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The Smithy
on the Downs

Wayland the Smith in Berkshire

Back in the days before Christianity came to these shores, the Saxon bards would delight in standing before a blazing fire to tell elaborate tales of their gods and heroes. One can imagine the scene as one of these tales unfolded: the tale of Wayland the Smith.

Wayland was the son of the great God-Giant, Wade, King of the Finns. When he was very young his father sent him to be apprenticed to the greatest of master metalworkers, the dwarves of the Icelandic Mountains. Wayland learnt quickly and, as he grew up, he began to outshine even his tutors. When his apprenticeship came to an end, Wayland went to live with his two brothers, Egil and Slagfid, at their hunting lodge deep in the Forest of Wolfdales.

Every day the three brothers set out on their skates to go hunting. One particularly frosty morning, however, it was not deer or boar that they discovered in the wilderness, but three lovely princesses. These three beauties sat very quietly, spinning on the shores of Lake Wolfsiar. Egil recognised them at once as being no ordinary Royal ladies. They were swan-maidens who had flown in from Murkwood. Their swan-forms lay down by the water’s edge. Creeping through the reeds, the three brothers seized these magical skins and thus the maidens too, for without their avine halves they were powerless to escape.

Wayland and his brothers took the three princesses as their wives. Egil married Olrun, Slagfid married Swanwhite, and Wayland, the beautiful Allwise. For eight years they lived together in what appeared to be blissful happiness; but the swan-maidens found it hard living in the mortal world, and finally their desire to fly once more became too great. While their husbands were out hunting one day, they stole back their bird-forms and flew away as suddenly as they had arrived. The brothers returned from their day’s hunt to find their wives gone. Egil and Slagfid were distraught, and immediately packed up in search of their wives. Wayland, however, remained quite calm. He was sure his love would soon return. So he stayed in Wolfdales to wait for her, content, for now, to keep himself busy in his smithy.

Wayland’s metalwork had been well known before, but now he had time to concentrate on his craft, the pieces he produced became more and more superb. It was not long before his works were in demand the World over, sought by gods and kings alike. Especially prized was his fabulous jewellery. Rings were his speciality and he kept a hoard of them strung up on a willow twig in his forge.

Before long Wayland was unable to keep up with the demand for his wares. Kings and princes vied to possess more and more of his handiwork, and envy was rife. Covetous eyes pored over every newly worked item that emerged from Wayland’s forge, but the smith was not interested in the squabbles of mortals. He only wished to be left in peace to get on with his work. King Niduth of Sweden, however, had other ideas. He was consumed with envy every time anyone managed to purchase some of Wayland’s merchandise before him. He decided that Wayland’s great works were fit for no-one outside the Swedish Royal Family.

Niduth sent his agents out to spy on Wayland, and they soon returned to inform the King that Wayland lived alone in the forest. How foolish could he be? Niduth secretly set off for Wolfdales with a band of armed men. They arrived at Wayland’s hunting lodge just as night was falling. The Smith was still out hunting for his supper, so the King took the opportunity to have a poke around his magical home. On entering the lodge, however, he was instantly struck by the glare from all Wayland’s goldwork in the smithy within. It was almost blinding, and the King was forced to cover his face. Niduth could not believe his squinting eyes. He had never seen such a splendid array of jewels and weaponry. He was particularly drawn to the ring laden willow branch though. Carefully he drew off the rings one by one and examined the intricate detail of their design. One was so incredibly fine that he could not bear to replace it. His daughter would love such a present, so he placed it in his pocket. Outside once more, King Niduth waited impatiently for Wayland’s return, but spending hours doing nothing was not what the King was used to. Eventually, he mounted his horse and returned to the palace, leaving his captain in charge of Wayland’s capture.

When the god-smith did finally make his way home, the captain proceeded with caution. Wayland entered his house and stoked up the fire ready to cook some of the bear he had just killed in the forest. In the flickering light of the flames he noticed that one of his rings was missing. He knew every piece of his work and its absence was obvious. However, the trusting Wayland never suspected a thief. He immediately thought of his wife. She must have returned and taken it. She knew he had been making it for her. He was overjoyed at the thought of seeing his love again, and settled down to a quiet evening with this happy thought. He soon fell asleep

On waking the next morning. Wayland was shocked to find himself bound hand and foot, with several burly men standing over him, wearing the insignia of the Swedish Royal House. To his further surprise, he was not their only captive. Egil had returned, empty handed from his quest, that very night and had promptly been set upon outside the lodge. Struggling was useless. The two were carried off at once.

In the Great Hall of the Swedish Royal Palace, Wayland was confronted by Amilias, the Swedish Royal Smith. Niduth appeared and introduced them both. "I wish you to become my new goldsmith and jeweller," the King explained, "but, Amilias here has some objections. Why don’t you fight it out amongst yourselves." Wayland was thrown his faithful sword, Mimung, and quickly found himself embroiled in a sword-fight in which he wanted no part. Niduth had no intention of letting Amilias win the fight, but with Wayland’s skilful swordsmanship there was little chance of that. The swedish smith soon lay dead at Wayland’s feet.

Taking his sword from his hand, the King congratulated Wayland on his victory. He began to prattle to the bemused god-smith, laying out some of his plans for Wayland’s future in Royal service. "And I’ll put a stop to any ideas of escape," laughed the King, bringing down Wayland’s own sword on the back of his right leg: he sliced right through the ham-strings. Wayland cried out in pain and collapsed, blood pouring from the wound. Egil helped him up and the two were led away. Wayland was thrown into a deep cave on the island of Saevar-Staud which was to become his workshop, while Egil was employed elsewhere in the Royal household. The divine smith was determined, however, that his immortal life was not to be wasted toiling for the pleasure of a mere human. He began to plot his revenge . . .

