The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1199

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...

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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 family becomes increasingly poor. Havelok, touched by the suffering of his foster family, resolves to seek his fortune in Lincoln. Although he can ill spare it, Grim cuts a cloak from new sailcloth for Havelok and wishes him well. The exiled prince sets out for town with his new cloak, but he has neither shoes nor hose. In the town, Havelok starves for three days. No one will hire him, and he can find no food. At length, he hears a cry for porters. Looking quickly around, he sees the earl’s cook with a catch of fish to carry. In his eagerness for work, Havelok knocks down eight or nine other porters to get to the cook first. Strong as a bull, the youth carries the fish to the castle. The next day, the earl’s cook cries again for a porter, and this time Havelok carries a huge load of meat for him.

In the castle yard, the cook greatly admires the Havelok’s strength. He gives the boy as much bread and meat as he can hold and engages him as a steady helper. Eating regularly and working hard, Havelok becomes widely known for his strength. On a certain feast day, the retainers hold a stone-putting contest. A group of men brings in a stone so huge that each one of them can barely lift it. Havelok easily heaves it many yards.

Godrich, hearing of Havelok’s fame, decides to use the youth in his scheme to gain control of the kingdom. Thinking Havelok only a churl, Godrich has Goldeboru brought from Dover and orders the boy to marry her. Both young people object, but Godrich has his way. Havelok takes his sorrowing bride back to Grim’s cottage. That night, the groom sleeps soundly, but the bride is wakeful from shame at being mated to a churl. All at once, a light issues from Havelok’s mouth, and a voice tells Goldeboru of her husband’s birth and destiny. Awaking Havelok, she advises him to go at once to Denmark to claim his throne.

In the morning, Havelok persuades the three Grim brothers to travel with him to Denmark. Arriving in that land, the impoverished group meets Ubbe, a noble who buys a ring from Havelok. Ubbe, greatly taken with Havelok and his beautiful bride, offers them a cottage for the night. The couple accepts gratefully.

In the night, a band of robbers tries to break in after overpowering the guard set by Ubbe. Havelok awakes and attacks them. He seizes the door bar and kills the robbers. This feat wins him more admiration. Ubbe assigns the young couple to a rich bower for the rest of the night. When Ubbe steals in for a look at his guests, he is astonished to see a light streaming from Havelok’s mouth and a cross marked on his shoulder. By these signs, he knows that Havelok is Birkabeyn’s son and the heir to the Danish throne.

Calling all the barons of Denmark together, Ubbe dubs Havelok a knight and proclaims him king. The assembled nobles pass judgment on Godard, the traitor: He is brought before Havelok, flayed, and hanged on a gallows with a great nail through his feet.

Now master of Denmark, Havelok sails with a strong force to England to seize that kingdom from Godrich. Battle is joined near Lincoln. Although Godrich fights valiantly and wounds Ubbe, he is finally captured by the wrathful Danes. The false earl of Cornwall, bound hand and foot, is brought before Havelok for judgment. Havelok orders Godrich to be placed upon an ass and taken into Lincoln, where his crime is proclaimed. Then, Godrich is taken to a nearby green and burned to death. Havelok marries one of Grim’s daughters to the cook who befriended him and makes the man the new earl of Cornwall. Grim’s other daughter is married to the earl of Chester. As for Havelok and Goldeboru, they live together long and rule wisely. Their union is blessed with fifteen children.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381

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.

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