Medieval Romance

King Horn

13th century, Middle English, manuscript copies in Oxford, Cambridge and the British Library.

Cutberd has won the day. But as one of three, or as one against three?

'Horn is already in disguise,' said Miranda. 'He has arrived in a boat from a land far to the west, and his name is now Cutberd.'

'In Ireland?' queried Quintin.

'Yes, in Ireland.'

'He's arrived in Ireland from a land far to the west, and he set out from Britain?'


'Ok, so he's arrived like a new soul from the land of the setting sun. But how is this an exchange of identity?'

'Do you remember Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?'


'When does the Green Knight first appear before king Arthur in this medieval story?'

'At a Christmas feast.'

'And then, after cutting off the Green Knight's head with an axe, Sir Gawain has to present his own head to the axe in exactly a year's time, in that story?'

'Yes, that's right.'

'Well, here's a bit from Horn: Hit was at Cristemasse / Neither more ne lasse / Ther cam in at none / A geaunt swithe soon Look, here it is in translation:

One day – it was Christmas Day, early in the afternoon – a giant appeared in the hall.

‘Sir king,’ said the giant, ‘listen to me. Pagans have arrived, a large number of them I must tell you. They are on the beach and on your land. One of them will fight against three of your knights, and if ours is defeated, then this land will remain yours. But if our one overcomes your three, all this land shall be ours. The combat will take place tomorrow, just after dawn.’

'But afterwards,' said Miranda, 'deliberately or otherwise, the story seems to get a bit confusing for a short while:

Cutberd will be one of my knights,’ replied King Thursdon. ‘Berild will be another, and the third will be his brother Alrid. These are the strongest men I have, and the best warriors. But what hope do we have? I think we are all dead men.’

Cutberd was sitting at the table while this was going on. ‘Sir king,’ he said, ‘it is not right that one of them should fight against three of us. Sir, I shall take on this fight by myself and bring three of them to their deaths with the edge of my sword.’

The king arose the next morning in a state of despair. Cutberd got out of bed and armed himself. He put on his coat of chainmail, laced it tightly and then went to see the king as he was just emerging from his chamber.

‘King,’ he said, ‘come onto the field of combat. See how easily I will overcome these enemies of yours. We’ll go together.’

As the sun rose, they made ready to ride out. On a grassy open space they found a bold and eager giant. His companions were beside him, waiting for the slaughter. The battle commenced. Cutberd gave enough blows, that’s for sure! The knights soon fell senseless to the ground. He began to lessen his strokes and stay his hand, for he had nearly killed them all.

‘Knights, rest for a while if you like,’ he said.

They said that they had never before, in all their lives, suffered such hard blows from a knight, except when they had fought King Murry, the father of Horn who was born in Suddene. He had been very strong as well.

Horn shuddered in recollection and his blood began to boil. In front of him, he suddenly realised, were some of those who had driven him from his land and killed his father. He drew his sword, looked at his ring, thought of Rymenhild and then stabbed the pagan in front of him through the heart, giving him a dreadful wound. Those who had been so confident and belligerent now turned tail in terror and ran. Horn and his companions went after them as fast as they could and killed all the dogs before they could make it back to their ships. Horn killed them all. They paid a high price for his father’s death.

All the king’s knights were completely unharmed except for his two sons, whom the king had seen die before his very eyes. The king wept for them; the tears trickled down his cheeks. Men laid them on biers and buried them at once.

'Do you see how confusing it suddenly becomes? For a short while it's almost as though Horn has become the giant and the giants have become the defending knights,' said Miranda. 'The king's two sons have died, we haven't been told how, but Cutberd won the day and slaughtered his adversaries. But as one of three, or as one against three?' she asked. 'Look, here's what it says in this introduction to the Middle English transcription: The story contains unexplained actions and situations that can only be explained because the poet is referring, sometimes incompletely, to folk tale sources. One "folk tale non sequitur" [identified by W R J Barron] is that Horn gives no particular reason for hiding his true identity. I would say another one is this garbled episode with these giants. Perhaps, as a man in a land far to the west having recently acquired a new name, the audience would recognise that to the newly arrived he should be the giant.

Story fragment retold in Modern English from: Herzman, Ronald B, Drake, Graham and Salisbury, Eve (Eds), 1997. Four Romances of England: King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Bevis of Hampton, Athelston. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. The Middle English text of KING HORN based on that found in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.27.2.

See for yourself

King Horn – TEAMS Medieval text, Middle English with an introduction.

King Horn – Wikipedia

Four Romances of England – edited by Ronald B. Herzman, Graham Drake and Eve Salisbury, including the Middle English text of Havelok the Dane, with an introduction

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