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King Horn: Introduction


1 The date for the poem has been traditionally acknowledged as about 1225, but recent scholarship has challenged that date, placing it later in the thirteenth century. For a review of the arguments see Rosemund Allen, "Date and Provenance of King Horn: Some Interim Reassess-ments," Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig (Suffolk, England: St. Edmundsburg Press, 1988), 99-126.

2 W. R. J. Barron, English Medieval Romance (London: Longman, 1987), p. 223.

3 J. A. W. Bennett, Middle English Literature, edited and completed by Douglas Gray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 135.

4 Georgianna Ziegler, "Structural Repetition in King Horn," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 81 (1980), 403.

5 Ziegler, p. 406.

6 See Diane Speed, "The Saracens of King Horn," Speculum 65 (1990), 564-95.

7 Barron, p. 85.

8 John Speirs, Medieval English Poetry: The Non-Chaucerian Tradition (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p. 187.

9 Lee C. Ramsey, Chivalric Romance: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983), p. 32.

10 Barron, p. 54.

11 Barron, p. 233.

Written in the last part of the thirteenth century, King Horn is probably the oldest surviving Middle English romance.1 While Horn's meter may show some influence from the rhyming ballad meters of Anglo-Norman poetry, it is just as likely that the poem retains characteristics of Old English verse in a century when French-speaking Normans dominated English culture.2 Like Old English verse, its meter depends on several heavy stresses per line, though rhymed couplets have overshadowed the alliteration common to earlier English poems. Even though an Anglo-Norman poem, Horn et Rimenhild, contains roughly the same plot, some scholars believe that the English poem derives from an earlier source.3 Both Horn and Havelok the Dane belong to a group of poems known as the Matter of England, late medieval romances based in part on the oral folk culture that survived the Norman Conquest. This category also usually includes Athelston and Bevis of Hampton.

King Horn begins with the death of the hero's father at the hands of the Saracens who send Horn and his companions into exile. The young Horn finds himself with his twelve companions abandoned in Westernesse (identified with the Wirral peninsula near modern-day Liverpool). There the king's daughter, Rymenhild, declares her passion for Horn, and persuades her father to make him a knight. But Horn will not marry her until he has proved his worthiness, which he does by killing some invading Saracens. Jealous of his exploits, Horn's companion Fikenhild tells the king that Horn plans to kill him. Horn goes into exile again, this time in Ireland where he proves his military skill further by killing yet more invading Saracens. Though King Thurston offers his daughter Reynild in marriage as a reward, Horn remains loyal to Rymenhild. He returns in disguise when she is about to be forced into marriage with one King Mody, but then goes off to defeat the Saracens who murdered his father. When he returns he discovers that the evil Fikenhild has just forced Rymenhild to marry him. Horn quickly kills the traitor comrade, and he and Rymenhild then marry. Reynild, Thurston's daughter, is given in marriage to Horn's faithful comrade, Athulf, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Unlike the loosely organized compositions of many French romances, King Horn uses repetition to create a rather tight, symmetrical structure. One may see this repetition on the simplest level, as in two-or-three word formulas, recaps of earlier parts of the story, and even large parallel portions of the plot. This structure of repetition and parallel helps underscore a major theme of the romance - the development of the hero towards maturity. Horn begins as a frightened noble child who develops a love life, achieves several military victories, becomes a sophisticated strategist with his use of disguises and coded statements to Rymenhild, and ultimately wins back his love and his kingdom, both of which have been taken away from him unjustly. Georgianna Ziegler identifies four distinct stages in this development: destruction (lines 1-152), learning (lines 153-756), initiation (757-1008) and reconstruction (1009-end).4 The three battles show Horn's increased skill and confidence, as do repetition of hunting and love motifs and dream symbolism, which mark a "change from boy to man, from innocence to self-assertion, from hunted to hunter. . . ."5

