King Horn

Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University

KING HORN


King Horn (c. 1225) is the earliest extant “Matter of England” romance out of about 40 or 60. This is its only real distinction; it can claim no honors in technique nor aesthetics. Along with Havelok the Dane, these verse romances are “awkward in language, forthright in their emotion, winningly naive in characterization” (Sands 5). The poem is a basket of traditional folktale motifs. It’s a bourgeois romance too, not courtly nor chivalric for the aristocracy (similar to Havelok the Dane and unlike the highly refined Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). There are no useful historical reflections (neither in recording names nor in depicting any large force of Saracens landing). There’s no clear geography. Church matters receive only lip service; and there’s no sense of chivalry, courtly love, or delicacy of sentiment. The work is often epic rather than romance, as in the epic exaggeration of the hundreds slain. And the comitatus is still intact. The prosody isn’t especially competent either. The rhymed couplet probably comes from France, but the poetry hovers between the old stressed trochaic and the newer iambic patterns. In reciting, you have to focus still on the stresses per line and the caesural pause.

But the poem is bad in a fun way. If it were doggerel and conventional, it would be dull; but the poet is substandard in really not knowing or having the skill to justify plot events, so the thing is bad unpredictably.

Suddene (“The West”) — 1-130
Westerness — 131-760
“Ireland” — 761-1014
Westerness — 1015-1298
Suddene — 1299-1436
Westerness — 1437-1516
Reynes — 1517-1522
“Ireland” — 1523-1528
Suddene — 1529-1542.


Suddene (“The West”) — 1-130

“Alle beon he blithe / That to my song lythe” (1-2). The oral tradition of the minstrel’s address begins the tale, but the song promised is of “Murry the Kinge” (4) who will be dead within a few dozen lines. Murry and his queen Godhild “hadde a sone that het Horn” (9), who receives the conventional courtly clichĂ© description (10-20). His twelve companions include Hathulf (or Athulf) — “the beste” (29) — and Fikenylde — “the werste” (30).

Anyhoo, one fine day King Murry takes a ride by the sea with two of his men. Fifteen ships of fierce “Saracens” have landed and slay the King and his two retainers. They wreak havoc on the land and even desecrate churches! A mourning Godhild goes to live “Vnder a roche of stone” (77). In an evil plan worthy of a James Bond villain, the “payns” (pagans) decide that Horn and his companions might prove vengeful, so the Saracens send them off in a boat to drown at sea. Bwa-ha-ha-ha! “The se bigan to flowe, / And Horn child to rowe” (121-122), we hear for the first of forty-seven times.

Westerness — 131-760

They come ashore in Westerness and Horn gives an epic address to an inanimate object: thanks to the ship. He receives an epic greeting too, similar to Beowulf’s from the coastguard. The King here is Aylmar. We hear a recap of the story so far, as reported by Horn (179ff). The King has his steward Athelbrus take Horn under his wing to teach him how to serve and harp and carve — the amenities of a squire. (It’s a male Cinderella folk convention.)

The King’s daughter Rymenhild (a wooing lady motif) decides she’s hot for Horn. Athulf is worried about this and goes to her disguised as Horn, with perhaps insufficient motivation. The switcheroo works and Rymenhild professes her adoration. Athulf fesses up and Rymenhild is pissed off. She has Athelbrus send her Horn in a squire’s disguise (but he is a squire!), and Horn brightens up the place, literally (390). She declares that they’re engaged (411-412). Horn says he’s too low, economically. Rymenhild goes into her drama queen routine, wringing her arms and falling into a swoon (431-432). While she’s unconscious, Horn vows to make good, become a knight, and then all will be well. Rymenhild wakes up and has heard every word.

So King Aylmar knights Horn, who in turn can knight his twelve companions. After the ceremony he visits Rymenhild, only to tell her that now he has to go away for a while (545ff). She gives him a love token — a gold ring (whether magic or operating like Dumbo’s feather). No sooner does Horn ride out than he comes upon more Saracens. He looks upon Rymenhild’s ring and instantly slays over a hundred of the “hethene hundes.” He grabs the decapitated head of the leader and heads back home.

Then on another day Rymenhild tells of her bad dream of a fish bursting her net while Fykenhild slanders Horn to Aylmar. Horn tells Athulf to watch out for Rymenhild, and off he goes.

“Ireland” — 761-1014

Horn lands next in a fake “Hirelonde” and makes friends with the King’s sons Harild and Berild, though he uses an alias: Cutberd. At Christmas a giant intrudes and announces the invasion of more of those pagans — they’re everywhere! King Thurston volunteers Cutberd, Harild, and Berild to fight them. One heathen says that Horn fights a lot like King Murry did, so Horn gets enraged, looks on Rymenhild’s ring, and turns into a killing machine. Harild and Berild don’t make it though. The King offers “Cutberd” his daughter Reynild and his realm. Horn stalls on all business matter for seven years.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rymenhild wonders whatever happened to that guy she was engaged to. It’s time to marry “King Modi of Reynes, / On of Hornes enemis” (959-960). Rymenhild sends a dire messenger to Horn, but the messenger drowns and washes up under her nose. Horn finally tells all to King Thurston and promises that Reynild could marry Athulf, since he’s already engaged to Rymenhild. So Horn gets on a boat.

Westerness — 1015-1298

On his way back Horn meets a palmer, and thank heavens because he knows automatically he can change clothes with this man. Horn sneaks into the wedding feast and sits below the salt “In beggeres’ rowe” (1088). He claims to be a fisherman, hinting to Rymenhild about her dream. She doesn’t catch on, and for some perverse reason he reports that Horn is dead. Finally he reveals his identity and, as his wedding gift to her, kills everybody else. Athulf joins in the mass slaughter. He reveals his full story to the King, and now he can marry Rymenhild . . . oh, except first he has to reclaim his heritage by avenging his father’s death.

Suddene — 1299-1436

With Athulf and some Irish fellows, Horn sneaks ashore back in Suddene. An old knight laments the times and speaks of the old days when Horn took off with twelve companions. Horn reveals his identity and vows to rid the land of the heathen hounds: “Alle we hem schulle sle, / And al quic hem fle” (1381-82) — in other words, we shall kill them all, and then we’ll flay them alive! Horn gets the churches back in working order and yanks his mother out from under her rock.

But Fikenhild is up to no good and Horn has a bad dream. Fikenhild decides he’s going to marry Rymenhild.

Westerness — 1437-1516

Horn has already done the palmer bit once, so this time it’s a minstrel disguise. He looks on the ring at the right moment and sets thing right again. “Horn makede Arnoldin thare / King, after King Aylmare” (1505-06). As Tom Garbaty said, “But he’s not dead yet! [?] But he will be, he will be.”

“The se bigan to flowe, / And Horn gan to rowe” (1515-16).

Reynes — 1517-1522

He makes Athelbrus king here, King Modi’s old realm.

“Ireland” — 1523-1528

Horn has Athulf wed Reynild.

Suddene — 1529-1542.

Back home:

Rymenhild he makede his quene;
So hit mi3te wel beon.
Al folk hem mi3te rewe
That loueden him so trewe.
Nu ben hi bothe dede, —
Crist to heuene hem lede!
(1531-36)

As translated by Tom Garbaty: “And they lived happily ever after, but of course they’re both dead now.”


For further introduction and bibliography, see here.


Works

King Horn. Medieval English Literature. Ed. Thomas J. Garbáty. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1984. 142-180.

King Horn. Middle English Verse Romances. Ed. Donald B. Sands. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966. 15-54.