Havelok The Dane Analysis Essay

Havelok the Dane c. Twelfth-thirteenth century

English verse romance.

Havelok the Dane is one of the oldest Middle English romances, generally considered to have been written around the thirteenth century, and consisting of some 3000 lines of rhymed octosyllabic couplets. In addition to being an exciting and vigorous tale in its own right, Havelok the Dane provides the first glimpse of the lives of common people after the Norman Conquest. Written in a Lincolnshire dialect, Havelok the Dane offers local color and insight into the diverse people inhabiting England, championing their humble lifestyle. It is also an important historical source for the understanding of political and legal procedures of the time. The work has been praised by critics for its narrative style and gritty realism.

Textual History

Havelok the Dane exists in only one manuscript, positioned towards the end of a collection of saints' lives and immediately before the verse romance King Horn (circa 1225). Havelok's inclusion in this collection perhaps reflects Havelok's vaguely divine status in the tale. While the English romance version is the longest of the various forms of the Havelok tale, the basic story exists in several other guises. Its first known telling was around 1135-40 in Geffrei Gaimar's L 'Estoire des Engles. It was on this work that the 1112-line Old French (or Anglo-Norman) version, Le Lai d'Haveloc (1190-1220) was based. Robert Mannyng's Chronicle of England, commonly called the Lambeth Interpolation, contains a concise rendition of Havelok's story in eighty-two long lines. Scholars continue to debate to what degree one version is indebted to others and to what extent common, mythical elements are incorporated.

Plot and Major Characters

The Havelok tale begins in England, where the beloved Christian King, Æthelwood, has died, leaving his daughter, Goldboro, sole heir to the throne. She is entrusted to her guardian, Earl Godrich of Cornwall, who sets up an oppressive rule and imprisons Goldboro in a tower, denying her the kingdom. She is told she can marry no one but the "highest" man in England. Shifting to another plot, the reader learns of Birkabeyne, the dying King of Denmark. The King entrusts his son, Havelok, and Havelok's two sisters into the protection of their guardian, Earl Godard. Wishing to assume rule himself, Godard slits the young girls' throats and orders his serf, Grim, to drown the Prince in return for Grim's freedom. Before Grim can carry out his order a blazing light leaps from Havelok's mouth, indicating his kingly origin and divine mission. Further, Grim sees a "king-mark" on Havelok, a birthmark in the shape of a cross. Grim spares the boy, adopts him, and flees with his family and Havelok to England, where they take up residence in Lincolnshire. Here Havelok works tirelessly and cheerfully in a series of menial jobs. The work helps Havelok grow strong and through his participation in sports he gains skill and agility. Eventually he becomes employed as a cook's helper in Godrich's household. Godrich, thinking Havelok of common origin, marries him to Goldboro. One night the beam of light again appears from Havelok's mouth and is witnessed by Goldboro, who realizes her husband is a prince. An angel speaks to Goldboro and tells her of her husband's destiny. Havelok, Goldboro, and Grim and his family travel to Denmark. Havelok raises an army, defeats and hangs Godard, then goes back to England and defeats Godrich, who is burned at the stake. Havelok unites the kingdoms of Denmark and England and he and Goldboro rule the countries and have fifteen children who become kings and queens themselves.

Major Themes

Thematically, Havelok the Dane is concerned with the triumph of good over evil, the importance of the rule of law, and the protection of God for good men, who may be used as his instruments. It deals with a man who rises to his rightful seat on the throne not solely by virtue of his birth, but also through his Christian qualities, personal abilities, and hard work. Some critics have also made the case that the work sought to demonstrate the legitimacy of Danish rule over England.

