There is a galloping horse etched on the green downland at Uffington. There is something of the sleek hound in its spine-stretched leap; some- thing of the dragon in its nipped face. Something of a dream creature, with its un-joined legs. No one knows who carved this sinuous morning stallion. Was it the emblem of some ancient tribe? Was it a welcome, or a warning? It looks as though it has never known a saddle. No one alive can tell why this un-penned charger yearns forever across the hill meadow, its white flanks flashing in the dawn.
Not far from where the giant chalk horse races free is the old Ridgeway, an ancient peddler’s track. Along this road, flints, beads and ores were lugged to the four corners of these islands. The busy trade of prehistory. A stiff westerly tramp down this path brings you to a stand of hunched trees that confide around some standing sentry sarsens. At the heart of the stone grouping is a narrow passage and a dark chamber.
Come to this place at first light. Come when the dew glimmers on a web, like a harp newly strung across the brambles and an Orb Weaver spider glowering, like a piece of amber at its centre. At this early hour the chamber is as cold as a spent hearth. It swallows the eye in its blackness. Yet listen, ‘Chink, chink.’ Is that a Stonechat in the branches, or a silver buckle being hammered? Is the ‘Tap, tap,’ a Great Tit calling, or the last touches of an iron hinge being fashioned?
Stare under the stone lintel. You know the place is empty. Nothing stirs there; only the wind that comes blustering through the bare thorns to rasp on the silent rocks. But if you came at another time, say at night, in the first cold snap of winter, when every bush crouches; then you might find the place lit and ringing.
Look now, with the eyes of just such a rambler, who has walked in curios- ity up to the ring of trees and limestone passage. Now the chamber is lit and ringing. It pulses with fire. There is an immense pounding of metal on metal. Sparks fleck the darkness and there is a steady cold hiss, like a dragon’s curse. For this is a smithy and Wayland toils here.
Step closer. The, forge gushes yellow flames. Coals growl as an immense man stoops and pumps leather bellows. They suck at a brazier and call the coals to growl as red as Odin’s eye. Who is he, this Wayland? The old Sax- ons knew him, as did their cousins the Germans. Wiolunt, the Rhineland Suebi called him. To the Vikings he was Volundr. The names carry some- thing of a boar’s grunt. Something of the straining arm. Wayland, means ‘Battle-Brave’ in the old language. But who is he, this giant smith, cauled in sweat and soot?
In his hand is a hammer, as heavy as a dead star. Yet he swings it high and down, again and again, tamping and pealing, iron on iron. His head is still. He is sandy bearded and steady. He wears a bull hide apron and a gold ring flashes in his ear. His blue eye is screwed on the point of his hammer’s target and he never misses. It is hard to fathom how such a large man can work in the cramped chamber, but work he does, night after night, year after year, century after century.
With an oath he turns. In his left hand is a pair of black tongs. They hold a long sliver of steel. Its red anger is quickly fading. Wayland plunges the tongs into a trough. The water retches and seethes. He draws the waved blade from the trough and holds it to the light of his brazier. Now the steel ripples with blue. Stories and charms seem to be swimming along the sword. A weapon wrought with whispers and spells. Let me tell you, Way- land is the smith of the gods.
See how he takes a cloth and burnishes the shimmer and tang. Ten, twenty, thirty times the metal has been heated, beaten and folded back on itself. Now its edge could shear the wind. See how the smith shifts his weight and limps around the anvil. Old king Nithad did that. His men caught Wayland sleeping. They took him to an island and there they hamstrung him – cut his left leg, through the sinew, to the bone. They lamed him forever. King Nithad set him to work, and since this is all Wayland knows, work he did.
He forged plates and rings, daggers and clasps. Iron, silver, gold and tin. Wayland is the cunning master of all metals. Nithad gloated over his growing stash, fingering the pile of cups and bangles, the bright-eyed brooches. The king laughed at his good fortune and all his henchmen laughed too.
One night Nithad called for his sons, so that they too could relish all his fresh-cast wealth, and rejoice in the spectacle of the captive smith toiling through the night. The henchmen returned to the king’s throne and told him his sons were nowhere to be found. High and low they had looked. Next Nithad called for his flaxen-haired daughter Blodvid. Wayland had only yesterday made her an exquisite ring. The mead wenches looked for her, but she too was absent. The king shrugged and went back to his hoard. He turned the objects over in slide and clatter. His henchmen sat and drank, but one of them, looking over the rim of his cup saw Nithad’s eyes widen as he poured Wayland’s wares through his fingers.
For in the instant of a fire lick on the gold and silver baubles a glamour was lifted, and Nithad saw blood. Here a garnet encrusted brooch was in fact made of fresh drawn teeth. The sapphire and emerald necklace was a link of plucked eyes. The ruby studded goblets were wrought from skulls. The skulls of all his sons.
Nithad threw the treasure down in horror. Hoarsely he called for his men. They raced from the hall to the island where Wayland was held, but all they found was Blodvid, drugged, asleep and disordered. The beautiful diamond ring that Wayland had made for her had broken, so she took it back to him for repair. In the forge the smith had wiled with her. He gave her a sleeping potion and in his dreadful revenge Wayland had lain with the princess. As the king stood before her he saw a copper beaker, set with garnets lying dented at her side. He wept and dropped to his knees. The henchmen ran amok, clattering over tongs, pokers, bellows. They searched every corner
and nook, but there was no trace of the smith. No trace at all; until one of them looked up the chimney and saw Wayland small in the sky. He had forged cool eagle’s wings from moon silver and now he was beating away along a tail of stars to the west.
There are no legends to tell when Wayland set his Smithy up among the stones near Uffington. When the English came they found him here striking blades and stoking his brazier. He seems bound by obligations beyond human ken. And this is probably a good thing, considering how grim and vengeful he can be when wronged. No one has ever heard his voice. Only in the working of metal do his thoughts flow. Instead of words his language is the intricate snakes on a chieftain’s shield, whirling storm-crows on a cauldron’s lip.
Many have come to Wayland with their commissions, and some he has ac- cepted. Beowulf, the great warrior had him make a close fitting mail shirt that proved secure and fast, even against the clutches of the demon Gren- del. Charlemagne and Roland both carried keen, ringing swords that were tuned on Wayland’s anvil.
In the 1940’s they dug a barrow at Sutton Hoo and found the grave of Raedwald, king of the East Angles. Chiefest of all the treasures they pulled from the ground is a helmet, masked and paneled with many engravings. The earth had eaten much of the metal, but when it was new it would have gleamed. There are some who say that only Wayland could have made such a helm, with its nose piece, dragons and cunning inlays.
Fire crawls on his wrist guard. He stands in the ruddy light. The clang and patter are ceaseless. It would be best to draw away now, carefully in the darkness, so as not to snap a twig, or stir the leaves. It would not be a good idea to break the concentration of the smith.
And so he toils, away from the concerns of men, working his doom through iron and gold, for unknown clients. Yet, local people say if you tether your horse (preferably a white one) to the wind-bitten ash tree near the passage and chamber, and if you leave some coins on a flat stone, then your horse will be shod by morning with shoes the weight and lustre of little crescent moons. When you mount at sunrise and ride towards the chalk carving at Uffington, your horse will fly across the downland, as if it has never known a saddle, its hooves scarcely touching the dew, its white flanks flashing in the dawn.