The Extreme Emotional Life of Völundr the Elf
By Ármann Jakobsson
Scandinavian Studies, Vol.78:3 (2006)
Introduction: Elves have been a fixture in the European mentality for a long time in fairytales and legends and, recently, in the most popular novels and films of our age. In this article, my aim is to determine the function of elves in Old Norse narratives from the thirteenth century by concentrating on the figure of Völundr, the protagonist of Völundarkviða, who to my mind is the most important Old Norse elf. The poem portrays his marriage to a southern swan-maiden who later leaves him. He then retires into solitude, hunting bears, and counting his rings until he is captured and enslaved by the avaricious King Níðuðr. The poem ends with Völundr’s gruesome revenge on the king and his family.
Völundarkviða is the tenth of twenty-nine poems in the Codex Regius ms of the Poetic Edda. Few Eddic poems have suffered less from scholarly neglect: a recent bibliography lists over 100 studies, not counting editions. There are grounds for this attention. To take one, Völundarkviða is usually classified as a heroic rather than mythological poem and shares common characteristics with some of the more ancient heroic poems in the Elder Edda, and yet it stands among the mythological Eddic poems in the manuscript between Þrymskviða and Alvíssmál.
Another distinguishing feature of Völundarkviða is its age. Most scholars believe that it is one of the oldest Eddic poems. Furthermore, the poem has interesting connections with non-Nordic Germanic heroic poetry, English place-names, English and Gothic artifacts from the Viking age or even earlier, as well as Greek mythology. It is not surprising that considerable scholarly attention has been given to the historical background of the poem, and much effort has gone into attempting to distinguish young material from old and discerning later additions to the basic story. But while these matters are interesting and important, it might be fruitful to disregard for the moment the origins of individual motifs and narrative elements in order to focus instead on their function in Völundarkviða in its present form.