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...

(The entire section is 1199 words.)