Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1130
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 regain his rightful inheritance. The detailed descriptions of the various houses in the poem, from the fisherman’s hut to the castle in which Goldeboru is imprisoned, also fortify the poem’s atmosphere of domesticity in the middle of a heroic quest. The houses in Havelok the Dane are not simply allegorical figures for states of mind or morality, as they are in, say, Guillaume de Lorris’s Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, partial translation c. 1370, complete translation 1900). Instead, they are real places in real time where real people live (though, certainly, these realities are garbed within a wonderfully elaborate fictional and narrative texture).
Realism also informs the poem’s depiction of the lower classes and of the harshly impoverished conditions in medieval England. It is inconceivable that Havelok or any other protagonist of a poem written at this time and in this genre could be anything but an aristocrat. However, the fact that he relates empathetically to people below his station in life is a vital ingredient in the evolution of his character, one that psychologically prepares him to assume the kingship of Denmark. In many ways, Havelock’s experience of poverty exemplifies the archetypal device of the hero proving himself abroad before returning triumphantly home. The portrayal of Grim and his family, however, is far more than schematic.
The courtship of Havelok and Goldeboru is an especially winning feature of the poem. Traditionally, courtly love is illicit and outside normal social channels. Havelok and Goldeboru, on the other hand, are matched with each other by external forces. Their romance begins only when Havelok’s true station in life is revealed, yet the poem depicts their eventual relationship in strikingly sincere terms. Havelok and Goldeboru allow real-world contingencies to affect their feelings for each other, and modern readers may recognize their own experiences in the lovers’ behavior. Havelok the Dane departs from courtly conventions and achieves an often-underrated social and psychological realism. Havelok is not a particularly intellectual hero or a very passionate one, but he does come across as an attractive personality. Goldeboru’s beauty and sympathetic nature are conveyed in a three-dimensional manner; she is not simply a stereotypical damsel in distress.
The realism of Havelok the Dane is geographical as well. Havelok the Dane was composed in the northern part of England (which was also to produce Pearl and Piers Plowman). Although all of fourteenth century England was ruled by a French-speaking Norman aristocracy, and had been since the victory of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings (1066), the north was far less influenced by Norman manners and language than was the south. This regional quality resonates throughout Havelok the Dane. The character of Grim, for instance, is intended to provide an explanation of cause or origin (what literary scholars terms an “etiological myth”) for the English seaport of Grimsby. The name Grimsby is of Danish origin, and the entire region was occupied by Danes in the tenth century during the Viking raids.
Havelok the Dane brings to mind the many cultural intertwinings between England and Scandinavia in the medieval era, and it reminds readers that English national identity is not monolithic but composed of many different strands. The language of the poem itself contains many words of Danish or Scandinavian origin that have not survived in the modern English lexicon, which is far more influenced by the Norman-French dialects popular in the southern part of England. In its combination of the Danish theme with that of the protagonist’s search for his own identity, Havelok the Dane is reminiscent of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (early eighth century) and of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603). Like Beowulf, Havelok leaves his native land and gains fame and fortune in another kingdom. Like Hamlet, Havelok struggles against a usurper who stands between him and the inheritance bequeathed him by his father and goes to England in order to clarify his political situation. Thus, Havelok the Dane can be seen as a bridge between two of the greatest works of English literature.