Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 954

King Horn represents a literary genre, the romance, that had its inception in France during the second half of the twelfth century. This new genre immediately spread to England and remained popular in both countries for about a century. While it never achieved the status of serious literature, it afforded light entertainment for the rural gentry and, possibly, for small numbers of the nobility and the merchant class. Medieval romances can be classified into three types: the hero-alone type, which King Horn represents; the family-based pattern; and the epic romance. King Horn also belongs to the subgenre that deals with the child exile—a type especially provocative of sympathy from the audience.

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The romance developed from the chanson de geste, which had, in turn, grown from the Germanic epic. While the romance bears traces of its immediate and remote predecessors, however, it differs in its emphasis. That is, while the epic and chanson de geste primarily focused on military feats, the romance centered on the search of individuals for their place in society. When Horn asks King Aylmar of Westernesse to knight him, for example, he is asking for an authentic place in this foreign kingdom. Moreover, Horn is not content to be a knight in name only but must prove the validity of his position by his deeds. He exhibits great prowess in slaying the Saracens, but his prime motive in so doing is to win Rymenhild’s hand by establishing himself as a proven defender in her land. Conversely, his use of an alias while in Ireland indicates that he does not desire permanent affiliation with that country.

Most critics consider the medieval romance unsophisticated in style, theme, and structure. Its meter is crude, its characters are flat, and its plot is predictable. It contains few, if any, symbols, and offers no insight for further reflection. Its very simplicity, however, served a purpose for its original audience. Members of the country gentry, who were beneath the nobles on the social ladder and members of the rising merchant class, may have felt somewhat insecure regarding their power and position in society. This was probably especially true of the women—who constituted most of the romance’s audience—who had little genuine power or position in any class. By representing extremes of good and evil, rather than simulating realistic persons with complex personalities, romance characters and their actions offered clear-cut examples of how to behave in an ordered society. The kingdom of Aylmar, for example, is one of order and propriety. Aylmar graciously opens his home to the children from Suddene, but when Finkenhild falsely accuses Horn of sleeping with Rymenhild, the king has no choice but to banish the latter, whom he sees as a threat to a society where every activity has its prescribed time and circumstance. Although Horn is wrongly treated, he obediently leaves Westernesse, with no apparent intention of vindicating himself or seeking revenge. His obedience to authority is rewarded by his eventual marriage to Rymenhild, whereas Finkenhild’s deceit is punished by his loss of the princess.

To ensure the specific nature of the audience’s reactions, romance poets make it clear at the outset whether a given character is good or bad. The poet of King Horn states as early as line 14 that Horn is “bright as the glass/ white as the flower.” Since these similes describe the Virgin Mary in some lyrics of the same period, it is made obvious that Horn is pure and virtuous. All of his actions, including the murder of Modi, are meritorious. Finkenhild, on the other hand, is referred to in line 28 as “the worst,” and everything he does is evil.

The romance not only provides paradigms of desirable conduct but also seeks to inculcate in the audience accepted societal values. To this end, they are structured around predictable plots whose repetition reinforces values the audience already accepts, whether consciously or unconsciously. The typical plot is one in which a good king dies and leaves a son, whose responsibility it becomes to save his father’s kingdom from external or internal enemies. A beautiful heroine functions as the son’s motive and reward for virtuous and heroic behavior. Finally, the son’s marriage to the heroine results in the restoration of the late father’s land, bringing full closure to the story. In King Horn, the enemies are Scandinavians, whom, possibly to give the poem a flavor of the crusading era, the poet calls Saracens. Throughout his sojourn in Ireland, Horn’s valor is inspired by his love for Rymenhild, and their marriage reestablishes his father’s line in Suddene. The action of the poem thus extols the values of order, fidelity, bravery, and lineage, all of which were previously honored and are now strengthened.

Because they were frequently sung or recited as well as read, it was imperative for romances to be memorable and pleasing. King Horn’s rhyming couplets give it a lyrical quality, and synecdoches (the use of a whole to represent a part or a part to represent the whole) make it vivid and retainable. Line 112, for example, conveys the agony of the banished children through the phrase “wringinde here honde” (wringing their hands). Similarly, the poet expresses all of Godhild’s loss and despair when he says that “Under a roche [rock] of stone/ Ther heo [she] livede alone.”

Although the writers of medieval romance did not achieve the wit of Chaucer or the perception of the Pearl Poet, they provided entertainment and escape for those who read or listened to their works. Like later authors of romances, they did not strive to offer novel ideas but sought only to reinforce conventional, widely accepted values and behaviors.

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