Middle English Word of the Moment

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Havelok the VIKING

In our ME reading group today (which Stephanie has already posted about), one thing struck us as so odd that we exclaimed and giggled over it even before we settled down to the serious business of eating, reading, translating, exclaiming and giggling.

We're reading Havelok[1], and due to perhaps excessive amounts of exclaiming and giggling over the year are less than halfway through. The story so far involves two noble kings (England's and Denmark's), both of whom die leaving their kingdom and baby heirs in the charge of stewards. Anyone could tell these stewards were both going to turn out to be traitorous and evil, because they have very similar names (Godrich and Goddard), indicating that, as the Trinity is mysteriously three in one, these wicked stewards are one man in two bodies. Really. Their plot purpose is identical, and the poet uses the exact same rhetoric to convince us that each is worse than Judas/Satan on several occasions.

The heirs - Havelok in Denmark and Goldeborw in England - are each dispossessed of their kingdom. Evil Danish Earl tries to have Havelok killed, but the man he hires to murder him, a fisherman called Grim, repents when he sees a golden light coming from the boy's mouth, and a golden cross on his shoulder: clear signs of royal heritage, as everyone knows[2]. Grim and his family and new adopted son therefore flee to England, where the boy shows a truly royal appetite and proceeds to apparently bring famine down by eating far too much, so Grim sends him off to Lincoln to earn his living there. He grows up and turns out to be handsome, chaste, mild-mannered (mostly), and of course very strong. When Evil English Earl notices this, he promptly marries Goldeborw off to him, because he had promised the former king to marry her to the "greatest" man in England. He is therefore in a watertight legal situation if he chooses to marry her to the man who is physically strongest, even though he appears to be a lowly peasant and she will therefore be unable to challenge for her inheritance.

Havelok and his new wife flee back to Grim's family, where she laments being given to a peasant. Never fear - the cross shows up again. Jubilation! Suddenly Havelok without explanation digs up all the memories of being a prince's son and shows a remarkable retrospective perspicacity in managing to narrate the events from his infancy from Evil Danish Earl's point of view, and they all set off for Denmark to claim his heritage.

Unfortunately, at this point a folio is missing in the manuscript, meaning that we have 160 lines of unnarrated action. When the text resumes, they appear to have reached Denmark, and Havelok is pretending to be a merchant, bargaining with Non-Evil Danish Earl for the right to conduct trade on his lands. Suddenly, to seal the bargain:

A gold ring drow he forth anon,
An hundred pund was worth þe ston (1632-3)

And this is what befuddled us. Where on earth did the cook's apprentice at Lincoln, or a poor fisherman's family, or a dispossessed princess, find a gold ring whose stone alone was worth a hundred pounds?

Upon further consideration, I have two theories.

1. They finally managed to tear that cross off his shoulder. Goldeborw was getting tired of cuddling up to it, and the angelic voice it emitted was frankly keeping her awake all night, so they melted it down and made a ring out of it.

2. Pirates. Obviously. The missing 160 lines contained pirates. Probably Viking pirates - this is mediaeval Denmark, after all. And who says you can't have a piratical sea battle in only 160 lines? Hamlet did it in fewer! Clearly they battled viking pirates and took all their treasure. In fact, they were probably ninja viking pirates. That would account for the missing folio - they were covering their tracks!

Definitely ninjas.

[1] The Lay of Havelok the Dane. Ed. Skeat, Walter W. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902.
[2] Really. Everyone knows. The cross and the light keep popping up to reveal his true lineage at crucial points in the narrative.


Fretful Porpentine said...

Clearly pirates. Pirates are clearly the favored deus ex machina in Renaissance drama, hence the totally random ones in Hamlet, so I see no reason why they shouldn't be in medieval romance as well.

Ceirseach said...

Pirates are everyone's favourite deus ex machina. They are even the machina ex deo for the FSM! I think many previously mysterious lacunae could be explained if we allow for the presence of ninja pirates.