Medieval Literature

The Language of the Birds

13th century, Icelandic: many copies in Iceland and Copenhagen | 14th century Middle English: some 15th century manuscript copies and numerous printed copies.

The king’s daughter in Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Squire was given a ring that gave her the ability to understand the language of the birds.

'Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga, Icelandic, thirteenth century,' said Miranda. 'Snorri wanted to preserve the old pagan myths because traditional Icelandic poetry depended upon them, and so he wrote the Prose Edda and the huge Heimskringla, of which Ynglinga Saga is a part. Ynglinga Saga recounts the early legends of the ruling family in Sweden. In it, Snorri tells us that Odin is the master of disguises. It is said of him: Odin could transform his shape; his body would lie as if dead, or asleep; but then he would be in the shape of a fish, or a worm, or bird, or beast, and be off in a twinkling to distant lands... Also, he had two ravens: to whom he had taught the speech of man; and they flew far and wide through the land, and brought him the news.'

'Further on in the saga, we are told that: King Dygve's son, called Dag, succeeded to him, and was so wise a man that he understood the language of birds. He had a sparrow which told him much news, and flew to different countries.

'Like one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, then,' replied Quintin. 'The king’s daughter in the Squire’s Tale was given a ring that gave her the ability to understand the language of the birds.'

'And the Saga of the Volsungs,' said Miranda. 'When Sigurd kills the dragon and tastes its blood, he immediately understands the language of the birds.'

Extracts from Ynglinga Saga from: Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla: Ynglinga Saga. Online Medieval and Classical Library. Chapter 7: of Odin's Feats. Chapter 21: of Dag the Wise. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Squire in: Skeat, Walter W., edited from numerous manuscripts by, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Scene concerning Sigurd in: Byock, Jesse L, 1990, reprinted 1999. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer. Translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. 19. Regin Drinks Fafnir's Blood, and 20. Sigurd Eats the Serpent's Heart, pp 65–6.

See for yourself

Geoffrey Chaucer - Wikipedia

The Canterbury Tales - Wikipedia

Ynglinga Saga – Wikipedia

Ynglinga Saga – The Ynglinga Saga, or the story of the Yngling family from Odin to Halfdan the Black

Fafnir – Wikipedia

Sigurd – Wikipedia

Canterbury Tales – The Squire's Tale – Wikipedia

Harvard University's Geoffrey Chaucer website - Text and translations

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