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Chaucer and Old Norse Mythology

By Rory McTurk

In a paper currently awaiting publication I have argued that the story in Skáldskaparmál of Ódinn’s theft of the poetic mead is an analogue to the story told in Chaucer’s House of Fame, for three main reasons. First, both stories may be said to involve an eagle as a mediator between different kinds of poetry: in Snorri’s account Ódinn in the form of an eagle expels, apparently from the front and back ends of its body, two portions of the mead, which represent poetry and poetastery respectively, while Chaucer’s poem, which takes the form of an account by the narrator of a dream he has experienced, deals largely with two different places visited in the dream: the Temple of Venus in the first of the poem’s three books, and the House of Fame in the third, at which literary and oral poetry, respectively, are given prominence; and it is an eagle, moreover, that conveys the narrator (himself a poet) from one place to the other. Secondly, Snorri’s account hints at excretion in this context (Ódinn apparently excretes some of the mead: ‘sendi aptr suman mjödinn’, I, p. 5, l. 4), while Chaucer’s hints at flatulence (the eagle speaks of ‘eyr ybroken’, l. 765, which may be an allusion to broken wind); these two phenomena are not identical, of course, but are closely interrelated. Thirdly and finally, Snorri’s account presents Ódinn as collecting the mead from a mountain called Hnitbjörg, one meaning of which is apparently ‘clashing rocks’, whereas in Book III of Chaucer’s poem the eagle and the narrator enter the House of Rumour by a window in a whirling wall; both types of entrance are typical of the other world as this has been presented in different mythological traditions.

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