Thursday, March 6, 2014

Weland: Smith of the Gods

Book Review: Weland: Smith of the Gods by Ursula Synge – illustrations by Charles Keeping (S.G. Phillips 1973)

This is quite a nice embellished version of the Lay of Volund from the Poetic Edda. This version makes for a very readable tale. The author changes the ending somewhat from the original story. The whole tale is quite brief in the Edda. Apparently there is a more novelized and late version in Gautrek’s Saga which I am guessing she draws upon – she says she gives the story of Starkad and King Vikar from that saga (as a story within a story) as well as a few other of these ‘tales within the tale.’ The oldest reference to the lay is in the Anglo-Saxon Deor’s Lament. Another reference to the tale is a carved walrus ivory – called Frank’s Casket from seventh century Northumberland. There in England Weland/Volund was known as Wayland and there are many place-names that refer to him. Lee Hollander thinks the details of the story indicate that Norway is its place of origin though others think Germany, among the Franks, or even Wales to be candidates. It is among the oldest of the stories from the Eddas. There is a reference to Mimming, a sword made by Weland in a fragment of the Anglo-Saxon Waldere. Beowulf’s corselet is also called the work of Weland. Ursula Synge says here about her version of the story that:

“Mine is a very free retelling, based largely on that of Andrew Lang in his first Book of Romance…’

Lee Hollander also notes (in his translation of the Poetic Edda) some similarity of the tale to that of the ancient Greek tale of Daidalos who is imprisoned by King Minos and fashions wings for he and his son to escape. There is also the similarity of the lamed Weland to that of Hephaestos, the lamed and limping smith of the Greek gods.  

As noted in the introduction it is a rather dark story where courage, endurance, and vengeance are emphasized – all admired qualities. There is eeriness, treachery, cleverness, surprise, lore, and magic – all elements of a powerful tale.

The beginning of the tale is about three brothers: Slagfid, Eigel, and Weland, who are sons of the widow Gunnhild. She is said to have originally been a Lapp from Finland with the powers of a seeress. Their father may have been a Finnish king. The brothers travelled over the mountains to seek their fate and found magic, metals, and jewels. They practiced smithcraft with Weland being the master smith. The brothers eventually settle in a remote area they called Wolfdale, which is part of the kingdom of Nidud. According to Lee Hollander there was a king in Sweden with this name as well as his daughter Bothvild who is also key to the story.

Before the three brothers set out to seek their fortune their mother foretells their fates with runes and laments the end results. The brothers first have joy as they find and wed three swan maidens who follow them in the sky. Their fates are woven with these Valkyrie women and also with the god Odin who appears several times in the story – sometimes in a quite bitter manner as when Weland curses him to a stranger that he later realizes was Odin himself and then laments it since gods only wish to hear praise. Even so, Weland always gives Odin his due – here by hanging some of his creations on an ash tree near his smithy as offerings.

After a while their wives re-don their swan-feather cloaks and disappear to gather warriors to Valhalla as is their duty. The brothers are distraught and after waiting long decide to split up and each finds their own bitter fate. Weland does excel at his smithcraft and becomes the greatest smith in the land. Before his wife Hevron departs she gives him three keys which later unlock for him three hoards of precious metals and stones with which he builds many fine things – swords, shields, helmets, breastplates, broaches, cups, etc. Weland eventually invokes the envy of he king himself and the greedy king seeks his hoard. The king lames him, imprisons him on an island, and forces him to make things for him. I won’t give away any more of the story.

The lore in the story involves the lure and danger of greed – a seemingly common theme in Nordic lore. Much as in the Volsunga Saga it is greed itself that is revealed as a curse. There is also the complex nature of Odin, aka ‘Shapeshifter’. Odin’s influence – as in many stories – seems ambiguous – sometimes beneficent and kind and other times wrathfully bitter and harsh.  Weland even takes on an Odinic aspect as he is lamed further by losing an eye. Later in the story when he ages a bit he is seen a liminal figure as well – perhaps part elfin and imbued with elfin magic. Indeed the brothers’ marriage to the swan maidens seems quite indicative of their otherworldliness. He sends his spirit to haunt the spirit and dreams of the king which indicates his elfin shamanic powers. Part of his power it seems was derived from his ability to endure both hardship and solitude. Another source may have been his ability to engage wholeheartedly in his smithcraft. Early in the story, when the brothers meet-up and feast with a war band the harp is passed around and each tells a tale. Weland sings a tale of loving an immortal and wandering the edges of the world following his desire. Omens given in dreams also figure in the story and the theme of the unchangeable fates woven by the Norns is accented.

This version really is a tale nicely told with memorable embellishments that seem a bit like the artistic accents described here on some of Weland’s fine goldsmith pieces. As there seem to be multiple versions (many probably lost) of these folktales this telling is as good as any I would think and the more novelized versions of such tales are easier to enjoy than those in the meter, rhyme, and alliteration of a different language – even though some nuances of the original may have been lost. Of the poetic conventions the kennings are most easily transferred to prose. This book is easy to read and suitable for most younger readers – though there is some gore and violence.

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