C E Brock
Melissa, armed with a wicker basket; Thalia, turning over every stone along the path; and I, with my walking stick, wind our way up a path through Oxleas Wood. We are intent on our goal of picnicking at Severndroog Castle. It is not a real castle, rather a monument to Sir William James, built by his wife. Architecturally, it is called a folly, but it’s got a gate, rooms, and a parapet, nonetheless, and quite a view of London.
“I found one,” Thalia calls out.
“Found one what?” I ask.
She proffers her hand in which she holds a reptile.
“Thalia, put that down; it’s a snake.” I feel myself repelled.
Thalia tsk-tsks at me. “Oh, Grandfather, it’s not a snake. It’s a slow worm.”
“Worm? As in a dragon?” I am worried.
Melissa laughs lightly at my discomfort.
“No, Grandfather, as in a lizard.”
“I’m sure it’s a snake.”
“No. See.” Thalia thrusts its head so close to my face I fear it will sink its fangs into my nose. “Watch its eyes. They blink. Snakes don’t have eyelids. Only lizards blink.”
We come to the castle’s terrace where we settle down for our picnic. Melissa reaches into her basket, pulls out three books, then hands the basket to me.
“I didn’t know which story to read to us,” Melissa checks the book spines for the titles, “so I just grabbed books, but now I know I did bring the right book.” She holds up More English Fairy Tales.
Thalia grins at the prospect of a story while she sits on a wooden bench playing with her snake. She has gotten too old for me to read to her, but Melissa, for some reason, gets away with it. I lay out the picnic goodies while Melissa commences with the story, The Lambton Worm.
The young, wild son of the Lord of Lambton, not given to going to church, spent his Sundays fishing. He caught little on these Sundays, causing him to swear loudly, probably taking the Lord’s name in vain.
One Sunday he caught an unnatural creature, with nine holes along the sides of its head and a worm-like body.
An old man appeared by his side, declaring the catch an ill omen, but that the lad must keep it. Instead, the youth cast it down a well. It became known as the Well of the Worm when, after some little time, the creature emerged from it a full-grown dragon that proceeded to devastate the countryside.
It spent its days curled around a rock in the middle of the River Wear, and at night sucked the cows of their milk and ate the lambs. It crushed to death anyone who attacked it.
Meanwhile, the youth had repented of his ways, took up the cross, and went off to fight in the Holy Crusade.
As the worm’s evening ventures brought it closer and closer to Lambton Hall, every day the lord had the milk of nine cows poured into a trough. The dragon contented itself with this and was kept at bay for the most part, if not always.
Seven years later, the lord’s son returned to find farms and fields abandoned because of the worm. His father suggested the youth confer with the Wise Woman of Brugeford. From her, he confirmed that the worm was his fault and that only he could destroy it. The youth needed armor spiked with spear tips that would pierce the dragon when it tried to crush him. In addition, after the battle he must kill the first living creature that greeted him.
The youth arranged, with the signal of his hunting horn, that his hound should be the first to greet him. The battle took place and the youth killed the worm. At the signal, the forgetful father rushed forth ahead of the hound being released.
Still, the youth killed the hound instead of his father, but to no avail. For nine generations the men of Lambton Hall would not die in their beds.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Two
John George Lambton by Thomas Phillips
Thalia’s little snake slithers from the fingers of one hand to the fingers of her other.
“Careful it doesn’t bite you,” I say.
“Slow worms don’t bite people,” she answers. “Slugs and things like that, but not people.”
I am dubious.
I turn to Melissa. “There are rather few dragons in fairy tales, almost as scarce as fairies. They don’t come near to the number of witches found there.”
“True,” says Melissa, “and we can hardly call this story a fairy tale. It is really a legend.”
“Fairy tales usually occur somewhere lost in time and place. This tale comes from county Durham and nowhere else.”
“How do you know that?”
“I ran across this story two years ago and made a small study of it.”
“Of course you did,” I say. “Tell me what you know.”
“The tale is fairly medieval in origin, but the serpent was the “Sockburn Worm” attached to the prominent Conyers family in Durham.
“However, over time, the fortunes of the Conyers diminished and their estate sold off around the start of the Industrial Age. Another old family in the area was on the rise. Owners of the Lambton estate profited from the coal trade.”
I venture to poke a finger at Thalia’s snake. She looks at me warily. “Don’t frighten it. It might drop off its tail if you do.”
“That,” I declare, “sounds like an old wives’ tale.”
