Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Blacksmith's Revenge

Legend tells of a King who once lived in the far northern wastes of Sweden, a King infamous for his cruelty his greed and his savage megalomania - King Nidud. His subjects, and his servants, lived in constant fear of the King's wrath, which could be sparked by the most trivial of things, or even by his boredom. The feared King, however, would learn to rue the day he turned his ferocity toward the blacksmith Völundr.

Image in the public domain
One day, long ago, the three sons of the King of the Finns went hunting in the high mountains. Their names were Eginn, Slagfinn, and the youngest was called Völundr. Blissfully lost in the woods, the brothers came to a clearing by the side of a great lake, a place so beautiful they decided to build a house there. Their tiring work done, the brothers admired their handiwork, and slept soundly in their new abode. When the brothers awoke the next morning, they were transfixed by the sight before them. Three young women, laughing and spinning flax, were relaxing by the calm waters. Stricken by their beauty, the stunned brothers realised who they were - Valkyries (for more about them, please click here). Overjoyed at their fortune, the brothers invited the maidens to their new dwelling, and were gracious hosts to their glamorous guests. Time passed, and soon each brother had fallen for a Valkyrie. Völundr was captivated by the Valkyrie Alvit, and soon the two were bound in matrimony. For seven years they lived in joyful serenity, having a son, until one day, Völundr awoke to find her missing. Searching far and wide, he could find no trace of her, and soon discovered that the same had happened to his two brothers. The Valkyries had departed the land, for as the servants of Odin, they were bound to his will and obeyed his summons. Alvit had left her beloved Völundr with just a golden ring to remember her by. Racked with grief, Eginn and Slagfinn set off in vain search of their Valkyries, whilst Völundr remained behind, sad, yet hopeful that he may one day see Alvit again. He lived a life of quiet grace, focusing his mind on his ability to work metal in place of his sorrow. Soon, his skill was such that he became famous throughout the lands of the North for the fabulously ornate objects that emerged from his forge.

Völundr at the Forge
Image taken from the 'Franks Casket' (British Museum)
Far away, word reached the ear of King Nidud of Völundr's talent. A greedy and heartless man, Nidud resolved to make a slave of this blacksmith, so that no other might boast of riches greater than his own. Like many wicked men, he sought such riches not to admire their beauty, but simply to possess them.  The cruel King sent forth his soldiers to seize the smith and his treasures, and to bring Völundr before him. The soldiers found Völundr asleep, dreaming of the return of Alvit, when they seized his possessions, and hurled the blacksmith himself into a sack. When Völundr opened his eyes again, he found himself, hands bound, staring into the harsh face of King Nidud himself. The King eyed the smith, running his fingers over a golden ring. Völundr saw, to his anger, that it was the ring which his beloved Alvit had left him. Nidud declared that Völundr would henceforth make riches only for him, until the day he died. His anger building, Völundr cried "Never!" The King, secretly a coward, was unnerved that someone would not be afraid of him. His fear soon turning to fury, Nidud ordered his guards to take Völundr to the tiny island of Saevarstad, where the blacksmith would either comply, or die. Just then, the King's wife, who was no better a person than her husband, suggested that the sinews in the blacksmith's legs be severed, so that he may never run, or swim, and escape. Nidud's two sons howled with laughter as Völundr's screams of pain pierced the night.

When Völundr regained consciousness, he found himself on the smallest, most miserable and lonely island one can imagine. So small he could easily see the whole coast, and the raging torrents crashing upon them, he was given a squalid hut in which to work, and if the previous day's work was satisfactory to the King,  a messenger would bring food. There would be no comforts here. Tears of rage flowed down Völundr's fair cheek, with Alvit as distant as ever, whilst Nidud besmirched the glory of his works with his cruel hand:

                                           " Shines Nidud's
                                             sword in his belt,
                                             which I whetted
                                             as I could best,
                                             and tempered,
                                             as seemed to me most cunningly;
                                             that bright blade forever
                                             is taken away from me:
                                             never shall I see it borne
                                             into Völundr's smithy... "
                                                    - THE MELANCHOLY OF VÖLUNDR

Descended from the Elves, Völundr possessed some of the cunning of that race, and thought desperately of how to escape his sorry plight. Time passed, and soon the treasuries of King Nidud overflowed with the most exquisite works of gold and silver imaginable, and the King was pleased, for he was the envy of the land. Every night, after his backbreaking work for the King's lust for riches was done, Völundr set to work, crafting for himself a set of wings, with struts of silver, and feathers of the most finely beaten brass. Slowly, over time, the wings began to take shape.

