Poetic Edda


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  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The Lay of Völund

Introductory Note

Between the Thrymskvitha and the Alvissmol in the Codex Regius stands the Völundarkvitha. It was also included in the Arnamagnæan Codex, but unluckily it begins at the very end of the fragment which has been preserved, and thus only a few lines of the opening prose remain. This is doubly regrettable because the text in Regius is unquestionably in very bad shape, and the other manuscript would doubtless have been of great assistance in the reconstruction of the poem.

There has been a vast amount written regarding the Weland tradition as a whole, discussing particularly the relations between the Völundarkvitha and the Weland passage in Deor’s Lament. There can be little question that the story came to the North from Saxon regions, along with many of the other early hero tales. In stanza 16 the Rhine is specifically mentioned as the home of treasure; and the presence of the story in Anglo-Saxon poetry probably as early as the first part of the eighth century proves beyond a doubt that the legend cannot have been a native product of Scandinavia. In one form or another, however, the legend of the smith persisted for centuries throughout all the Teutonic lands, and the name of Wayland Smith is familiar to all readers of Walter Scott, and even of Rudyard Kipling’s tales of England.

In what form this story reached the North is uncertain. Sundry striking parallels between the diction of the Völundarkvitha and that of the Weland passage in Deor’s Lament make it distinctly probable that a Saxon song on this subject had found its way to Scandinavia or Iceland. But the prose introduction to the poem mentions the “old sagas” in which Völund was celebrated, and in the Thithrekssaga we have definite evidence of the existence of such prose narrative in the form of the Velentssaga (Velent, Völund, Weland, and Wayland all being, of course, identical), which gives a long story for which the Völundarkvitha can have supplied relatively little, if any, of the material. It is probable, then, that Weland stories were current in both prose and verse in Scandinavia as early as the latter part of the ninth century.

Once let a figure become popular in oral tradition, and the number and variety of the incidents connected with his name will increase very rapidly. Doubtless there were scores of Weland stories current in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries, many of them with very little if any traditional authority. The main one, however, the story of the laming of the smith by King Nithuth (or by some other enemy) and of Weland’s terrible revenge, forms the basis of the Völundarkvitha. To this, by way of introduction, has been added the story of Völund and the wan-maiden, who, to make things even more complex, is likewise aid to be a Valkyrie. Some critics maintain that these two sections were originally two distinct poems, merely strung together by the compiler with the help of narrative prose links; but the poem as a whole has a kind of dramatic unity which suggests rather that an early poet—for linguistically the poem belongs among the oldest of the Eddic collection—used two distinct legends, whether in prose or verse, as the basis for the composition of a new and homogeneous poem.

The swan-maiden story appears, of course, in many places quite distinct from the Weland tradition, and, in another form, became one of the most popular of German folk tales. Like the story of Weland, however, it is of German rather than Scandinavian origin, and the identification of the swan-maidens as Valkyries, which may have taken place before the legend reached the North, may, on the other hand, have been simply an attempt to connect southern tradition with figures well known in northern mythology.

The Völundarkvitha is full of prose narrative links, including an introduction. The nature of such prose links has already been discussed in the introductory note to the Grimnismol; the Völundarkvitha is a striking illustration of the way in which the function of the earlier Eddic verse was limited chiefly to dialogue or description, the narrative outline being provided, if at all, in prose. This prose was put in by each reciter according to his fancy and knowledge, and his estimate of his hearers’ need for such explanations; some of it, as in this instance, eventually found its way into the written record.

The manuscript of the Völundarkvitha is in such bad shape, and the conjectural emendations have been so numerous, that in the notes I have attempted to record only the most important of them.