Another theme of the romance is the stark contrast of good and evil. Horn's moral world divides distinctly between loyal friends and evil traitors - the never-failing Athulf vs. that "wurste moder sone" Fikenhild, who double-crosses Horn not once but twice. On a larger scale, Horn's Christian world is threatened by the Saracens - usually thought of as Muslims, yet also clearly representative of the Vikings; they are an abstract, thoroughly evil enemy that must be defeated.6 And, of course, Horn does; he beats back the threatening hordes, and brutally mows down Fikenhild, hewing him to pieces. As W. R. J. Barron observes, English romance heroes such as Bevis, Guy of Warwick, Horn, and Havelok are not dealing with a courtly code but "the oppressive forces of a wicked world."7

Indeed, the fine sentiments of the courtly love code so popular in late twelfth-century continental poetry is missing from Horn. Rather than putting the heroine on a pedestal and praising her virtues, Horn is pursued by her; his physical beauty sparks a passion for him that drives Rymenhild wild (lines 256, 300, 956). Nor does the poem contain much reference to the related code of chivalry, though Horn does think it unfair for three of King Thurston's men to fight one Saracen.

Many of Horn's motifs - sea voyages, exile and return, revenge and marriage - do belong to romance tradition. The two near or broken-off weddings in the poem replay a timeless situation that not only appears in Chrétien de Troyes' Erec et Enide or Malory's Le Morte Darthur, but also in modern films such as The Graduate and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Some scholars see folk tale motifs as even more prominent: the voyages and exiles, yes, but as well Horn's disguises, the symbols of rings and fish, the significance of dreams, even the simple but effective patterns of repetition themselves. All this is put together without the digressions and interlacing that typify continental romances of this period.

The streamlined, folksy directness of King Horn should not fool us, however. The story contains unexplained actions and situations that can only be explained because the poet is referring, sometimes incompletely, to folk tale sources. One "folk-tale non sequitur" Barron notes is that Horn gives no particular reason for hiding his true identity. And John Speirs sees misty connections to mythology in the symbol of Horn himself - to the Horn of Plenty and ultimately the Holy Grail.8

Horn is also an object lesson about loyalty and betrayal in a real-world political sense. For Lee C. Ramsay the poem "seems to say that internal dissension is the ultimate threat to a state."9 Yet King Horn is not as much a "mirror for princes" as is Havelok the Dane; rather, it is more a chronicle of martial and romantic achievement, a chronicle concerned with political gains.

Finally, the manuscripts in which King Horn appears say something about how it may have been viewed by contemporary readers and listeners. Both Horn and Havelok appear, for example, in a Bodleian Library manuscript (Laud Misc. 108) whose contents also include popularized saints' lives, scientific information, and current events; perhaps, as Barron observes, these romances along with the Reader's Digest version of contemporary knowledge "would appeal to an audience of limited sophistication anxious for instruction and moral edification."10 Cambridge Gg.4.27.2 (the manuscript on which our text is based) is an equally diverse anthology compiled in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. In it Horn appears with other romances, saints' lives, a collection of homilies, devotional works, didactic narratives, and several miscellaneous items. Horn also appears as the only romance in a third manuscript anthology - British Library MS Harley 2253 - this time, with Latin and French verse, religious material, and love poems.11 These very different locations for Horn suggest a complexity of attraction that modern readers need to know about.

Go To King Horn
Select Bibliography


Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.27.2.

British Library MS Harley 2253.

Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108.

Critical Editions

Allen, Rosamund S., ed. King Horn. New York: Garland Medieval Texts, 1984.

Hall, Joseph, ed. King Horn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1901

French, Walter Hoyt, and Charles Brockway Hale, eds. Middle English Metrical Romances. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1930.

Gibbs, A. C., ed. King Horn, Havelok, Floriz & Blauncheflur, Orfeo, Amis & Amiloun. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

McKnight, George H. ed. King Horn, Floriz & Blauncheflur, The Assumption of Our Lady. EETS o.s. 14. London: Oxford University Press, 1901; rpt. 1962.

