Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2011 The Laidly Worm – Part One

Ain’t Nothing Like The Web


 Knowing the backstory to a tale informs a teller. I won’t say it is important, but it adds depth to the telling. In “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh” there is a reference to Rowan wood. I know this is one of the trees sacred in Celtic traditions, but I decided I wanted to know more about it. My search almost immediately led me down another path.


 First stop: Wikipedia. Burnt into my brain synapses that fire up when I begin researching are the admonishments of high school teachers berating us if our term papers looked like they came straight from the World Book Encyclopedia. Wikipedia is the new WBE. In my opinion Wiki is one of the most reliable resources on the Web. I have yet to find erroneous information. It is a great place to start, with lots of links off onto related topics.


Returning to my Google list (yes, Google) created by entering “Rowan Tree”, I click on the next promising entry. Halfway down the page I glide upon:


“Laidley Wood”


        The spells were vain
         The hag returned
         To the Queen in a sorrowful mood
         Crying that witches have no power
         Where there is Rowan tree wood.

Traditional Celtic ballad

Oh?  I had already searched on the phrase “Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh.” Google offered up various copies of Joseph Jacob’s version, and related versions. I search again.  No ballads.


I cut and paste “Where there is Rowan tree wood” into the search box, with interesting results. 

One leads me to “Thiselton-Dyer, T. F.  The Folk-Lore of Plants.1889” available in full, searchable text at Project Gutenberg. Using the search function on the word “Rowan”, the word is found, but not my bit of verse. Huh?


Never give up. This is an adage that can yield results and waste immense amounts of time. After doing both, I find the verse by searching on the word “queen”. In Thiselton-Dyer the word “Rowan”, in the quoted verse, was spelled “Row’n” (damn poetic license). Thiselton-Dyer’s citation leads me to my next search: “Northumberland garland; or, Newcastle nightingale, Songs collected by Joseph Ritson 1793”.


In FARNE Archive Search I find the image of the first page of the text to the ballad, an item reproduced by kind permission of Newcastle University. ONE PAGE! Only the first three verses. It does offer up the information that the song is about 500 years old, made by the old mountain-bard, Duncan Frasier, living on Cheviot, A.D. 1270 and first printed from an ancient manuscript by the Rev. Robert Lambe, Vicar of Norham. Amazon will sell me the book, but I want the ballad NOW. Neither Gutenberg, Google Books nor Archive.org has it for me to read on-line. It’s now getting late. Jolene has gone off to bed.


There must be a way. More googling leads me to “Sylvan sketches; or, A companion to the parks and the shrobbery: with illustrations from the works of the poets, by Elizabeth Kent, 1831”. She writes about “Evelyn”, who’s quote she copied containing the same verses I have been tracking. In Kent’s work Evelyn says this, Evelyn says that. Whose Evelyn? I finally find Kent writing “…in Evelyn’s Sylva….”

Two new key words. They bring me to the Wiki entry for John Evelyn, author of “Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in His Majesty’s Dominions”. And Gutenberg has got it. Volume one. Not volume two. Guess where the reference to the verses occurs. No one has volume two. 

A similar problem occurs with “The Local Historian’s Table Book of Remarkable Occurrences, Historical Facts, Traditions, Legendary and Descriptive Ballads, &c., &c., Connected with the Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland and Durham. Legendary Division. Vol. 1. Newcastle-upon-Tyne, M.A. Richardson, 1842.” Volume one ended without the poetry referred to

in the table of contents.


As the sum crests the horizon, I blunder into http://www.england-in-particular.info/landlines/l-worm.html. There it is, the whole ballad, with the interesting comment: “It is the earliest recorded version of the story I’ve come across. As you’ll see from Richardson’s note at the end, he thought (and I think) that the ballad was actually written by the Rev. Lambe.”

I start to read the poem, with glee. Wait, this sounds familiar. I read this before. Yeah, in Child’s Ballads….

Going back to Joseph Jacob’s notes I see that he refers to Rev. Lambe as the source, as well as a reference to Child. I’d simply forgotten.


For all my research I accomplished little. There was one bright spot, and here it is:



900g (2lb) Rowan Berries
900g (2lb) Crab Apples
1.8lt (3 pints) Water

Pick over the rowan berries, removing any stalks; wash if necessary, drying well.
Wash the whole crab apples, removing any bruised parts.
Place the fruit and just enough water to cover into a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Bring to the boil and simmer covered for 20 – 25 minutes, until tender.
Strain through a jelly bag or muslin cloth; allow about 4 hours for this; do not squeeze as this will cause the jelly to become cloudy.
Measure the volume of the liquid; add 450g (1lb) of sugar for each pint (600ml) of liquid.
Place the sugar in an ovenproof bowl and put it in the centre of a pre-heated oven for 10 – 15 minutes.
Place the juice back into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, stirring until fully dissolved.
Bring to the boil and cook rapidly for 10 – 15 minutes until the setting point is reached.
Skim the surface if necessary; allow to cool slightly then pot.

Makes: 3 – 4lb


Now, if I can only find a Rowan tree.


Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2011 The Laidly Worm – Part Two


          I weird ye to be a Laidly Worm,
          And borrowed shall ye never be,
          Until Childe Wynd, the King’s own son
          Come to the Heugh and thrice kiss thee;
          Until the world comes to an end,
          Borrowed shall ye never be.

Thus the witch queen cursed Margaret in “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh”. Joseph Jacobs, who collected this story in his 1890 “English Fairy Tales”, was fond of putting snatches of poetry in his presentation of these stories. The Grimms also included verse in their collected tales:

            Nibble, nibble, I hear a mouse.
            Who’s that nibbling at my house?

Need I cite the story? Many of these little poems are comfortably familiar to us. Look on your bookshelf for your fairy tale collections. Is Mother Goose among them?

            How many miles to Babylon?
            Three score and ten.
            Can I get there by candle light?
            Yes, there and back again.
            If your heels are nimble and light,
            You will get there by candle light.

Look farther down the shelf, past all of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books, to the five volumes of “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads”, by Francis James Child, commonly known as the Child Ballads. There, under the pseudonym of “Kemp Owyne” is the “Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh”, part of the entry for Child Ballad #34.

I like reading Child’s ballads. It is a scholarly work. He collected the lyrics, but none of the music. Therefore, they read like poetry. These five volumes, written between 1882 and 1894, cite works that are far older. Sitting in my study, reading these works, I feel that I am time traveling, hearing words spoken by bards out of a misty past. Forgive my delusion, dear reader.

What is it about poetry in these Euro-centric tales that is so appealing? In our minds the bardic tradition starts with Homer’s “Iliad” and his “Odyssey”. I’ll bet a nickel he was pulling from an earlier tradition.

Traditional English verse is often written in iambic pentameter, five beats of unstressed, then stressed syllables. Think da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. The stuff of Shakespeare.

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” … da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM. Sounds like a heart beat, doesn’t it?

The rhythm is at the heart of our attraction to poetry. When I tell these fairy tales, I try, as my poor talents will allow, to get these rhythms of poetry into the prose of my telling. What can be closer to the intent of our storytelling than our heartbeats?

The blood of fairy tales are the words. The pulse of the rhythm is its voice.



Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2011 The Laidly Worm – Part Three

 H J Ford

A flight of dragons

The world of fantasy is populated with dragons. In that world you can’t throw a paperback book without hitting a dragon. Dragons are the stuff of mythology and legend. There is the dragon Nidhogg gnawing on the roots of Yggdrasi, the world tree; Siegfried bathed in the blood of Fafnir; St George battling his dragon. Ah, yes, the stuff of mythology and legend.

Not of fairy tales.

Does Rapunzel have a dragon in it? Snow White? Cinderella? Sleeping Beauty? Ah, Sleeping Beauty. I remember the dragon in Sleeping Beauty. The witch transforms herself into a dragon and… Gee, I can’t find that in Perrault’s  version. Did Disney just…?

For the purpose of this blog I will define Fairy Tales as those Euro-centric tales passed along orally, and collected over the centuries by literate persons who found value in them.

In one of Karen Chace’s highly useful blogs, she directs our attention to dragon resources. I will use one of the sources she sites, “The Serene Dragon”, as example. There are 544 dragons listed by country. Inspecting this list, I found a handful of that fall into the fairy tale realm, one of them being “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh.”

In Grimm I found no dragons out of the more than two hundred stories they collected. Let’s broaden our scope to other mythical creatures. The Unicorn. Their absence in Grimm is as complete as the dragon’s. Harpies? Forget it.

Why? Why the dearth of mythical beasts in fairy tales? There are plenty of common beasts. Many of them are enchanted flounders, frogs and foxes, almost exclusively princes.

I think the operative word in the paragraph above is “common”. Myths deal with the antics of the gods and goddess. Legends deal with the trials and onuses   of heroes. Fairy tales deal with weird people carrying bundles of sticks.

At the top of the fairy tale pyramid is royalty. The king or queen is rarely  the hero or heroine of the story, but rather their progeny—a step down. These children usually fall to an underdog status before rising again.

After royalty, we move on the merchants, peasants, soldiers, and fisherman. Clearly we are dealing with the common. Here is my, too deep into my head, explanation. Fairy tales are Christian.

Myths and many of the legends are pre-Christian. Christian legends are patterned on the legends that came before them. We, as a society, don’t consider that there are any Christian myths. (Notice how I side-step a huge argument.) The fairy tales came out of a Christian sensibility.

This is not to say the tales origins and motifs are not pre-Christian. This is not to say that pagan notions are not being preserved in these stories. I will say a Christian gloss has been put upon the tales by tellers from generations forgotten, who heard the stories that came down the Silk Road from Asia, from the mouths of sailors who plied the Mediterranean sea from North Africa, while traveling with armies crusading in the Middle East. These tellers chose the story elements that appealed to them, to their simpler tastes, editing out the fabulous pagan beasts. Jesus, after all, was a simple carpenter.

Your thoughts?


One thought on “Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2011 The Laidly Worm – Part One

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s