Of Swanmaidens and Smiths

I don’t usually post excerpts of the books on which I’m working, but this is self-contained “bit” which revolves around the telling of an Old English/Old Norse tale. The story of Weland which follows arises when Prince Sebastian (the blighter whose proclivity for Shakespeare upset the chronology of these books) discovers a gap in the knowledge of his page Lewis. For the telling, the prince has sought out the court scop (bard), an old man named Deornlaf. Lewis, for the record, is referred to as ‘Lion’ by most of the castle.

If you know the tale of Weland, I have taken liberties. You are forewarned.

Below is an image of an eighth-century piece known commonly as the Franks Casket. The left side of the front panel shown here includes various elements of the story told below. Look for the swans on the right (of the left panel) and the thin, prone body under foot to the bottom left.

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=98117001&objectid=92560

British Museum, Franks Casket, front panel Right side: presentation of Magi Left side: composite scene of events from Weland’s tale.


Winding down a stone stair to the apothecary’s, Sebastian wondered why Deornlaf, who was an old man with bones as gnarled and twisted as a wind-tortured ash, would choose to ensconce himself in the castle depths rather than in one of the upper halls before a roaring fire. The answer became apparent the moment Lewis opened the heavy door to the apothecary’s sanctum and melting warmth poured from the room. True, the scent that accompanied the warmth reminded the prince of bad eggs, but noses are more adaptable than old bones.

“Not you!” shouted a fierce voice. “I’m not done yet, and how many times do I have to tell yo– Oh! Your Highness Oh! Ah. Er–” Chagrin transformed the apothecary’s countenance. He hurried forward to bow before the prince. “I had no idea that—”

“We’re not here for anything from you,” said Lewis, with a warning glance. “In fact, we don’t want you at all.”

“Lewis, don’t be rude! Læc, we are indeed not here to bother you but Deornlaf. Lewis thought that perhaps–. Ah, thank you.” Sebastian hurried over to press the shoulder of the white-haired man bundled before a roaring fire. “No, my friend! Do not rise. If you bear me any love, stay as you are.”

“Your Highness! I did not hear you. My ears are not what I’d like, but then, so much of me is not as I’d like,” lamented the old man with a papery laugh. “Ah! The ubiquitous Lion, pacing abroad rather than hunting in the shadows today?”

A vicious sneeze saved the child from having to respond. When the sneeze was followed by another, and then another, the apothecary started grousing under his breath about small children and the perils of contagion. Whether for the apothecary’s comment or the child’s inauspicious sneezing, Sebastian shot Lewis a wary glance.

“Deornlaf, could I trouble you for the tale of Weland. It appears that my page—my apologies, Læc, if you have had him underfoot—has never heard it.”

Deornlaf reached out a hand to sift the small page’s fine blonde hair between his bent and crooked fingers. “Never heard it and you with hair pale as the flax the swan maidens spun? Well, we can’t have that. Sit you down. Warm yourselves on this miserable day.”

“I must go, Deornlaf,” apologized Sebastian. “Lord Cotton has been expecting me for the last hour or so, and I must fulfill his disappointment no longer. Rectify my page’s lamentable ignorance and I shall be indebted to you.”

The prince’s parting command to Lewis that he be good drew a scornful snort from the shadowed regions where the apothecary was shuffling about. Deornlaf shifted his eyes to the fire and began.

“Weland was the third of his father’s sons, the cleverest of hand and the craftiest of mind. When he took the hammer in hand, or when he blew the bellows, Weland had no equal; and for his skill, a swan maiden named Ealhwise loved him for a time,[1] and Weland wrought his swan maiden a ring of deepest red-gold and set it on her arm. ”

Sebastian shut the door behind him and set his course for the library. It never crossed his mind, as it would never have crossed any Dyrnan’s mind, that the story of Weland might not be for young ears. Besides, tales of great deeds, even of great revenge, have a particular charm when the elements are raging and one is safe before a crackling fire.

