Critical Discussion of King Horn
by Cathy Cupitt

When considering that King Horn emerged from a “weakened, if not interrupted English verse tradition”1, it is interesting to note the importance of its narrative structure. Fowles2 in his Dictionary of Critical Terms defines narrative as “the recounting of a series of facts or events and the establishing of some connection between them”. The `connections’ used in King Horn, and exemplified in the passage under study, are not of the `cause and effect’3 type commonly used in modern fiction. Instead they follow the patterns of oral tradition. The conventions of Romance, cyclical themes, repetition of key phrases, myth and symbol, are used to form the `connections’ that were obvious, and seemingly meaningful to the original, noble medieval audience4.

Gillian Beer defines a Romance as generally having several key qualities5. In this brief discussion of King Horn, I only have room to look at the importance of the first and last qualities: ” the themes of love and adventure”, and “a strongly enforced code of conduct to which all the characters must comply”.

The two main themes of King Horn, and the two main concerns of the audience of the day6, are love/family/loyalty, and the rightful acquisition or inheritance of land/money/status7. These are signified most concisely by one symbol in the section we are discussing. From line 15 to 388, Horn is involved in the first of three battles with the “Saracens”, who he must defeat for three reasons: to prove his worthiness of being a knight and consequently win his love Rimenild, to revenge his father’s murder, and to regain his lands. During each battle “he looked on the ring [that Rimenild had given him]\and thought of Rimenild”. So here we have the twin themes of love and land symbolically linked, using the code of chivalrous adventure as the frame for the action. These themes are also linked to the narrative structure of the poem, as represented in Benson’s chart outlining the cycles of repetition in the story:

  • Exile from Suddene; the winning of Rymenhild
  • Exile from England; the winning of Reynild
  • Rescue of Rymenhild; recapture of Suddene
  • Rescue of Rymenhild; recapture of England

“Clearly” says Benson “… King Horn … is built on a system of parallels” which were “apparently pleasing to medieval audiences.”9

This looking at the ring in times of battle, reminding Horn that he is fighting for both status and family, is one of several key images which are repeated throughout the text. Another is the image of the sea. The motif of the sea punctuates each exile and return Horn makes. It also links to the theme of inheritance, Horn’s `divine’ right to regain his kingdom, by showing that Horn is divinely protected and in control when crossing the unpredictable element of the ocean10. This idea, or mythos, is further emphasised by the fact of Horn’s enemies being non-Christian. As Diane Speed concludes in her article on “The Saracens of King Horn”, the author’s “conscious concern … was probably … with the functional identity of the Saracens as the enemy in his literary construct”.11

There are two references to the sea in our passage. The Saracens Horn defeats come from the sea, perhaps signifying the change Horn is about to undergo, from being an untried knight, to a victorious one. Rimenild dreams of the sea. Rimenild’s dream in fact predicts that Horn will soon be moving on to the next stage in his adventure.

I cast my net into the sea,
And it would not hold.
A great fish began
to break my net.
I think I shall lose
The fish I would choose.12

This symbol of a fisher-person is linked up with a later passage of the poem. Horn returns in disguise from his second exile, and reclaims Rimenild after testing her loyalty. This speech is a prelude to the test.

You think I am a beggar,
But I am a fisherman,
Come far into the east
To fish at your feast.
My net lies here
By this beautiful shore.
It has lain there
All of seven years.
I have come to see
If it caught any fish.13

In conclusion, this section of the poem could be described as just one of the “complex and prolonged succession of incidents”14 that make up the narrative of King Horn. However, it also displays the cyclical themes, use of some of the conventions of Romance, repetition of key phrases, myth and symbol, which `connect’ the events of the narrative, and hence is significant to the unifying, cyclical structure of the story.


Beckerling, Philippa.
English 214/314 Romance Lecture. Given at the University of Western Australia on 6 March 1995.

Beer, Gillian.
The Romance: Critical Idiom Series. London: Methuen, 1970.

Benson, Larry.
“Thematic Structure in King Horn”. Malory’s Morte Darthur, 1976, 73-80.

Crane, Susan.
Insular Romance: Politics, Faith and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature. Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1986, Introduction and Chapter One.

Fowles, Roger. ed.,
Dictionary of Critical Terms. Revised and Enlarged Edition. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1987.

French, W. H., and Hale, C. B.
Translation of King Horn from The Middle English Metrical Romances. New York, 1930; reprinted USA: Russell and Russell, 1964; reprinted in English 214/314 Romance Reader, University of Western Australia, 1995.

Hynes-Berry, Mary.
“Cohesion in King Horn and Sir Orpheo”. Speculum, 50, 1975, 652-70.

Speed, Diane.
“The Saracens in King Horn”. Speculum, 65, 1990, 564-95.

Weiss, Judith.
“The Wooing Woman in Anglo-Norman Romance”. Romance in Medieval England. eds. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellowes & Carol M. Meale. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 1991, 149-161.

Wilson, Anne.
Traditional Romance and Tale: How Stories Mean. Cambridge: Brewer, 1976.

End Notes

  1. Susan Crane, Insular Romance: Politics, Faith and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature (Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1986), p. 28.
  2. Roger Fowles, ed., (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1973 [1987 revised and enlarged edition]), p. 156.
  3. Larry Benson, “Thematic Structure in King Horn”, Malory’s Morte Darthur, (1976), p. 79.
  4. Crane, The Introduction and Chapter One go into some detail about the original audience and their foremost concerns.
  5. Gillian Beer, The Romance: Critical Idiom Series (London: Methuen, 1970), p. 10.
  6. Crane, The Introduction and Chapter One.
  7. Philippa Beckerling, English 214/314 Romance Lecture given at the University of Western Australia on 6 March 1995.
  8. Numbering from the start of the section under discussion on page 15 of the text.
  9. Benson, pp. 76-77.
  10. Beckerling, Lecture.
  11. Diane Speed, Speculum 65 (1990), p. 595.
  12. Lines 77-82, numbering from the start of the section under discussion on page 15 of the text.
  13. Lines 13-22, counting from the top of page 28 of the text.
  14. Beer, p. 10.

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