Friday, 19 October 2012

Wayland's Smithy: a tangle of tales...

by Penny Dolan

All that was needed, so people said, was a single coin placed on a stone beside your tethered horse. Have faith, leave the horse there all night and when you came back next morning, your steed would be newly shod and the coin gone.

Though the nights of magical shoeing are surely long past, the ancient burial mound known as Wayland’s Smithy is still there on the shoulder of chalk downland, and the place with its tangled tale, haunts me.

I first saw the Smithy on a day so wet that froglets skittered from the path into overfull ditches and milky water ran down the cracks in the chalky clay.

The rain gods had only paused. By the time we had reached the crest of the ridge, a downpour had began. Thunder rolled around the hills and as we approached Wayland’s Smithy, the huge, dark clouds above were lit with streaks of lightning.

The long barrow lies off the track. We pushed through wet bushes and came to it, covered in grass and surrounded by grove of trees. Several ancient stones formed the gateway.

With the storm raging, the moment felt as if the past was only a shadow away. It was impossible not to think of the many feet that had passed along the Ridgeway and made the path, with or without horses to be shod. Did they all wonder at the mysterious mound or the strange white horse* spread across the hillside nearby? Did they seek shelter in the small wood?

However, the helpful smith of the legend does not match entirely happily with the Norse version of Wayland the Smith. 

Wayland, or Volund, had been apprenticed to the dwarves of the Icelandic Mountains, He was one of the three sons of Wade, the king of the Finns. Out hunting, the brothers found three beautiful swan maidens, seized their feathered robes, and made them their wives.  When the three sisters discovered their hidden feathers again, they flew away to freedom.

The two older brothers went searching for their wives, but the desolate Wayland stayed working at his smithy, sure that his beloved wife would return for the golden ring he was keeping for her and all the other treasures he was creating.

Soon rich men grew greedy for Wayland’s skills, King Niduth of Sweden more than any. Wayland was lured to his castle, crippled, imprisoned on an island and made to forge endless objects for the king. So dazzling were the treasures and so great the family’s pride that they forgot to be wary of their prisoner.

The two princes visited Wayland, who treated them kindly until they mocked him. Enraged, he beheaded them both and fashioned a set of dreadful gifts for the royal parents. The princely skulls became golden goblets, the eyes glittering gems from their eyes, and their pearly white teeth made a necklace for the queen their mother.

Meanwhile, the princess, jealous of her brothers, visited Wayland, bringing a golden ring for him to mend. Recognising the stolen ring as that made for his lost wife, he cruelly seduced the princess, leaving her with child. Having sent her and the horrific treasures back to the palace, Wayland strapped on a pair of mechanical wings, rose into the sky and flew away. 

It is not quite clear how this tale links up to the burial mound, although the ancient site may have been given its new identity by Anglo Saxon invaders.

Certainly the tale travelled and adapted. One version claims that Wayland’s wings brought him to the mound, and that  the Norse hero Sigurd  brought his horse there to be shod. Some say that explains the white horse set in the chalk, who leaves the hillside once every hundred years and gallops across the sky to the smithy to be shod.

To me, this tale is loaded with contrasting images – the stolen skins of the swans, the broken wedding ring, the patient and desolate waiting, the greed of the powerful, the Samson-like captivity, the image of those awful golden chalices, and thee Daedulus-like wings – and they all make the tale of Wayland unforgettable.  One cannot love or admire him, yet there is something enigmatic about his tale and about the unbound rage that creates such dreadful treasures.

The crippled smith’s name is mentioned in Beowulf, in the poem Volundarkvitha (part of the poetic Edda) as well as in Chaucer’s writings, in Kipling’s 'Puck of Pooks Hill', and in 'Kenilworth'. He is said to be a fore-runner of St Clement, patron saint of blacksmiths and both have feast days in November. 

Why does the Wayland story matter to my writing? When I wrote my novel 'A Boy Called Mouse', I came to a section where my Mouse needed to have a place where he could rage and let out all the anger he felt. The pattern of his world had shifted dreadfully and he needed time in the wilderness to move out from his terrible grief, and renew his hope for his quest.

The image of that ancient site came into my head and the long path running alongside, and the wild storm overhead. So I created a “tramping man”, a character called Wayland. He is not a man who would put out my young hero’s eyes, but a wise kindly figure who makes Mouse to walk and walk and keep on walking along the high ridge of ground while a storm rages around them, almost Lear-like. Wayland. This agonising march moves Mouse out of his despair and sets him free for his future. The tales don’t fit easily together but for me, something matched.
Weland forges the sword, HR Millar, 'Puck of Pook's Hill'


* The Uffington White Horse, a bronze age chalk figure cut into the hillside.


My friend Penny Dolan is a Yorkshire lass like me, a storyteller as well as a children’s writer, and we share a delight in that feistiest of fairytale heroines, the beautiful and dauntless Lady Mary from ‘Mr Fox’. 

Penny is the author of many picture books and fairytale retellings for younger children, as well as longer books for junior readers. Notable among these is ‘The Third Elephant’, a lovely tale of a small wooden elephant who longs to see more of the world than his dusty mantelpiece:

When night came, the small elephant looked at the empty pool of moonlight.  He thought about what the mouse had told him: wish for what you want, wish for what you dream about. ‘I wish’, he thought, as hard as he could, ‘I wish I could see the white palace again.’

In the classic tradition of change coming to discarded toys, the little elephant is thrown from the window and falls into the hands of a young girl on her way to play the flute in a concert - and the adventures begin. ‘Charming’ is an adjective which can sometimes be suspected of carrying the subtext ‘trivial’, but this is a book which is both truly charming and seriously involved with the fears and uncertainties of childhood.  Her novel, 'A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E’ is ‘a historical fairy tale’, a beautifully written, carefully researched story of a young boy wandering the roads of Victorian England, and is full of allusions to Victorian fiction, the theatre, and old legends about larger-than-life wanderers on the old roads of England - including Wayland himself.

Picture credits:
Wayland's Smithy: Wikimedia Commons 


  1. Great post - I do love the Wayland story. I remember bits of it being used in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising books; these are the books that introduced me to A-S mythology. It's a shame that when the book was adapted recently for a film, all the mytholoogical references were neatly excised!

    One of these days I will look more into the swan references. I've come across occasional archaeological examples of burials in pits lined with swan feathers, and indeed, random swan-feather-lined pits, use of which we don't understand. My folklore nose is twitching...

  2. Yes, I'm sure I recently came across a reference to a Neanderthal baby buried on swan's wing. It might have been in a book by Neil Oliver. Do look into it, Diane - I'd love to know more!

  3. Wayland's Smithy is one of my favourite places. I've only seen it on a sunny day, but the atmosphere was powerful and evocative - there was a sort of stillness to it, even though the wind was rippling through the beech leaves. I didn't know about Wayland's story though. Thanks, Penny and Kath.

  4. Love Wayland's Smithy. I'm guessing the first time Penny saw it was the famously wet "Charney walk". It crops up from time to time and I somewhat regret that I opted to stay indoors and write.

  5. Loved this, Penny - and thank you, Kath, for hosting it. Wayland gets about - he features in my Sterkarm Handshake. His story is told at the Sterkarm fireside.
    And Penny, A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E is absolutely wonderful. I remember hearing you read the Wayland scene at Charney and it thrilled me to my boots. It was just as good when I read it to myself on Kindle.