Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 2. English Romances: Havelok, Horn, Guy of Warwick, Beves of Hamtoun

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIV. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500: II

§ 2. English Romances: Havelok, Horn, Guy of Warwick, Beves of Hamtoun

The romances which spring directly from English soil are animated by essentially different motives and reflect a different society from that of the French group. In Havelok and Horn, in Guy of Warwick and Beves of Hamtoun there exists primarily the viking atmosphere of tenth century England, though the sages, in their actual form, have acquired, through alien handling, a certain crusade colouring. In Horn, for instance, Saracens are substituted for vikings in plain disregard of historical verisimilitude; and again, in Guy of Warwick, the English legend has been invested with fresh motives and relentlessly expanded with adventures in Paynim. After removing such excrescences, however, we shall find something of earlier English conditions. Such situations as they depict, arising out of usurpation on the part of faithless guardians of royal children, spring, in a great measure, out of pre-Conquest unsettlement. They were situations not uncommon in the day of small kingdoms and restless viking hordes. Havelok is a tale of how a Danish prince and an English princess came to their own again. The hero, son of the Danish king Birkabeyn, is handed over, by his wicked guardian Godard, to a fisherman Grim, to be drowned. A mystic light, however, reveals Havelok’s royal birth to the simple Grim, who saves the situation by crossing to England. They land at Grimsby, a town that still cherishes the name of Havelok and the characters of the tale, in its streets and its seal; and the hero, by a happy coincidence, drifts as a kitchen-boy into the household of Godrich, guardian of Goldburgh. This guardian, however, is no better than Godard, for he has likewise deprived the daughter of the English Aethelwold of her inheritance. Havelok is a strong, handsome youth, who soon becomes famous for feats of strength; whereupon Godrich, who had promised Aethelwold that he would marry Goldburgh to the “best man” in the country, maliciously keeps his promise by forcing her to marry his “cook’s knave,” a popular hero by reason of his athletic deeds. By degrading Goldburgh into a churl’s wife Godrich hopes to make his hold upon her inheritance secure. The princess naturally bewails her lot when led away by Havelok, but she becomes reconciled when mysterious signs assure her, as they had previously assured Grim, of her husband’s royal origin. Meanwhile, the faithful Ubbe, who has set matters right in Denmark, appears in England, when all wrongs are righted and the united futures of hero and heroine are straightway assured.

Horn is a viking story plainly adapted to romantic ends. The hero is the youthful son of the king of Suddene (Isle of Man), who, after the death of his father, at the hands of raiding Saracens (vikings), is turned adrift in a rudderless boat. Wind and tide bring the boat with its living freight to the land of Westernesse (Wirral?), where the princess Rymenhild, falling in love with the stranded hero, endeavours, with womanly art, to win his love in return. Horn is knighted through Rymenhild’s good offices; but, before he can surrender himself to the pleasant bondage of love, he longs to accomplish knightly deeds. He therefore departs in quest of adventure, but leaves behind him a traitorous companion, Fikenhild, who reveals to the king the secret of the lovers. Horn is banished and only returns on learning that Rymenhild is about to wed. He appears in pilgrim garb, is forgiven, and rescues the princess from a distasteful suitor. But, after marriage, the old knightly instincts again assert themselves; and he crosses to Suddene, which he rids of invaders. The treacherous Fikenhild hild had, however, in the meantime carried off Rymenhild, and Horn, after avenging this deed, returns once more to his homeland, this time not alone.

In the ponderous but popular Guy of Warwick we recognise a tedious expansion of a stirring English legend. Sir Guy was regarded as a national hero, who, by his victory over Colbrand the Dane, had rescued England from the grip of the invader. In the romance this appears—but in company with other episodes which destroy the simplicity of the earlier narrative, confuse its motive and change its colouring. When he first comes on the scene, Guy is madly in love with Felice the beautiful daughter of the earl of Warwick; but his suit is denied on account of his inferiority of standing, for he is but the son of the earl’s steward. He, therefore, ventures abroad, and returns in a few years, laden with honours: but only to be repulsed once more by his too scrupulous mistress, who now fears that wedded life may transform her hero into a slothful and turgid knight. Once more he goes abroad; and, after brisk campaigning, he is welcomed on his return by Aethelstan, at whose request he rids Northumbria of an insatiable dragon. After this, Felice can hold out no longer. The lovers are united; but now Guy begins to entertain scruples. The rest of his life is to be spent in hardship and penance, and he leaves again for uncouth lands. He returns in due course to find King Aethelstan hard pressed by the Danish Anlaf; but Guy’s overthrow of Colbrand saves the kingdom and he sets out forthwith on his way to Warwick. Disguised as a palmer, he finds his wife engaged in works of charity; but, without revealing his identity, he stoically retires to a neighbouring hermitage, where the much-tried couple are finally united before he breathes his last.

Beves of Hamtoun, like Horn, springs from English soil, but the transforming process traced in the one is completed in the other. Beves presents almost entirelycrusading tendencies, but few traces remain of the earlier form. Beves, who has been despatched as a slave to heathen parts by a treacherous mother, ultimately arrives at the court of the Saracen king Ermyn. Here he is the recipient of handsome favours, and is offered the hand of the princess Josian, on condition that he forsakes the Christian faith. This he refuses to do, but the valour he displays in staggering exploits still keeps him in favour, and Josian, for his love, is prepared to renounce her native gods. The king hears of this, and Beves is committed to a neighbouring potentate, by whom he is kept in a horrible dungeon for some seven years. After a marvellous escape from his terrible surroundings, Beves seeks out Josian, and both flee to Cologne, where they are duly wedded. The hero’s career continues to be as eventful as ever; but he is finally induced to turn towards home, where he succeeds in regaining his inheritance, and is recognised as a worthy knight by the reigning king Edgar.

In attempting to estimate the contribution made by these four works to Middle English romance, it must be remembered that, although they originate ultimately from the England of the vikings, of Aethelstan and Edgar, they have all been touched with later foreign influences. In them may be perceived, however, an undeveloped chivalry, as well as reminiscences of Old English life and thought. The code of chivalry is a yet unformulated. In Havelok we see the simple ideal of righting the wrong. In Horn and Guy of Warwick is perceptible a refinement of love which makes for asceticism; but the love details are not, in general, elaborated in accordance with later chivalrous ideals. Rymenhild and Josian both woo and are wooed; but they lack the violence of Carolingian heroines. In Felice alone do we find traces of that scrupulous niceness encouraged in the era of the courts of love. With regard to the existence of earlier English reminiscences, in both Horn and Havelok can be seen the joy in descriptions of the sea characteristic of Old English verse. Both Guy and Beves, again, have their dragons to encounter after the fashion of Beowulf. The marvellous, which, to some extent, appears in Havelok, is of the kind found in Germanic folk-lore; it is distinct in its essence from the product of Celtic fancy. The plebeian elements in the same work, which embody a detailed description of humble life, and which are in striking contrast to the monotonous aristocratic colouring of the romance elsewhere, witness, undoubtedly, to a primitive pre-Conquest community. And, last, Guy’s great fight with Colbrand breathes the motive of patriotism—the motive of Byrhtnoth —rather than the religious zeal which fired crusading heroes in their single combats.