Weland: Smith of the Gods by Ursula Synge, illustrated by Charles Keeping
Reviewed by Jordsvin
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Despite his relative prominence in the myths and folklore of Northern Europe, I was only able to locate, despite an extensive online search, a grand total of three books about Wayland Smith, and this particular title is the only one that I was actually able to get my hands on! That in itself says something. Here in the USA anyway, if Interlibrary Loan can’t get it for you, it’s pretty darn obscure.
The other two books were Wayland Wonder Smith of the Gods by Julian Darble (which I have also seen spelled as “D’Arbie” and “Darbie”), published by Arktion / ECCAARTH on April 1, 1999, ISBN: 1872543251 and Myths and Mysteries of Wayland Smith by Clive Spinage from David Brown Book Company online. The former sounds like a young readers’ book, just like the title I am now reviewing and a quick search online for “Arktion ECCAARTH” revealed that it is a Pan-European Pagan group, while the latter book is focused on the renamed English Neolithic barrow “Wayland’s Smithy.”
Weland: Smith of the Gods was published in 1973 and is now out of print, but there are a number of used copies available on amazon.com, most of them at reasonable prices. Your local public library may well have a copy, and if not, its Interlibrary Loan service will probably be able to help you. It is essentially a young readers’ book, and seems to be at approximately the middle school level. However, it can be readily enjoyed by adult readers as well.
Ms. Synge retells Wayland’s story with a clear overall fidelity to the original. In both style and content this book is strong in Heathen spirit. This shows in the complete absence of Christianizing elements, and she even approaches Óđinn in a sympathetic manner, although Wayland himself generally does not. She quotes from “Óđinn’s Rune Song.” In this retelling of Wayland’s myth, he is against his own wishes something of an Óđinnic hero with a varying and multi-leveled relationship with Óđinn. Wayland even loses an eye! She discusses various prophecies or foretellings and incorporates the Heathen belief in Wyrd. Here in this tale, humanity is always in dialogue and at times in conflict with the Gods and their at times inscrutable ways, which of course is diametrically opposed to the subservient Monotheistic model of religion.
Wayland is portrayed as a multi-faceted and very human character. He is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but all in all one cannot help but feel great sympathy for him. He experiences much sorrow and injustice and little joy, and for no particular reason. Sometimes life is simply like that. There is little we can do about it, but we can still be glad that even though they knew that Miđgarđr would be by necessity both imperfect and impermanent, and would incorporate much misery and injustice, Óđinn, Vili and Vé chose to shape and people it anyway! We can thank them and join in their ongoing work by caring for what they have created, by living with justice, integrity and as much joy as we can, and last but by no means least, by extending a helping hand to others. Although Weland: Smith of the Gods did not teach me this, it is still the lesson that came to me after reading and pondering upon it.
King Nidud, by contrast is a thoroughly despicable nithling: sneaky, a coward, and greedy, cruel and a liar to boot. He is presented in such a fashion as to be odious both in ancient Heathen and modern Western cultures.
Ms. Synge takes few liberties with the story of Wayland as it has come down to us. One very noticeable one is the matter of the relationship between Bothvild and Wayland. Was it at least somewhat consensual, the taking advantage of a drunken young woman, or a flat-out rape? All these conclusions are possible. In the original Eddaic version, Wayland refers to Bothvild as his wife and exacts a public oath to protect her and his future son before flying away from Nidud’s court without her. In this retelling of the story, Bothvild offers to marry Wayland to compensate him for his losses at her father’s hands, an example of Gebo in action in more ways than one! Of course, one must also take into account that in a young readers’ book from the early 1970’s, the inclusion of a rape would be out of the question!
The main change made in the story is that rather than flying off to parts unknown as in the Poetic Edda, Wayland lands in a small village, works as a smith, and lives as happily as such a tormented man could until he dies and his Valkyrie wife, Hervor, finally returns to him to carry him off to Valhalla. This ending, while not hinted at in the surviving lore, is nevertheless possible and the publisher makes sure in the introduction inside the dust jacket that we know that the ending of the story is an innovative one, original to this author.
Charles Keeping’s black-and-white illustrations are line drawings without any shading. With their simple and uniformly thick lines they look like woodcuts, and they portray very effectively the starkness of the mostly dark emotions inherent in Wayland’s story. They make a fine addition to Ursula Synge’s work as a word-smith.
I recommend that you get hold of a copy of Weland: Smith of the Gods and not only read it yourself, but also share it with or even read it to a young Heathen or potential Heathen. I hope it is back in print one day soon. As our numbers and buying power grow, perhaps both it and other out-of-print retellings of our lore, including my personal favorite, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire’s Norse Gods and Giants, will again be available to new generations of young readers!
last modified 05/30/2004