Heroes of the Olden Times: The Story of Siegfried
Mimer, The Master
At Santen, in the Lowlands, there once lived a young prince named Siegfried. His father, Siegmund, was king of the rich country through which the lazy Rhine winds its way just before reaching the great North Sea; and he was known, both far and near, for his good deeds and his prudent thrift. And Siegfried’s mother, the gentle Sigelind, was loved by all for her goodness of heart and her kindly charity to the poor. Neither king nor queen left aught undone that might make the young prince happy, or fit him for life’s usefulness. Wise men were brought from far-off lands to be his teachers; and every day something was added to his store of knowledge or his stock of happiness. And very skilful did he become in warlike games and in manly feats of strength. No other youth could throw the spear with so great force, or shoot the arrow with surer aim. No other youth could run more swiftly, or ride with more becoming ease. His gentle mother took delight in adding to the beauty of his matchless form by clothing him in costly garments decked with the rarest jewels. The old, the young, the rich, the poor, the high, the low, all praised the fearless Siegfried, and all vied in friendly strife to win his favour. One would have thought that the life of the young prince could never be aught but a holiday, and that the birds would sing, and the flowers would bloom, and the sun would shine forever for his sake.
But the business of man’s life is not mere pastime; and none knew this truth better than the wise old king, Siegmund.
“All work is noble,” said he to Siegfried; “and he who yearns to win fame must not shun toil. Even princes should know how to earn a livelihood by the labour of their hands.”
And so, while Siegfried was still a young lad, his father sent him to live with a smith called Mimer, whose smithy was among the hills not far from the great forest. For in those early times the work of the smith was looked upon as the most worthy of all trades, - a trade which the gods themselves were not ashamed to follow. And this smith Mimer was a wonderful master, - the wisest and most cunning that the world had ever seen. Men said that he was akin to the dwarf-folk who had ruled the earth in the early days, and who were learned in every lore, and skilled in every craft; and they said that he was so exceeding old that no one could remember the day when he came to dwell in the land of Siegmund’s fathers. And some said, too, that he was the keeper of a wonderful well, or flowing spring, the waters of which imparted wisdom and far-seeing knowledge to all who drank of them.
To Mimer’s school, where he would be taught to work skilfully and to think wisely, Siegfried was sent, to be in all respects like the other pupils there. A coarse blue blouse, and heavy leggings, and a leathern apron, took the place of the costly clothing which he had worn in his father’s dwelling. His feet were incased in awkward wooden shoes, and his head was covered with a wolfskin cap. The dainty bed, with its downy pillows, wherein every night his mother had been wont, with gentle care, to see him safely covered, was given up for a rude heap of straw in a corner of the smithy. And the rich food to which he had been used gave place to the coarsest and humblest fare. But the lad did not complain. The days which he passed in the smithy were mirthful and happy; and the sound of his hammer rang cheerfully, and the sparks from his forge flew briskly, from morning till night.
And a wonderful smith he became. No one could do more work than he, and none wrought with greater skill. The heaviest chains and the strongest bolts, for prison or for treasure-house, were but as toys in his stout hands, so easily and quickly did he beat them into shape. And he was alike cunning in work of the most delicate and brittle kind. Ornaments of gold and silver, studded with the rarest jewels, were fashioned into beautiful forms by his deft fingers. And among all of Mimer’s apprentices none learned the master’s lore so readily, or gained the master’s favour so quickly.
One morning the master, Mimer, came to the smithy with a troubled look upon his face. It was clear that something had gone amiss; and what it was the apprentices soon learned from the smith himself. Never, until lately, had any one questioned Mimer’s right to be called the foremost smith in all the world; but now a rival had come forward. An unknown upstart - one Amilias, in Burgundyland - had made a suit of armor, which, he boasted, no stroke of sword could dint, and no blow of spear could scratch; and he had sent a challenge to all other smiths, both in the Rhine country and elsewhere, to equal that piece of workmanship, or else acknowledge themselves his underlings and vassals. For many days had Mimer himself toiled, alone and vainly, trying to forge a sword whose edge the boasted armor of Amilias could not foil; and now, in despair, he came to ask the help of his pupils and apprentices.
“Who among you is skilful enough to forge such a sword?” he asked.
One after another, the pupils shook their heads. And Veliant, the foreman of the apprentices, said, “I have heard much about that wonderful armor, and its extreme hardness, and I doubt if any skill can make a sword with edge so sharp and true as to cut into it. The best that can be done is to try to make another war coat whose temper shall equal that of Amilias’s armor.”
Then the lad Siegfried quickly said, “I will make such a sword as you want, - a blade that no war coat can foil. Give me but leave to try!”
The other pupils laughed in scorn, but Mimer checked them. “You hear how this boy can talk: we will see what he can do. He is the king’s son, and we know that he has uncommon talent. He shall make the sword; but it, upon trial, it fail, I will make him rue the day.”
Then Siegfried went to his task. And for seven days and seven nights the sparks never stopped flying from his forge; and the ringing of his anvil, and the hissing of the hot metal as he tempered it, were heard continuously. On the eighth day the sword was fashioned, and Siegfried brought it to Mimer.
The smith felt the razor edge of the bright weapon, and said, “This seems, indeed, a fair edge. Let us make a trial of its keenness.”
Then a thread of wool as light as thistle down was thrown upon the water, and, as it floated there, Mimer struck it with the sword. The glittering blade cleft the slender thread in twain, and the pieces floated undisturbed upon the surface of the liquid.
“Well done!” cried the delighted smith. “Never have I seen a keener edge. If its temper is as true as its sharpness would lead us to believe, it will indeed serve me well.”