Critical Reception

Scholars have praised Havelok the Dane for stylistic sophistication not generally found in its time. It is dual-plotted and the author appears to be aware of his narrative skill: he neatly inserts himself at times between the action and the audience and is adept at rendering transitions, sometimes of numerous years. The work has also been acclaimed for its liveliness; for its treatment of characters, even minor ones, as individuals rather than types; for its realistic, natural style; and for its inclusion of legal facts and procedures. Critics have contrasted it with French tales of the time, noting that, while they emphasize an idealized aristocracy, Havelok the Dane focuses on the peasant class. Source studies of the Havelok tales are of particular interest to scholars. Extensive research has yielded much information and much contention over such matters as derivation of words and names, sequence, correspondences, and references. There is no disagreement that the Gaimar version, Le Lai d'Haveloc, and the Lambeth Interpolation are heavily related; however, scholars debate the source of the English version. Some believe Havelok the Dane to be based on the French tale, others believe it is the source of the French. A common source for all versions is not ascertainable, but many believe that this conjectured original was of Scandinavian origin. Scholars have also devoted much effort to trying to determine the date of composition of Havelok. Herlint Meyer-Lindenberg has contended that Havelok must have been composed between 1203 and 1216, advancing several arguments to support the thesis. George B. Jack has taken issue with each of these conclusions and has insisted that the date of composition cannot be determined any more precisely than from the late twelfth century to around 1272. Concerning the derivations and interrelations of the various Havelok tales, G. V. Smithers has written that "finality has not been reached and is hardly possible."

ƥe tale is of Hauelok imaked:
Wil he was litel he yede ful naked.

(Havelok the Dane, lines 5–6)1

This first image of Havelok the Dane in the early-fourteenth-century Middle English poem is striking because it introduces the protagonist first and foremost as a destitute child. Doubly striking is the lack of attention these lines have drawn. Generally, editors attend to the more conventional introductions of Havelok as a "god gome" or the "wicteste man at nede" (lines 7, 9).2 The critical conception that reduces Havelok the Dane to an early example of a formulaic or "popular" Middle English metrical romance has periodically obscured the poem's particular appropriation of the medieval romance genre, that is, the alternative cultural-literary aesthetic it expresses, beginning with the atypical introduction of its hero.3 The hero, son of the King of Denmark, is presented to the reader first as a child, as "litel," and, in this Middle English version, it is Havelok's childhood—his experience of it and the narrator's focus on it—that fills out the tale, fills the hero's speech, and motivates his drive to reclaim his kingdom. In a genre better known for its invincible heroes, "litel" and "naked" immediately establish this hero's defining characteristic: vulnerability.4 These descriptors dog Havelok through the story, signaling the hero's material and social lack and underlining an unshakeable susceptibility. Ultimately, this romance dramatizes an experience of vulnerability—rhetorically and culturally epitomized by childhood—as the core of a less aristocratic heroic subjectivity.5


Inscribing heroism with vulnerability violates a generic dictum of chivalric romance that equates nobility with invincibility and aristocratic identity with social supremacy. Prototypical twelfth-century Francophone romance [End Page 330] formulates an idealized aristocratic world in which the knight-hero retains his innate high-born identity as an invincible shield even while he constructs that identity, and even when he ventures, nameless or mad, into the treacherous forest of romance.6 In contrast, the vulnerability adhering to childhood never diminishes in the upward, social-and-maturational trajectory of Havelok, so that a generic model that focuses exclusively on aristocratic ideology is not sufficient for analysis of this Middle English poem.7 This essay will demonstrate that Havelok becomes king through vulnerability, not in spite of it.

The vein of vulnerability that infuses the Middle English Havelok evidences the poet's appropriation of the romance genre into a non-elite vernacular. By virtue of not being composed in a status language, the English poem does not concern itself so persistently with aristocratic exclusivity.8 My argument about the function of vulnerability in Havelok participates in recent criticism that approaches Middle English romances in terms of their distinct aesthetic and cultural priorities, rather than in terms of their assumed aesthetic inferiority beside French models. The essays collected in Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert's The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance (2000), for example, read Middle English romances as "strategic interventions," especially in relation to the elite genre they adapt.9 Traditionally, the alterations to the romance genre evident in Middle English poems—more action, less speculation; gratuitous, sans-sword violence; non-aristocratic characters and activities; unrefined love and speech—have been interpreted as an inability on the part of a vernacular writer, accommodating a socially inferior audience, to render fully and appropriately aristocratic romance into English.10 In contrast, Gilbert and Putter, among others, recognize that Middle English narratives relate in oblique rather than in imitative ways to the aristocratic basis of the genre.11

To earlier readers as well as to current ones, it has been obvious that the Middle English Havelok the Dane is neither courtly nor chivalric.12 The poem hosts a surplus of emotional bluster and indignation from a garrulous narrator who also supplies a store of homely proverbs and "realistic" details of peasant work and life. The hero grows up in a fisherman's hut, and, to secure employment, the starving youth knocks down other aspirant porters on a Lincoln bridge. Even when Havelok marries the English princess Goldboru, their union is...

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