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The title of the text is ‘King Horn’, which is one of the earliest Middle English romances (if not the oldest surviving Middle English romance) and is quintessentially a romantic fairytale concerning a prince named Horn who falls in love with a princess, avenges the death of his father and later becomes King. The Middle English poem is over one thousand five hundred lines long, which is considered extremely long by contemporary readers although it is a much shortened version of the original French romance. The poet is anonymous nevertheless scholars are able to agree that the text was written circa 1225 AD and is based on the 1170 AD Anglo-Norman narrative, called ‘Horn et Rimenhild’ (‘Romance of Horn’).
The purpose of the text is controversial to contemporary readers or listeners because the text emerges in three different manuscripts. Firstly, ‘King Horn’ appears in the Bodleian Library manuscript anthology (Laud Misc. 108) along with other texts such as: popularized saints’ lives, scientific information and current events, which suggests that the text would appeal to an audience of limited sophistication anxious for instructions and basic moral edification. Secondly, ‘King Horn’ appears in the Cambridge University Library manuscript anthology compiled in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century (Gg.4.27.2) along with other texts such as: romances, saints’ lives, a collection of homilies, devotional works, didactic narratives and several miscellaneous items, which suggests that the text would appeal to an audience of extreme sophistication seeking entertainment and advanced moral edification. Lastly, ‘King Horn’ appears in the British Library manuscript anthology (Harley 2253) along with other texts such as: Latin and French verse, religious material and love poems, which suggests that the text would appeal to an audience of linguistic competence in Latin or French (along with Middle English) seeking to understand different cultures. Hence, the purpose of the text is not explicit because it varies depending on the intended audience.
Scholars have concluded that ‘King Horn’ was written to be sung, chanted or recited. Such a performance might have thus masked certain metrical irregularities. Due to the fact that nearly every line of the extant manuscripts contains divergent readings, scholars speculate an exclusive common ancestor from which all three derive. This ancestor is, however, not the author’s version. Scholars thus theorize the reason for variation among the manuscripts is possibly: scribal corruption or additions made by performers or unprofessional adaptors. The latter justification can transpire in situations where the story is orally performed thus metrical irregularities are not as discernible to the ear when there are distractions for the eye.
Due to the fact that there was no standardized regional dialect of English during the period in which ‘King Horn’ was written, there were a variety of spellings for individual lexical items. Hence, the word ‘shall’ has several possible spellings in Middle English, such as: schal, schalle, shall, sall, xal, scal, scheal, schel, sc»l, scel, ssel and s»l (Jones 1972:47). One may thus argue that the Middle English orthographic system was totally anarchic, possibly because the Middle English scribes were incapable of spelling correctly. However, Jones (1972:47-48) posits there is a high level of consistency in the spelling practices among scribes within the same geographical area. In other words, Jones supposes that although there was no nationally accepted “standard” dialect before the mid-fifteenth century, there were apparently regionally recognizable and accepted spelling norms. There is not much evidence in the text that supports such view but instead, contrary to Jones’ argument, there are several inconsistencies in the spelling of individual words. The word ‘shall’ has the following variants in the text: ‘schal’ (line 3), ‘shaltu’ (line 50), ‘schalt’ (line 99), ‘schulle’ (line 107) and ‘schaltu’ (line 202). Similarly, the word ‘not’ has the following variants in the text: ‘ne’ (line 50), ‘nere’ (line 91), ‘nothing’ (line 278), ‘nuste’ (line 208), ‘none’ (line 286) and ‘noght’ (line 316). Nevertheless, the variations in spelling in the text may have transpired in different syntactic environments. For example, ‘-tu’ may have been affixed to the word ‘schal’ to form ‘schaltu’ (line 202) because it is preceded by the negation ‘ne.’
With respect to noun morphology, most inflections in Middle English are extremely similar (Skeat 1907:xxviii-xxix), which signifies that Old English has undergone substantial transformations, possibly in order to simplify the language. This transformation, along with the fact that a huge number of words were borrowed from French and Latin, may thus account for the non-standardization of Middle English dialects. Most nominal inflections in Middle English have the suffix ‘-e’ – this includes: nominatives ‘alle’ (line 1), datives ‘birine’ (line 11) and accusatives ‘sone’ (line 9). Conversely, plurals in Middle English tend to have the suffix ‘-es’ – for example: ‘sones’ (line 23), ‘gomes’ (line 24) and ‘schipes’ (line 41). However, there are cases in the text that explicitly indicate exceptions to the norm plural suffix ‘-es’ – such as: ‘feren’ (line 21), ‘londe’ (line 40) and ‘Sarazins’ (line 42). Furthermore, one would expect from a Middle English narrative, the inflections on nouns to appear in the form of only suffixes. However, the dative ‘biweste’ (line 5) has the prefix ‘bi-‘ (which refers to the preposition ‘in’) along with the suffix ‘-e’ (which indicates the dative case). Although this particular example of prefixing is eccentric in the text, it is also uncommon to acknowledge in a Middle English narrative. Hence, some may argue the poet was being too creative is his writing by defying morphological conventions of the regional dialect (although no regional dialect has been formally standardized), which may have contributed to the decline in the status of Middle English. Nevertheless, such creativeness may have attracted the poet’s intended audience.
