Havelok the Dane Essay - Critical Essays

Havelok the Dane

Introduction

Havelok the Dane c. Twelfth-thirteenth century

English verse romance.

Havelok the Dane is one of the oldest Middle English romances, generally considered to have been written around the thirteenth century, and consisting of some 3000 lines of rhymed octosyllabic couplets. In addition to being an exciting and vigorous tale in its own right, Havelok the Dane provides the first glimpse of the lives of common people after the Norman Conquest. Written in a Lincolnshire dialect, Havelok the Dane offers local color and insight into the diverse people inhabiting England, championing their humble lifestyle. It is also an important historical source for the understanding of political and legal procedures of the time. The work has been praised by critics for its narrative style and gritty realism.

Textual History

Havelok the Dane exists in only one manuscript, positioned towards the end of a collection of saints' lives and immediately before the verse romance King Horn (circa 1225). Havelok's inclusion in this collection perhaps reflects Havelok's vaguely divine status in the tale. While the English romance version is the longest of the various forms of the Havelok tale, the basic story exists in several other guises. Its first known telling was around 1135-40 in Geffrei Gaimar's L 'Estoire des Engles. It was on this work that the 1112-line Old French (or Anglo-Norman) version, Le Lai d'Haveloc (1190-1220) was based. Robert Mannyng's Chronicle of England, commonly called the Lambeth Interpolation, contains a concise rendition of Havelok's story in eighty-two long lines. Scholars continue to debate to what degree one version is indebted to others and to what extent common, mythical elements are incorporated.

Plot and Major Characters

The Havelok tale begins in England, where the beloved Christian King, Æthelwood, has died, leaving his daughter, Goldboro, sole heir to the throne. She is entrusted to her guardian, Earl Godrich of Cornwall, who sets up an oppressive rule and imprisons Goldboro in a tower, denying her the kingdom. She is told she can marry no one but the "highest" man in England. Shifting to another plot, the reader learns of Birkabeyne, the dying King of Denmark. The King entrusts his son, Havelok, and Havelok's two sisters into the protection of their guardian, Earl Godard. Wishing to assume rule himself, Godard slits the young girls' throats and orders his serf, Grim, to drown the Prince in return for Grim's freedom. Before Grim can carry out his order a blazing light leaps from Havelok's mouth, indicating his kingly origin and divine mission. Further, Grim sees a "king-mark" on Havelok, a birthmark in the shape of a cross. Grim spares the boy, adopts him, and flees with his family and Havelok to England, where they take up residence in Lincolnshire. Here Havelok works tirelessly and cheerfully in a series of menial jobs. The work helps Havelok grow strong and through his participation in sports he gains skill and agility. Eventually he becomes employed as a cook's helper in Godrich's household. Godrich, thinking Havelok of common origin, marries him to Goldboro. One night the beam of light again appears from Havelok's mouth and is witnessed by Goldboro, who realizes her husband is a prince. An angel speaks to Goldboro and tells her of her husband's destiny. Havelok, Goldboro, and Grim and his family travel to Denmark. Havelok raises an army, defeats and hangs Godard, then goes back to England and defeats Godrich, who is burned at the stake. Havelok unites the kingdoms of Denmark and England and he and Goldboro rule the countries and have fifteen children who become kings and queens themselves.

Major Themes

Thematically, Havelok the Dane is concerned with the triumph of good over evil, the importance of the rule of law, and the protection of God for good men, who may be used as his instruments. It deals with a man who rises to his rightful seat on the throne not solely by virtue of his birth, but also through his Christian qualities, personal abilities, and hard work. Some critics have also made the case that the work sought to demonstrate the legitimacy of Danish rule over England.

Critical Reception

Scholars have praised Havelok the Dane for stylistic sophistication not generally found in its time. It is dual-plotted and the author appears to be aware of his narrative skill: he neatly inserts himself at times between the action and the audience and is adept at rendering transitions, sometimes of numerous years. The work has also been acclaimed for its liveliness; for its treatment of characters, even minor ones, as individuals rather than types; for its realistic, natural style; and for its inclusion of legal facts and procedures. Critics have contrasted it with French tales of the time, noting that, while they emphasize an idealized aristocracy, Havelok the Dane focuses on the peasant class. Source studies of the Havelok tales are of particular interest to scholars. Extensive research has yielded much information and much contention over such matters as derivation of words and names, sequence, correspondences, and references. There is no disagreement that the Gaimar version, Le Lai d'Haveloc, and the Lambeth Interpolation are heavily related; however, scholars debate the source of the English version. Some believe Havelok the Dane to be based on the French tale, others believe it is the source of the French. A common source for all versions is not ascertainable, but many believe that this conjectured original was of Scandinavian origin. Scholars have also devoted much effort to trying to determine the date of composition of Havelok. Herlint Meyer-Lindenberg has contended that Havelok must have been composed between 1203 and 1216, advancing several arguments to support the thesis. George B. Jack has taken issue with each of these conclusions and has insisted that the date of composition cannot be determined any more precisely than from the late twelfth century to around 1272. Concerning the derivations and interrelations of the various Havelok tales, G. V. Smithers has written that "finality has not been reached and is hardly possible."