Wayland snuck off his island prison one night to see his brother. He asked Egil to fashion him a pair of wings which would enable him to escape from Niduth’s evil clutches. Poor Egil knew it would be dangerous, but with Wayland’s crippled leg it would be his only chance. He managed to secretly capture some wild birds, and with their feathers he did exactly as his brother had asked.

Meanwhile, Wayland lured the King’s two sons to his cave. It was not difficult, even though all were forbidden to visit him. The boys were fascinated by his magical art, and could not resist a peak. Demanding the keys to the chests which stood around the forge, the Princes were dazzled by the jewellery found within. Wayland saw greed in their eyes and he determined on a plan. He told the two boys that the contents of all the chests could be theirs if they would return to the cave, in secrecy, later that evening. This they eagerly did, but Wayland was ready with a newly forged sword. When they entered his abode, he swung his weapon and chopped both their heads clean off! This was not the end, however. Carefully, Wayland stripped their bones and began a loathsome task which was to take him all night. Using the richest gold and jewels, he turned the young princes’ skulls into two beautiful goblets. Their eyes, he crafted into marvellous gems and, with their teeth, he fashioned a sparkling collar of "pearls". What was left of the bodies, he buried under a dungheap. On the morrow, Wayland sought an audience with the King, at which he presented him with his finest work yet: the goblets, he gave to King Niduth, the jewels, he gave to the Queen and the pearls, to the Princess Beahilda. The Unsuspecting ladies wore their new baubles with pride, and the King put the goblets to use at once.

By nightfall, the princes had been missed and search parties were organised to scour the countryside for them. Wayland smiled to himself. It was time to make his getaway. His thoughts were interrupted, however, by the entrance of Princess Beahilda to his forge. Her curiosity had been aroused by Wayland’s gift, and she wished to get a glimpse of more of his treasures. Furthermore, she had broken the gold ring which her father had given her. He already had enough on his plate, with her brothers’ disappearance, and she hoped Wayland could mend the ring before King Niduth found out it was damaged. Recognising the item, at once, as the ring he had made for his wife, Wayland suddenly saw red. The extent of his gaoler’s tyranny flared in his mind, and he wanted further revenge. He promised to mend the ring so well that no-one would ever know it had been broken. Then, sitting Beahilda down, he drugged her with a cup of wine and maliciously raped her. Then he fled his island prison to seek his brother.

Collecting his wings, Wayland thanked Egil and wished him well in his own attempts at escape. Then off he flew into the sky. Before leaving Sweden for good though he had one last piece of business to attend to. He headed for the King’s palace, where he flew low over the great hall taunting Niduth with jeers about his children’s fate. To which he added the final humility that Beahilda was with child: his child. Then he disappeared up into the clouds.

Wayland flew far and wide, and eventually came to rest across the North Sea in Britain. He landed on the high downs in Berkshire, where he discovered an ancient chambered tomb which he made his home. It was here that Merlin commissioned him to make the great Excalibur for King Arthur himself! He lives there still.

If ever you are riding the Ridgeway and your horse happens to loose a shoe, take him to the old tomb, Wayland’s Smithy in Ashbury, and leave a suitable offering on the uppermost stone (traditionally a silver sixpence) with the horse tethered nearby. If you leave discreetly, on your return, your horse will be shod and the money gone. Wayland will never work while being watched.

As the old smith has been kept busy over the years shoeing horses in this manner, he often runs low on nails. On one such occasion, he was obliged to send his apprentice, an imp called Flibbertigibbet, down into the Vale of the White Horse to buy a new stock. Like most lads, however, he dawdled and, looking down from the Ridgeway, Wayland saw him stop to go bird-nesting. Furious at his pupil for having no sense of responsibility, he picked up a large rock and hurled it after the little imp. The stone caught the boy on the heel and he fell to the ground. Pulling himself up again, Flibbertigibbet sat down on the rock. Tears welled up in his eyes and he began to cry bitterly. The impression of the lad’s heel was left on the stone and today the place where the tearful apprentice sat is known as Snivellings Corner!

Wayland has far more onerous duties than shoeing the horses of passing travellers to keep him busy though. The great White Horse which graces the hillside at Uffington is the magnificent "Grannie", shod by Wayland for the Norse hero, Sigurd, and now frozen in chalk. However, every hundred years the White Horse awakes. It jumps down from its usual home and thunders across the sky to Wayland’s Smithy, where the divine smith is compelled to repeat his task and shoe the horse once more. This, apparently, last happened in about 1920.

A group of locals were having a drink one evening at the White Horse Inn, at Woolstone in the vale blow the horse’s hill, when an unknown man in old fashioned clothes entered and ordered a pint of the local beer. He wore a leather apron and a tall hat, and sat to one side by himself. All of a sudden, the sound of a horn was clearly heard echoing through the night. The stranger looked startled, then, when it repeated, he jumped to his feet and hurriedly limped outside. As the noise faded over the Downs towards Wayland’s Smithy, they looked up to the hillside: the White Horse was gone! When dawn broke the next morning, several of the drinkers from the previous night looked out of their windows, with some trepidation, only to see the horse in place once more, with feet that seemed to shine in the sunlight. Then everyone knew who the mysterious visitor to the inn had been.

Next: Discussion of the Legend
On to: Places associated with the Legend


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2003. All Rights Reserved.