With regard to syntactic features, ‘King Horn’ does not follow the contemporary word order Subject/Verb/Object but rather the word order Subject/Object/Verb ‘Alle beon he blithe’ (line 1), which was probably the constituent order commonly recognized as the norm. In addition, Herzman, Drake and Salisbury (1999) allege that in medieval romance it was conventional for the villain to be placed in opposition to the hero. This notion therefore explains the reason for the name ‘Athulf’ (a loyal friend to Horn) being mentioned just before the name ‘Fikenhild’ (a disloyal friend to Horn) in the sentence ‘Athuld was the best, and Fikenhild the worst’ (lines 29-30), whereby the poet deliberately based the latter’s name on the Old English word ‘ficol,’ which means ‘decietful.’
With respect to dialect features, there are several morphological evidences that signify the text was written in a particular regional dialect. The following words have the past participle suffix ‘-en’ or ‘-e’ (which indicates a South Midland dialect): ‘luvede’ (line 26), ‘riden’ (line 37), ‘axede’ (line 43), ‘ofherde’ (line 45) and ‘answarede’ (line 46). Conversely, there are few instances in which the past participle suffix is completely different thus does not indicate the text was written in a South Midland dialect – for example: ‘het’ (line 7 and 9), ‘woned’ (line 36) and ‘arived’ (line 40). However, such disparity does not imply the narrative was written in any other regional dialect, which is reinforced by the fact that these words do not correspond to the norm past participle suffix of any regional dialect. The plural present tense indicative ‘be’ in a South Midland dialect can assume one of the possible forms: ‘ben,’ ‘aren,’ ‘arn,’ ‘ern,’ ‘beoþ’ or ‘buþ.’ However, in the text, there are discrepancies in the use of the plural present tense indicative ‘be’ – such as: ‘beon’ (line 1), ‘ben’ (line 8) and ‘beo’ (line 10) – which also does not correspond to any other regional dialect. Furthermore, there are inconsistencies in the use of the first person pronoun, which appears as ‘ich’ (line 3) but more often as ‘ihc’ elsewhere in the text, which portrays a northern influence on the text, possibly imposed by the poet himself or the scribe. Hence, one may argue, based on morphological and lexemic evidence, the poet was perhaps incorporating different dialectal features in the narrative in order to be original and attract the vast audience of different regional dialects.
‘King Horn’, like most poems in the tenth and eleventh century (whether written in English or French), has a typical poetic feature of rhyming couplets. However, in the case of this particular text, the lines are uncharacteristically short (i.e. the lines tend to contain only three to five stresses, for example ‘Alle beon he blithe’ (line 1)) in comparison to the conventional octosyllabics of French romance or their accentual English equivalent. Nevertheless, Dalrymple (2004:81) argues such originality gives the narrative an oddly lyrical quality, which is reinforced by its frequent repetitions of phrases ‘[â€¦] Murry the Kinge. King he was’ (lines 4-5) and its ballad-like abruptness of movement ‘Arived on his londe, Schipes fiftene’ (lines 40-41). Furthermore, one would expect, from the genre of the Middle English romance, the poem to contain several metaphors and similes, which are basic poetic features. However, in the entire narrative there is not a single metaphor that exists merely on the level of verbal style. Nevertheless, there is an ambiguous symbolism of a dream, which many scholars consider as a foreshowing but Dalrymple (2004:82) considers the symbolism as a metaphor that functions structurally (i.e. on the level of action). Conversely, similes are not absent in the poem but is nonetheless extremely rare. Lines 14-16 ‘He was bright so the glas; He was whit so the flur’ portray comparisons between beautiful objects and the hero, although contemporary readers would expect such comparisons to be applied to a heroine rather than to a hero even during such infancy. Hence, the propensity for short lines, the absence of metaphors and the rareness of similes are all atypical features of Middle English narratives. This evokes the notion that the poet was perhaps intentionally attempting to be original and creative in his writing (during an era in which no English regional dialect has been standardized) in order to attract the diverse audience of that period, which would consequently lead the path towards standardizing the regional dialect. This view is further reinforced by the original use of the word ‘Christ’ (line 48), in a situation that poses a dilemma in the narrative, rather than the conventional practice in Middle English romances where the word was typically used in invocation.
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