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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: December 2017

1 - Introduction: On Reading Disability in Literature


Disability is everywhere in literature. Whether in the bodies that populate countless narratives containing physical disability, or in the mental difference that informs so much detail about character and psychology, disability features in literary production as a constant presence. And it does so across all time periods, from the earliest expressions of European poetry to the contemporary global novel, and all points in between. In the seventy-first verse of “Hávamál” or “Sayings of the High One,” part of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse mythological and heroic poems written in the thirteenth century, the speaker notes that

The lame can ride horses, the handless drive herds;

the deaf can fight and do well;

better blind than to be burnt;

no one has use for a corpse

Like most literary descriptions of disability, that in the Poetic Edda is accompanied by a value judgment. The “sayings” of “Hávamál” run to around 165 stanzas (depending on the edition consulted) and are attributed to the Norse god Odin. They comprise a guide to wisdom and proper living, with the first seventy-nine verses focused in particular on how an individual should conduct themselves when a traveler or a guest. Here, then, the positive attributes recognized in those with disabilities take the form of an instruction to consider the full value of living and the appropriate relationship between a visitor and a host. Disability, it is implied here, can illuminate the truths of human complexities because of the manner in which its difference revises expectations of behavior.

Disability is not a running theme in “Hávamál,” and the verses before and after the one cited here do not mention it. It is an unexpected topic in the context of the poem, and unusual in its positive assessment of how disability functions. It is typical of much disability representation, however, in that it connects the fact of disability to an extension of how that fact might be read: it is rare to encounter an account of, say, a physically different body that does not extend to a comment on what that body does or, crucially, means.

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The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability
  • Online ISBN: 9781316104316
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