“No,” says Melissa, “they will do that if frightened,” and returns to the Lambton history. “In 1812, John George Lambton became a member of Parliament. When his father-in-law, Earl Grey, became prime minister, John became the first Earl of Durham.”
“Wait,” I say, “Earl Grey as in Earl Grey tea?”
“The very same,” Melissa smiles. “Both Earl Grey and the Earl of Durham were reformers, supporters of the rights of the people. John Lambton earned the nickname, ‘Radical Jack’ for his efforts.”
“And those radical ideas were?” I ask.
“Oh, things like the secret ballot and universal suffrage.”
“Norms today,” I say.
“Radical then,” she replies. “The people loved him. Somehow, the romantic story of the ‘Sockburn Worm’ of the declining Conyers family got transferred to the favored Lambton family in the minds of the common people, the progenitors of this tale.”
“No one noticed the sleight of hand?”
“I’ll say no. Nor will I accuse the people of trickery. I think the transfer of the legend was subconscious. In any case, the term ‘fact-checking’ had not come into the lexicon.
“Historically, the curse of the lords not dying in their beds rather fits. The first generation, Robert Lambton, drowned. The second generation, Sir William, died in battle, as did the third generation, also a William. There is a gap in the family history, until Henry Lambton dies in his carriage crossing the bridge at Lambton in 1761, presumably ending the curse shortly before Radical Jack came on the scene. But even he died at the age of 48.
“If the shoe fits, wear it,” I say.
Fairy Tale of the Month: July 2020 The Lambton Worn – Part Three
“Remind me to introduce you to Ultima Flossbottom,” I say. “She knows more about dragons than the rest of our world put together.”
Melissa smiles at me with mild interest. “I am sure with a name like that she is notable.”
We are well into our open-air feast. The cold, corn quiche Melissa made is particularly splendid.
“The milk of nine cows in the trough has an echo for me,” I muse.
“Yes, it comes up in The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, collected in Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales, one of his other books.”
“Yes, right,” I say. “A similar tale?”
“Only in that there is a milk-filled trough, a worm, a body of water, and a hero involved. Outside of that they are very different stories.”
“Thalia,” I say, “stop stuffing yourself with crisps for a moment and hand over the merlot, two glasses, and a corkscrew from the wicker, please.”
Thalia obliges. I would have gotten them myself, but I saw her put her serpent into the basket for safekeeping while she ate.
“Then,” I continue, “there is Saint George and the dragon.”
“Well,” says Melissa, accepting the glass I offer, “here we get into the damsel-and-dragon pairing, which constitutes the majority of the dragon stories. That motif can be traced back to Perseus saving Andromeda from the sea serpent, Cetus, although the through-line between the two is not direct.
“Stories of George, Demetrius and Theodore, all soldier-saints, were circulated in Europe by the returning knights of the First Crusade. However, it was Saint Theodore to whom the dragon slaying was attributed. Saint George and Saint Theodore were sometimes depicted as riding together.
“Saint George’s reputation as the dragon slayer was solidified with the popular work The Golden Legend, a collection of saintly stories that appeared about 1260. In it a princess, dressed as a bride, is to be fed to a marauding dragon. She is saved by Saint George.”
“Dressed as a bride?” I say.
“Yes, isn’t that interesting, a very subtle sexual inference. Theodore never had the benefit of a damsel.”
“Transferring of the dragon slaying from Theodore to George does not sound much different than the transference from the Conyers to the Lambtons.”
Melissa nods, sipping her wine, and I continue.
“It occurs to me, we could categorize our dragon stories.”
“What categories do you propose?” Melissa samples a brownie that I baked and brought.
“Well, the Lambton Worm is of the wanton, destructive kind to be placated and eventually killed.”
“Let’s call him the Beowulf Dragon. That’s the earliest example of that kind I can think of,” Melissa suggests.
“Then there is the dragon possessing a maiden to be rescued.”
“The Perseus Dragon,” Melissa declares, raising a finger, “and the third category should be the Jason Dragon, the dragon protecting the Golden Fleece or some other treasure horde.”
“There weren’t any helpful dragons, were there?” I ask.
“Not in the fairy-tale genre that I know of,” Melissa concludes.
Glancing at Thalia, I see her take her pet from the basket to play with again.
“I think you should put the poor little thing back under its rock. And whatever you do, don’t throw it down a well.”
Thalia rolls her eyes. “Yes, Grandfather.”