Walewein in the Otherworld and the Land of Prester John

Walewein in the Otherworld and the Land of Prester John

By Ad Putter

Originality and Tradition in the Middle Dutch Roman van Walewein, edited by B. Besamusca and E. Kooper (Cambridge, 1999)

Introduction: In the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women (c. 1385), Geoffrey Chaucer showed himself an orthodox eschatologist when he insisted on the inaccessibility of the Otherworld to mortal humans:

A thousand tymes have I herd men telle
That ther ys joy in hevene and peyne in helle,
And I acorde wel that it ys so;
But, natheles, yet wot I wel also
That ther nis noon dwelling in this contree
That eyther hath in hevene or helle ybe,
Ne may of hit noon other weyes witen
But as he hath herd seyd or founde it writen;
For by assay ther may no man it preve.

The absence of direct experience (‘assay’) of heaven and hell certainly did not raise doubts in Chaucer’s mind about their existence; on the contrary, it simply confirmed their existence in a dimension sealed off hermetically from ours. For Chaucer, the Otherworld is Other in the absolute sense of that word.

This, of course, was always the Church’s official line. But while doctrine had it that the Otherworld was discontinuous with our own, the theology of doctrine (what people ought to believe) never seriously interfered with what most medieval people (theologians included) did in fact believe: that the borders between this and the other world were wide open, and that going from one to the other was possible not only in dreams or visions but also by travelling to one of a number of ‘transit zones’ where the lands of the dead and the living intersected. Thus St Patrick’s Island in Ireland gave access to purgatory, the Far East was scoured for entrances to the Earthly Paradise, while hell could be entered through volcanic craters. And just as human beings visited the Otherworld, so visits from the Otherworld to earth (by demons, angels, ghosts of the deceased) were numerous. As Aron Gurevich puts it, in popular belief ‘the boundaries between this world and the other were permeable in both directions’.

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