Patterns of Coherence: A Study of the Narrative Technique in King Horn

Patterns of Coherence: A Study of the Narrative Technique in King Horn

Niyogi De, Esha

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 3 (1986)


Through the years critics have viewed King Horn as a primarily formulaic assemblage of “archetypic romance motifs” (Sands 15), linked with minimal transitions and few attempts at motivic and causal analysis. In a recent study upon cohesion in King Horn Mary Hynes-Berry discovers in the narrator a “situational omniscience” that leads to the “elimination of concern for person and motive” (654). This viewpoint gains support from the popular theory that King Horn originates in oral performance. A poem originating in oral performance is likely to be tailored to the limited receptive and retentive capacities of a listening audience. In their book upon “oral improvisation,” Quinn and Hall note the oral origin of the poem as the probable reason for the stylistic inferiority of King Horn (Quinn and Hall 33).

But this claim about the oral origin of the poem would be disputed by many. As Dieter Mehl states, the conventional opening of the poem should not be “taken as evidence of oral composition and transmission.” He instead discovers in this romance “the hand of a conscious artist” (Mehl 50). In a recent work John Ganim suggests that certain techniques employed in King Horn and typically associable with “oral and formulaic poetry” could have been utilized by a lettered poet only because he was “working in a literary tradition of limited vocabulary” (Ganim 45). It is with Ganim that criticism upon the narrative technique of King Horn takes a new turn.

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