But Siegfried took the sword again, and broke it into many pieces; and for three days he welded it in a white-hot fire, and tempered it with milk and oatmeal. Then, in sight of Mimer and the sneering apprentices, he cast a light ball of fine-spun wool upon the flowing water of the brook; and it was caught in the swift eddies of the stream, and whirled about until it met the bared blade of the sword, which was held in Mimer’s hands. And it was parted as easily and clean as the rippling water, and not the smallest thread was moved out of its place.
Then back to the smithy Siegfried went again; and his forge glowed with a brighter fire, and his hammer rang upon the anvil with a cheerier sound, than ever before. But he suffered none to come near, and no one ever knew what witchery he used. But some of his fellow pupils afterwards told how, in the dusky twilight, they had seen a one-eyed man, long-bearded, and clad in a cloud-grey kirtle, and wearing a sky-blue hood, talking with Siegfried at the smithy door. And they said that the stranger’s face was at once pleasant and fearful to look upon, and that his one eye shone in the gloaming like the evening star, and that, when he had places in Siegfried’s hands bright shards, like pieces of a broken sword, he faded suddenly from their sight, and was seen no more.
For seven weeks the lad wrought day and night at his forge; and then, pale and haggard, but with a pleased smile upon his face, he stood before Mimer, with the gleaming sword in his hands. “It is finished,” he said. “Behold the glittering terror! - the blade Balmung. Let us try its edge, and prove its temper once again, that so we may know whether you can place your trust in it.”
And Mimer looked long at the ruddy hilt of the weapon, and at the mystic runes that were scored upon its sides, and at the keen edge, which gleamed like a ray of sunlight in the gathering gloom of the evening. But no word came from his lips, and his eyes were dim and dazed; and he seemed as one lost in thoughts of days long past and gone.
Siegfried raised the blade high over his head; and the gleaming edge flashed hither and thither, like the lightning’s play when Thor rides over the storm clouds. Then suddenly it fell upon the master’s anvil, and the great block of iron was cleft in two; but the bright blade was no whit dulled by the stroke, and the line of light which marked the edge was brighter than before.
Then to the flowing brook they went; and a great pack of wool, the fleeces of ten sheep, was brought, and thrown upon the swirling water. As the stream bore the bundle downwards, Mimer held the sword in its way. And the whole was divided as easily and as clean as the woollen ball or the slender woollen thread had been cleft before.
“Now, indeed,” cried Mimer, “I no longer fear to meet that upstart, Amilias. If his war coat can withstand the stroke of such a sword as Balmung, then I shall not be ashamed to be his underling. But, if this good blade is what it seems, it will not fail me; and I, Mimer the Old, shall still be called the wisest and greatest of smiths.”
And he sent word at once to Amilias, in Burgundyland, to meet him on a day, and settle forever the question as to which of the two should be master, and which the underling. And heralds proclaimed it in every town and dwelling. When the time which had been set drew near, Mimer, bearing the sword Balmung, and followed by all his pupils and apprentices, wended his way towards the place of meeting. Through the forest they went, and then along the banks of the sluggish river, for many a league, to the height of land which marked the line between King Siegmund’s country and the country of the Burgundians. It was in this place, midway between the shops of Mimer and Amilias, that the great trial of metal and of skill was to be made. And here were already gathered great numbers of people from the Lowlands and from Burgundy, anxiously waiting for the coming of the champions. On the one side were the wise old Siegmund and his gentle queen, and their train of knights and courtiers and fair ladies. On the other side were the three Burgundian kings, Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher, and a mighty retinue of warriors, led by grim old Hagen, the uncle of the kings, and the wariest chief in all Rhineland.
When everything was in readiness for the contest, Amilias, clad in his boasted war coat, went up to the top of the hill, and sat upon a great rock, and waited for Mimer’s coming. As he sat there, he looked, to the people below, like some great castle tower; for he was almost a giant in size, and his coat of mail, so skilfully wrought, was so huge that twenty men of common mould might have found shelter, or hidden themselves, within it. As the smith Mimer, so dwarfish in stature, toiled up the steep hillside, Amilias smiled to see him; for he felt no fear of the slender, gleaming blade that was to try the metal of his war coat. And already a shout of expectant triumph went up from the throats of the Burgundian hosts, so sure were they of their champion’s success.
But Mimer’s friends waited in breathless silence, hoping, yet fearing. Only King Siegmund whispered to his queen, and said, “Knowledge is stronger than brute force. The smallest dwarf who has drunk from the well of the Knowing One may safely meet the stoutest giant in battle.”
When Mimer reached the top of the hill, Amilias folded his huge arms, and smiled again; for he felt that this contest was mere play for him, and that Mimer was already as good as beaten, and his thrall. The smith paused as moment to take breath, and as he stood by the side of his foe he looked to those below like a mere black speck close beside a steel-grey castle tower.
“Are you ready?” asked the smith.
“Ready,” answered Amilias, “Strike!”
Mimer raised the beaming blade in the air, and for a moment the lightning seemed to play around his head. The muscles on his short, brawny arms, stood out like great ropes; and then Balmung, descending, cleft the air from right to left. The waiting lookers-on in the plain below thought to hear the noise of clashing steel; but they listened in vain, for no sound came to their ears, save a sharp hiss like that which red hot iron gives when plunged into a tank of cold water. The huge Amilias sat unmoved, with his arms still folded upon his breast; but the smile had faded from his face.
“How do you feel now?” asked Mimer in a half-mocking tone.
“Rather strangely, as if cold iron had touched me,” faintly answered the upstart.
“Shake thyself!” cried Mimer.