Bodvild and Völundr
Relief by Johannes Gehrts
One day, when the wings were nearing completion, a visitor came to Völundr's island - the King's daughter, Bodvild. Now Bodvild was something of a black sheep in her family. Spared the cruel nature of her father, mother and brothers, Bodvild had a warmer, gentler nature. Indeed, from the moment she saw Völundr in her father's hall and pitied him, had fallen for him. Now she came before him, and tentatively asked the lame smith if he might adjust a ring for her, too big for her own finger as it was. Turning to face her, Völundr saw that she was running her finger over a golden ring - Alvit's ring. Burning with fury, Völundr took back the ring and seized his hammer, determined to slay her then. If he could not reach the King, then she would have to do. Neither Völundr nor Boldvid could have imagined what was going through the other's mind. But then, just as Völundr advanced upon her, she declared her anger with her father for his cruelty, and confessed her feelings.  Blinded with silent rage, Völundr would not be swayed from his vengeance, yet saw now a new way to retaliate. The morning after, Völundr spurned her advance, commanding her to leave him and never seek him out again, knowing that he would condemn her to a lifetime of mournful melancholy. The princess fled in tears, distraught, and truly alone. Völundr, who had suffered such torments, now rapidly descended into the very thing he hated so much.

Back in the palace, selfish though he was, Nidud could not help noticing that Bodvild was a shadow of her former self, wandering the corridors as though a shade. But fresh disturbances began to plague him. His sons, his heirs to his kingdom, had not been seen since the day before. As the royal family sat down to their banquet that evening, messengers brought fresh gifts from Völundr to the High Table. King Nidud marvelled at his latest treasure - two goblets. The cups were rather grander in size than any normal chalice, rather similar in size, in fact, to a human skull. Gazing hungrily at the silver gilt cups, the greedy King drank deeply from them, as the heartless Queen placed her gift around her neck - a magnificent necklace, of four precious stones. Each stone was unlike any seen before, circular, and rather like the shape of a human eyeball. The Queen rather thought it reminded her of her two boys, but she could not place her finger upon exactly why. Bodvild, dejected, barely noticed her own gift, of a golden brooch, inlaid with many rows of nuggets, each rather like a human tooth in size.

Völundr's forge
Image taken from Ardre Image Stone VIII
Far away, on the lonely isle, the vengeful blacksmith had at last finished work on his shiny new wings. As a storm raged outside, Völundr took flight, heading toward Nidud's castle. As the night closed in, a flash of thunder suddenly roused the King from his slumber, and he was afraid. It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps his boys had visited Völundr, and maybe the blacksmith might know of their fate? He did not have to wait long to see him. For there, framed in his window, stood Völundr himself, dripping with rainwater, his face contorted with savage pleasure. "Where are my brave boys?" demanded King Nidud. Völundr laughed. They had both come to his smithy, demanding him to craft for them swords of gold. He had slain them both, gilt their skulls in silver and cast their bodies beside his forge. He further had wrenched their eyes from their sockets and set them too, in metal, and wove them into a necklace, which the boys' own mother now wore. He had broken their teeth and set them in a brooch of gold, which the boys' own sister now wore pinned to her chest. Völundr mocked Nidud, as now he had slain both his sons, and broken the heart of his daughter. The King wailed, as to his horror, he realised that he had drunk wine from the skulls of his own sons. The Queen, her sanity broken forever, simply laughed maniacally at the night, whilst the King, for the first time in his life, wept. Völundr, who now had truly forgotten his old self, leapt from the window, and took flight...

The saga of Völundr is at once a tragedy, a moral tale and a warning. It is common for heroes to grow in virtue as their quest develops, but Völundr is completely the opposite. As a result of his arduous life, each test served only to shake the foundations of his humanity, and is a stark reminder that cruelty so often breeds more cruelty, and that life does not always have a happy ending...

United Kingdom

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

United States

The Poetic Edda:
The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics)
(A grand collection of tales, mythology and fable from across the Norselands)

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