Sands, Donald B., ed. Middle English Verse Romances. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

Related Studies

Allen, Rosamund "The Date and Provenance of King Horn: Some Interim Reassessments." In Medieval English Studies Presented to George Kane. Ed. Edward Donald Kennedy, Ronald Waldron, and Joseph S. Wittig. Suffolk, England: St. Edmundsburg Press, 1988. Pp. 99-126. [Based on both internal and external evidence, argues a later date for all MSS than previously thought.]

---. "Some Textual Cruces in King Horn." Medium Aevum 53 (1984), 73-77. [Isolates six examples where cruces occur by comparing three MS versions.]
Dannebaum, Susan. "'Fairer Bi One Ribbe/Thane Eni Man That Libbe' (King Horn C315-16)." Notes and Queries 226 (1981), 116-17. [Posits a masculine ideal for physical beauty operating within the poem that derives from Adam and Christ.]

French, Walter H. Essays on King Horn. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1940. [Contains theories about meter, text, and personal names.]

Hearn, Matthew. "Twins of Infidelity: The Double Antagonists of King Horn." Medieval Perspectives 8 (1993), 78-86. ["King Horn deals with the turbulent historical forces of its time in a rather oblique fashion, repressing the real or 'historically accurate' traces of domestic social tensions and projecting them instead onto a set of fictional antagonists more ideologically digestible to its audience: infidel Saracens and the traitor Fikenhild" (p. 79).]

Hurt, James R. "The Texts of King Horn." Journal of the Folklore Institute 7 (1970), 47-59.

Hynes-Berry, Mary. "Cohesion in King Horn and Sir Orfeo." Speculum 50 (1975), 652-70. [Argues that all episodes fit into a "cohesively progressive pattern" in which every incident contributes to narrative development.]

Jamison, Carol. "A Description of the Medieval Romance Based upon King Horn." Quondam-et-Futurus 1:2 (Summer 1991), 44-58. [General discussion of generic evolu-tion, poetic style, audience, and structural principles.]

McLaughlin, John. "The Return Song in Medieval Romance and Ballad: King Horn and King Orfeo." Journal of American Folklore 88 (1975), 304-07. [Links twentieth-century Serbo-Croatian heroic poetry, medieval French romances, and nineteenth-century Scottish ballads, by recognizing a "return song" pattern common to all.]

Nimchinsky, Howard. "Orfeo, Guillaume, and Horn." Romance Philology 22 (1968), 1-14. [Comparative cross-cultural study of similar passages.]

O'Brien, Timothy. "Word Play in the Allegory of King Horn." Allegorica 7 (1982), 110-22. [Magic rings, Horn's disguises, and the love triangle "comment upon the political and psychological meanings contained in the poem's word play" (p. 121).]

Purdon, Liam. "King Horn and the Medieval Trope of Christ the Lover-Knight." Proceedings of the PMR Conference at Villanova 10 (1985), 137-47. [Horn is not only physically beautiful but achieves a state of moral perfection. By incorporating features of the trope of Christ the Lover-Knight the poet establishes the logic of Horn's many trials and generates the poem's suspense.]

Quinn, William A. Jongleur: A Modified Theory of Oral Improvisation and Its Effects on the Performance and Transmission of Middle English Romance. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982. [Discusses the close relationship between oral performance and the making of written texts.]

Scott, Anne. "Plans, Predictions, and Promises: Traditional Story Techniques and the Configuration of Word and Deed in King Horn." In Studies in Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches. Ed. D. S. Brewer. Cambridge: Brewer, 1988. Pp. 37-68. [Explores the "binding power of promises, intentions, and desires" and the poet's means of reaffirming and challenging "traditional narrative techniques" (p. 47).]

Speed, Diane. "The Saracens of King Horn." Speculum 65 (1990), 564-95. [The Saracens named in the poem are not "figures from real life," but rather a "literary phenomenon."]

Ziegler, Georgianna. "Structural Repetition in King Horn." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 81 (1980), 403-08. [Divides the narrative into four parts and draws attention to "the skillful interweaving of matter with form" (p. 403).]