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.
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...
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