Havelok the Dane Analysis

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Athelwold is a good king. No one dares to offer him a bribe, and his people are at peace. He is a particular guardian to widows, children, and innocent maidens. A messenger can go peacefully from town to town within Athelwold’s realm with a hundred pounds of gold in a sack, free from fear of robbery. The king’s only heir is his daughter Goldeboru, who is still an infant when Athelwold realizes that he will soon die. He prays for guidance and then summons to his side his earls and barons, who loudly lament the approaching end of their honored king. Athelwold’s chief concern is for his daughter’s care. He decides that Godrich, earl of Cornwall, is the most trustworthy candidate to bring up the princess. Godrich swears a great oath to safeguard the infant Goldeboru and to hold her lands in trust until she assumes the throne.

Godrich watches the growing girl with envious eyes. She is attractive, and Godrich cannot bear to think of the day when she will be his sovereign. He becomes a traitor, transporting her secretly from Winchester to Dover and placing her in a remote castle. He sets his most trusted thanes to guard the entrance, with orders to let no one in to see the princess.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, King Birkabeyn lies near death. He has reigned long and wisely, but his death will leave his son Havelok and his two little daughters without protection. He thinks of his faithful friend, Godard, the most respected noble in the kingdom. Godard swears a great oath to guard the king’s children well and to see that Havelok comes into his inheritance when he becomes a man. After being shriven, Birkabeyn dies content.

On the seashore, Godard cruelly slits the throats of the two tiny girls and then seizes Havelok. The boy, terrified at what he has been forced to witness, begs for mercy. Instead of killing Havelok straightaway, Godard calls for Grim, a fisherman, and commands him to bind the prince and cast him into the sea with an anchor around his neck. Anxious to please his lord, Grim seizes the boy and binds him tightly. Then, he takes him home to wait for nightfall.

As Havelok dozes on the rude bed in the fisherman’s hut, a great light shines from his mouth. Grim’s wife is frightened and calls her husband. Grim, awed, frees Havelok from his bonds. Bundling his wife, his five children, and Havelok aboard his fishing boat, he sets sail for England. The group sails up the Humber, landing in a cove that would afterward be called Grimsby.

Over the next twelve years, Havelok grows rapidly. He is an active boy and a prodigious eater. Luckily, Grim is a good fisherman, and he can trade his catches at the market in Lincoln for corn, meat, and ropes for his fishing nets. Havelok, who helps Grim in all his labors, becomes especially good at peddling fish.

A great famine comes upon the north of England. The crops wither, and the fish flee England’s shores. Grim’s...

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Havelok the Dane Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bradbury, Nancy Mason. “Havelok the Dane: Telling into Writing.” In Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Late Medieval England. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Examines Havelok the Dane and other medieval English romances to describe how they originate from a combination of writing, reading, memory, and oral storytelling.

_______. “The Traditional Origins of Havelok the Dane.” Studies in Philology 90 (Spring, 1993): 115-142. Looks at the layers of earlier myth, legend, and history that are preserved in the epic. Useful in separating the Danish, continental, and insular English elements upon which the poem drew.

Cannon, Christopher. “The Spirit of Romance: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, and Floris and Blancheflour.” In The Grounds of English Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Analyzes Havelok the Dane and other works of medieval literature to demonstrate how these works laid the foundation for subsequent English literature.

Couch, Julie Nelson. “The Vulnerable Hero: Havelok and the Revision of Romance.” Chaucer Review 42, no. 3 (2008): 330-352. Argues that the poem alters the medieval romance genre because its hero is a vulnerable “underdog” instead of a powerful aristocrat.

Gadomski, Kenneth H. “Narrative Style in King Horn and Havelok the Dane.” Journal of Narrative Technique 15 (Spring, 1985): 133-145. One of the most aesthetically sensitive critiques of the poem. Useful for readers interested in a primarily literary and artistic approach to the work.

Levine, Robert. “Who Composed Havelok for Whom?” Yearbook of English Studies 22 (1992): 95-104. Speculates on the economic, cultural, and social backgrounds of both the author and the audience of Havelok the Dane. The article is influenced by reception theory and sociohistorical criticism.

Rouse, Robert. “English Identity and the Law in Havelok the Dane, Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild, and Beues of Hamtown.” In Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, edited by Corinne Saunders. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2005. Rouse’s discussion of Havelok the Dane and other works of medieval literature, originally presented at a conference in 2002, focuses on the representation of English legal and national identity in the texts.

Wilson, R. M. The Lost Literature of Medieval England. New York: Methuen, 1952. Conveys a sense of the storehouse of native English myth and lore of which Havelok the Dane is one of the few extant examples. Wilson provokes many speculations about the place of Havelok the Dane in the canon of English legend.