There was a king in Sweden named Nithuth. He had two sons and one daughter; her name was Bothvild. There were three brothers, sons of a king of the Finns: one was called Slagfith, another Egil, the third Völund. They went on snowshoes and hunted wild beasts. They came into Ulfdalir and there they built themselves a house; there was a lake there which is called Ulfsjar. Early one morning they found on the shore of the lake three women, who were spinning flax. Near them were their swan garments, for they were Valkyries. Two of them were daughters of King Hlothver, Hlathguth the Swan-White and Hervor the All-Wise, and the third was Olrun, daughter of Kjar from Valland. These did they bring home to their hall with them. Egil took Olrun, and Slagfith Swan-White, and Völund All-Wise. There they dwelt seven winters; but then they flew away to find battles, and came back no more. Then Egil set forth on his snowshoes to follow Olrun, and Slagfith followed Swan White, but Völund stayed in Ulfdalir. He was a most skillful man, as men know from old tales. King Nithuth had him taken by force, as the poem here tells.[1]

Maids from the south through Myrkwood flew,
Fair and young, their fate to follow;
On the shore of the sea to rest them they sat,
The maids of the south, and flax they spun.

. . . . . . . .
Hlathguth and Hervor, Hlothver’s children,
And Olrun the Wise | Kjar’s daughter was.

. . . . . . . .
One in her arms took Egil then
To her bosom white, the woman fair.

Swan-White second,— swan-feathers she wore,
. . . . . . . .
And her arms the third of the sisters threw
Next round Völund’s neck so white.

There did they sit for seven winters,
In the eighth at last came their longing again,
(And in the ninth did need divide them).
The maidens yearned for the murky wood,
The fair young maids, their fate to follow.

Völund home from his hunting came,
From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman,
Slagfith and Egil the hall found empty,
Out and in went they, everywhere seeking.

East fared Egil after Olrun,
And Slagfith south to seek for Swan-White;
Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay,
. . . . . . . .

Red gold he fashioned with fairest gems,
And rings he strung on ropes of bast;
So for his wife he waited long,
If the fair one home might come to him.

This Nithuth learned, the lord of the Njars,
That Völund alone in Ulfdalir lay;
By night went his men, their mail-coats were studded,
Their shields in the waning moonlight shone.

From their saddles the gable wall they sought,
And in they went at the end of the hall;
Rings they saw there on ropes of bast,
Seven hundred the hero had.

Off they took them, but all they left
Save one alone which they bore away.
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

Völund home from his hunting came,
From a weary way, the weather-wise bowman;
A brown bear’s flesh would he roast with fire;
Soon the wood so dry was burning well,
(The wind-dried wood that Völund’s was).

On the bearskin he rested, and counted the rings,
The master of elves, but one he missed;
That Hlothver’s daughter had it he thought,
And the all-wise maid had come once more.

So long he sat that he fell asleep,
His waking empty of gladness was;
Heavy chains he saw on his hands,
And fetters bound his feet together.

Völund spake:
“What men are they who thus have laid
Ropes of bast to bind me now?”

Then Nithuth called, the lord of the Njars:
“How gottest thou, Völund, greatest of elves,
These treasures of ours in Ulfdalir?”

Völund spake:
“The gold was not on Grani’s way,
Far, methinks, is our realm from the hills of the Rhine;
I mind me that treasures more we had
When happy together at home we were.”

Without stood the wife of Nithuth wise,
And in she came from the end of the hall;
On the floor she stood, and softly spoke:
“Not kind does he look who comes from the wood.”

King Nithuth gave to his daughter Bothvild the gold ring that he had taken from the bast rope in Völund’s house, and he himself wore the sword that Völund had had. The queen spake:[18]

“The glow of his eyes is like gleaming snakes,
His teeth he gnashes if now is shown
The sword, or Bothvild’s ring he sees;
Let them straightway cut his sinews of strength,
And set him then in Sævarstath.”

So was it done: the sinews in his knee-joints were cut, and he was set in an island which was near the mainland, and was called Sævarstath. There he smithied for the king all kinds of precious things. No man dared to go to him, save only the king himself. Völund spake:

“At Nithuth’s girdle gleams the sword
That I sharpened keen with cunningest craft,
(And hardened the steel with highest skill;)
The bright blade far forever is borne,
(Nor back shall I see it borne to my smithy;)
Now Bothvild gets the golden ring
(That was once my bride’s,— ne’er well shall it be.)”

