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university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 K A T H Y C A W S E Y ‘Alum de glas’ or ‘Alymed glass’? Manuscript Reading in Book III of The House of Fame The third book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The House of Fame opens with a startling image. The dreamer-narrator, having been carried by Dante’s eagle to an island in the sky, looks up and sees the House of Fame perched upon a mountain. The mountain is shining in the sun, and as the dreamer comes closer, he realizes it is made entirely of ice. In the ice are carved famous names, but he can barely read them, for they are half melted, ‘so unfamous was woxe hir fame’ (Riverside Chaucer, line 1146). As he climbs the mountain towards the palace, however, he sees that the names on the other side of the mountain, the north side, are as clear as they were the day they were cut, since they were in the shadow of Fame’s house and have not been melted by the sun’s heat. Most modern Chaucer scholars agree that ‘the subject of the House of Fame is the art of poetry itself’ (Boitani, 189). From the Eagle’s discussion of ‘eyr ybroken’ and the sources of speech to the merging of true and false ‘tydinges’ in the whirling labyrinth of the House of Rumour, Chaucer’s poem explores, elaborates, and questions – though it rarely answers – issues surrounding poetry, language, inherited literature, and new creation. Yet in a poem so emphatically about literature and poetry, the only actual image of writing in The House of Fame is the names carved in ice. Since so much of the rest of The House of Fame is either implicitly or explicitly a commentary on poetry and language, it seems reasonable to suspect that the icy words are as well. The image of the ice mountain carved with famous names is an image of the written word that will allow us to gain access to medieval concepts of writing and book production. Scholars often use drawings or illustrations of reading as evidence for the history of the book (the drawing of Chaucer reading aloud on the frontispiece to Troilus and Criseyde, for example, or the numerous illustrations of women reading Books of Hours). Likewise, a literary description such as Chaucer’s icy mountain of Fame is interesting not only because it gives us insight into medieval concepts of fame and transience, but because of the insights it provides into medieval concepts of writing and reading. The sources Chaucer uses to create his mountain and house of Fame are complex. In many ways, this is part of the point of The House of Fame – the retelling of two contradictory stories about Dido in Book I, for example, raises questions of literary authority, narrative truth, and poetic inheritance. Likewise, the figure of Fame herself, who appears later in Book III, draws on ‘alum de glas’ or ‘alymed glass’? 973 university of toronto quarterly, volume 73, number 4, fall 2004 many medieval depictions of Fortune as capricious, two-faced, and unreliable, and a medieval audience would instantly grasp the implications of this conflation of Fame and Fortune: by linking Fame to Fortune, Chaucer is commenting on the impermanence and fickleness of worldly fame. In placing the House of Fame atop a mountain where Fame can collect whisperings and rumours brought on the four winds, Chaucer evokes Virgil’s and Ovid’s descriptions of Fama (Aeneid IV.185–86; Metamorphoses XII.42–63). Yet to this classical image of the mountain on which Fame perches, Chaucer has added other images drawn from medieval depictions of the home of Fortune. Again, a medieval audience would not be insensible to the significance of the linking of Fame and Fortune. When the dreamer realizes that the palace is on a mountain made of ice, he exclaims, ‘By Seynt Thomas of Kent / This were a feble fundament / To bilden on a place hye!’ (House of Fame, lines 1131–33). This idea of a ‘feeble fundament’ evokes the biblical parable of the house built on sand (Matthew 8:24–27, Luke 7...


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