“One morning Weland rose to find Ealhwise flown. Many a day he sat forlorn. Her ring rested in his hands as he grieved for nights with her white arms wrapped round his neck. Thus was Weland when the false King Niðhad set his men upon him. To capture the smith was no small task and the smith’s hammer struck down many before they hamstrung him, cutting the sinews of his knees that he might be the captive of his craft.  Niðhad imprisoned the smith on an island and there the king would come to demand wonders. Weland’s own great sword hung at the false king’s side, for Niðhad took all the smith’s treasures as his own. The most beautiful of rings, the arm-ring of Ealhwise which the king himself had wrested from the smith’s hands, was given to Niðhad’s only daughter Beaduhild; and thus the king himself bound his daughter to the smith.

For months, Weland labored, spinning treasures at his anvil, as his swan maiden had once spun flax. With his tongue he spun curses for the man who had lamed and held him prisoner, so that the smith’s heart became dark as the soot that stained his roof. The work of Weland’s hands had never been more beautiful nor the thoughts of his heart darker, than when Niðhad’s daughter stole to the island where her father held Weland captive. She wanted to see the smith her father held so dear, and so, she broke the ring that she might seek him out with reason. Beaduhild held out the pieces of the ring to him while, from behind the veil of tears in her eyes, she watched to see how the smith would take up what he had made, how he would receive her, and if her beauty would draw his eyes from his treasure. When Weland’s eyes lit upon Beaduhild, he smiled at last for she was very fair and her father loved her. Cut sinews and crutches made no difference to the smith’s skill with hammer or words. So, he wooed the girl, and Beaduhild mistook the brightness of his eyes for pleasure in her charms, the tremble in his voice for wonder at her love.

            By eventide, a second ring was broken and Beaduhild’s heart belonged to the smith. In place of the swan maiden’s ring, Weland gave the girl another. A better, he said. Ealhwise’s ring he fixed in secret and kept for himself. Niðhad knew not that his daughter came and came again to Weland’s island prison. One day, too ill to make her way, Beaduhild sent her two young brothers with a message and so placed the last of her father’s treasures into the smith’s hand. The sons, as greedy for secrets as their father for treasure, huddled eagerly over the great chest where Weland told them his best work was kept. There, he said, were rings better than that on their sister’s arm. There were brooches of gold so red they glowed as if the fire had never left them. The sons of Niðhad were too busy stirring the treasure to see the course of the axe that struck their bent necks. Weland had spoken truly. The gold was very red.

From their two small skulls, Weland fashioned a pair of great, golden chalices for Niðhad and his wife. From the boys’ eyes, he made gems that caught and winked in the bright light. These he set about the base of the chalices and he delivered them gladly to the servant who collected Niðhad’s new treasures. Then, hanging his hammer through his belt, Weland slipped a ring of red-gold upon each of his fingers. At last, placing the arm ring of Ealhwise around his wrist, the smith sat down to watch.

Heavy with secrets, Beaduhild waited for her brothers to come with word from her lover. When none came, she sent her maid to Weland in secret and was told only, “Seek your father where he feasts.” So, Beaduhild joined her father and mother and waited in silence. Niðhad’s wife wept for her missing sons until at last Beaduhild confessed she had sent them to Weland. Then, Niðhad’s wife looked on her daughter well and saw she was as women are.

Niðhad made his way to the island to demand his sons, but as he crossed the waters, Weland rose into the sky above him. Long dreams of his swan maiden had given life to the smith’s skill, and Weland had fashioned for himself wings that Niðhad might hold him no more. The king’s voice cried out for his sons as Weland took flight. Looking down, the smith saw his sword at Niðhad’s side.

“You have taken all mine that you could, but I have returned yours to you. Your own lips have kissed your sons every night since they disappeared. You have admired their bright eyes. Be content, oh king. If you wish for more, seek the bellows where you bound me.”

Vengeance complete, Weland soared over the waters toward his own home, and Niðhad wept over the red gold.”

 


[1] Weland’s swan-maiden in the Völundarkviða is known as Hervor the Allwise.

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