He sat, nor slept, and smote with his hammer,
Fast for Nithuth wonders he fashioned;
Two boys did go in his door to gaze,
Nithuth’s sons, into Sævarstath.

They came to the chest, and they craved the keys,
The evil was open when in they looked;
To the boys it seemed that gems they saw,
Gold in plenty and precious stones.

Völund spake:
“Come ye alone, the next day come,
Gold to you both shall then be given;
Tell not the maids or the men of the hall,
To no one say that me you have sought.”

. . . . . . . .
Early did brother to brother call:
“Swift let us go the rings to see.”

They came to the chest, and they craved the keys,
The evil was open when in they looked;
He smote off their heads, and their feet he hid
Under the sooty straps of the bellows.

Their skulls, once hid by their hair, he took,
Set them in silver and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair from their eyes he fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife so wise he gave them.

And from the teeth of the twain he wrought
A brooch for the breast, to Bothvild he sent it;
. . . . . . . .

Bothvild then of her ring did boast,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . “The ring I have broken,
I dare not say it save to thee.”

Völund spake:
I shall weld the break in the gold so well
That fairer than ever thy father shall find it,
And better much thy mother shall think it,
And thou no worse than ever it was.”

Beer he brought, he was better in cunning,
Until in her seat full soon she slept.

Völund spake:
“Now vengeance I have for all my hurts,
Save one alone, on the evil woman.”

. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
Quoth Völund: “Would that well were the sinews
Maimed in my feet by Nithuth’s men.”

Laughing Völund rose aloft,
Weeping Bothvild went from the isle,
For her lover’s flight and her father’s wrath.

Without stood the wife of Nithuth wise,
And in she came from the end of the hall;
But he by the wall in weariness sat:
“Wakest thou, Nithuth, lord of the Njars?”

Nithuth spake:
“Always I wake, and ever joyless,
Little I sleep since my sons were slain;
Cold is my head, cold was thy counsel,
One thing, with Völund to speak, I wish.

. . . . . . . .
“Answer me, Völund, greatest of elves,
What happed with my boys that hale once were?”

Völund spake:
“First shalt thou all the oaths now swear,
By the rail of ship, and the rim of shield,
By the shoulder of steed, and the edge of sword,
That to Völund’s wife thou wilt work no ill,
Nor yet my bride to her death wilt bring,
Though a wife I should have that well thou knowest,
And a child I should have within thy hall.

“Seek the smithy that thou didst set,
Thou shalt find the bellows sprinkled with blood;
I smote off the heads of both thy sons,
And their feet ’neath the sooty straps I hid.

“Their skulls, once hid by their hair, I took,
Set them in silver and sent them to Nithuth;
Gems full fair from their eyes I fashioned,
To Nithuth’s wife so wise I gave them.

“And from the teeth of the twain I wrought
A brooch for the breast, to Bothvild I gave it;
Now big with child does Bothvild go,
The only daughter ye two had ever.”

Nithuth spake:
“Never spakest thou word that worse could hurt me,
Nor that made me, Völund, more bitter for vengeance;
There is no man so high from thy horse to take thee,
Or so doughty an archer as down to shoot thee,
While high in the clouds thy course thou takest.”

Laughing Völund rose aloft,
But left in sadness Nithuth sat.
. . . . . . . .

Then spake Nithuth, lord of the Njars:
“Rise up, Thakkrath, best of my thralls,
Bid Bothvild come, the bright-browed maid,
Bedecked so fair, with her father to speak.”

. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
“Is it true, Bothvild, that which was told me;
Once in the isle with Völund wert thou?”

Bothvild spake:
“True is it, Nithuth, that which was told thee,
Once in the isle with Völund was I,
An hour of lust, alas it should be!
Nought was my might with such a man,
Nor from his strength could I save myself.”