of the real and ordinary is the importance of food and cooking. The fact that Havelok’s surrogate father is a cook enables the poet to use food as both symbol and reminder of the everyday in Havelok’s heroic quest to...
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