The poem relates the story of the artisan Völundr, his capture by Níðuðr, implicitly a petty-king of Närke (currently in Sweden), and Vǫlundr’s brutal revenge and escape.
Bellows’s notes on the poem
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.
This poem is more logically placed after Gróttasöngr – The Song of Grotti than where Bellows has it placed, Hollander suggests that there was a possible error in the Codex Regius regarding the placement of the lay.