Principal English Editions

The Lay of Havelok the Dane [translated by W. W. Skeat; revised by K. Sisam] 1973

Medieval English Romances, Vol. I [edited by A. V. C. Schmidt and N. Jacobs] 1980

Havelok [translated by G. V. Smithers] 1987

Criticism

Edward Kirby Putnam (essay date 1900)

SOURCE: "The Lambeth Version of Havelok," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1900, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Putnam examines the version of Havelok the Dane found in the Lambeth manuscript and considers its origin, pointing out possible debts to both French and English sources, omissions of supernatural and clearly fictitious elements, and its unusual sequence.]

Of the several abridgments of the Havelok story in the chronicles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that which is interpolated in the Lambeth MS. of Robert Mannyng of Brunne's translation of Peter de Langtoft, is the longest and in many respects...

(The entire section is 5626 words.)

Harald E. Heyman (essay date 1903)

SOURCE: "Historical Allusions," Studies on the "Havelok-Tale," Upsala, 1903, pp. 64-91.

[In the following excerpt, Heyman attempts to trace many historical allusions in Havelok the Dane to their sources.]

After his short analysis of the English Romance ten Brink says: "Im Havelok haben wir festen geographischen Boden unter uns;1 doch fehlt auch hier die Brulcke, die von den Personen und Ereignissen der Fabel zur Geschichte oder zur alterer Volkssage hinüberführte—zum wenigsten fehlt eine Brücke, die wir uns ohne Gefahr anvertrauen könnten."2

This is true not only of this English version of the tale but of all the...

(The entire section is 9394 words.)

Alexander Bell (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "The Single Combat in the L 'ai d'Havelok," in Modern Language Review, Vol. XIII, No. 1, January, 1923, pp. 22-8.

[In the following essay, Bell discusses the relationship of the L'ai d'Haveloc to Gaimar's account of the story, particularly concerning the battle between Haveloc and Odulf.]

The suggestion has been made in a recent number of this Review1 that the account of the meeting of Canute and Edmund Ironside at Olney, given by Henry of Huntingdon and others, is not due primarily to a simple misunderstanding of the phrase 'comon togædere' of the A.S. Chr. s.a. 1016; that a tradition of an earlier and equally decisive single...

(The entire section is 3349 words.)

Robert W. Hanning (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Havelok the Dane: Structure, Symbols, Meaning," Studies in Philology, Vol. LXIV, No. 4, July, 1967, pp. 586-605.

[In the following excerpt, Hanning praises Havelok the Dane for its unified structure and consistent symbolism which work together to clarify and support the main meaning of the work.]

The so-called Matter of England romances—the middle English romances whose stories are drawn from the sagas and traditions of pre- and post-conquest England—1 have yet to receive their due share of attention from critics of medieval literature. Earlier investigators of King Horn, Havelok, Athelston,2Richard the...

(The entire section is 7596 words.)

M. Mills (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Havelok and the Brutal Fisherman," Medium Aevum, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, 1967, pp. 219-30.

[In the following essay, Mills concentrates on the characterization of Grim and compares him to earlier examples of the brutal fisherman type.]

When Havelok first meets with the sons of Grim the fisherman, he gives them a vivid account of his early sufferings at the hands of Earl Godard, the regent into whose hands he had been committed. In this he lays particular stress on the fact that Grim had refused to carry out Godard's command that he should drown the boy:

'Deplike dede he him swere
On boke, pat he sholde me bere
...

(The entire section is 5664 words.)

Judith Weiss (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Structure and Characterisation in Havelok the Dane," Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, April, 1969, pp. 247-57.

[In the following essay, Weiss credits Havelok the Dane with subtle structure and strong characterizations of not only its hero, but also its villains and minor characters.]

There are three principal versions of the tale of Havelok extant: the "Haveloc episode" in Gaimar's Estoire des Engleis,1 the Lai d'Haveloc,2 and the romance of Havelok the Dane.3 Of the three, the English poem is the longest and the most literary treatment. It is possible that its...

(The entire section is 5361 words.)

Dieter Mehl (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Havelok the Dane," in The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1969, pp. 161-72.

[In the following excerpt, Mehl praises Havelok the Dane for its emphasis on direct speech, its vivid and elaborate descriptions, its use of a narrator as an intermediary between story and reader, and for its ambitious structure and unity of theme.]

… It seems at first sight as if Havelok the Dane and King Horn are only slightly different variations of the same type of tale and they are therefore often grouped together in literary histories. They are both among the earliest Middle English...

(The entire section is 4448 words.)

John Halverson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Havelok the Dane and Society," in The Chaucer Review, Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall, 1971, pp. 142-51.

[In the following essay, Halverson compares and contrasts the French and English versions of the Havelok romance, contending that they reflect some large differences between French and English societies.]

Havelok the Dane is one of a very small number of Middle English romances that still retain their charm. It is no monument of medieval literature, to be sure, but it endures; it is incomparably more readable than other popular romances such as Guy of Warwick or Beves of Hamtoun, which represent a vulgarization of the genre. Havelok,...

(The entire section is 3505 words.)

David Staines (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Havelok the Dane: A Thirteenth-Century Handbook for Princes," Speculum: A Journal of Mediaeval Studies, Vol. LI, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 602-23.

[In the following essay, Staines contends that Havelok the Dane is primarily an idealized biography of a ruler perfectly embodying the best kingly characteristics, and that the author's political motive in writing the tale was to advise the king of the wishes of his subjects.]

The thirteenth-century English romance of Havelok the Dane is unique among the medieval accounts of Havelok's career because it is more than a retelling of Havelok's life. Whereas many romances rework traditional material...

(The entire section is 11624 words.)

George B. Jack (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Date of Havelok," Anglia, Vol. 95, 1977, pp. 20-33.

[In the following essay, Jack takes issue with Herlint Meyer-Lindenberg's attempt to date Havelok the Dane more exactly, considering and rejecting all six of his arguments in turn.]

Though it would generally be accepted that the Middle English romance Havelok must have been in existence before 1300, there has been little agreement on any very precise date of composition; and indeed an agnostic view of the matter was taken in the edition by Skeat and Sisam, who concluded that it was impossible to determine how much before 1300 the poem may have been composed.1 Nevertheless, there...

(The entire section is 4972 words.)

John M. Ganim (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Community and Consciousness in Early Middle English Romance," in Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative, Princeton University Press, 1983, pp. 16-54.

[In the following excerpt, Ganim describes a repeated pattern found in Havelok the Dane in which the epic gives way to the realwhich in turn yields to comic synthesis. Ganim further explores the use of geography to evoke distinctions between social classes.]

A number of scholars have described the change in society, sensibility, and form that surrounded the transformation of epic into romance.1 Most studies, however, have concerned themselves with the elegant Old French...

(The entire section is 8048 words.)

W. R. J. Barron (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "King Horn and Havelok the Dane," in English Medieval Romance, Longman, 1987, pp. 65-74.

[In the following excerpt, Barron considers the relative popularity of King Horn and Havelok the Dane and contends that while the realism of Havelok has more appeal for today's readers, that was not necessarily true in the case of its original audience.]

… In the earliest of the English romances, King Horn (c. 1225), history is so throughly absorbed into folklore that, though the period of the Viking raids provides the violent social context of the action, specific historical events and characters cannot be identified. The...

(The entire section is 4913 words.)

Sheila Delany (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Romance of Kingship: Havelok the Dane," in Medieval Literary Politics, Manchester University Press, 1990, pp. 61-73.

[In the following essay, Delany sketches the historical background of Havelok the Dane, summarizes its plot, and asserts its importance in describing the beginnings of social mobility and change in thirteenth-century England.]

In claiming romance for the 'mythos of summer', Northrop Frye associates the genre with 'wish-fulfillment dream'. At the same time, Frye introduces an important qualification to the utopian or fantastic dimension of romance: the quest-romance 'is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment...

(The entire section is 6010 words.)

Thorlac Turville-Petre (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Havelok and the History of the Nation," in Readings in Medieval English Romance, edited by Carol M. Meale, D.S. Brewer, 1994, pp. 121-34.

[In the following essay, Turville-Petre argues that Havelok the Dane is better considered as history than romance and that this was the way it was viewed by contemporary readers of the chronicles.]

The establishment and exploration of a sense of national identity is a major preoccupation of English writers of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: who are the English; where do they come from; what constitutes the English nation? The English chronicles of the period, Robert of Gloucester's...

(The entire section is 5561 words.)