Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2021 Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part One

H. J. Ford

Ultima Calls

Grabbing my pipe and lighting it, I pass through the French doors of my study and cross the lawn, heading toward the Magic Forest. The day is delightful. I think I’ll go sit by the edge of the pond.

I enter the cool shade of the forest, taking the short path to the pond.

“Ha!” exclaims Ultima Flossbottom. “I knew I could call you.”

“What?”

Ultima claps her hands in mirth. “I came here, by the pond, thought about you coming to join me, and here you are.”

Now that she says that, I don’t remember deciding to come here.

“And why have you conjured me up like a demon?”

“To return your book to you.” She hands me my copy of English Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.

“I don’t remember lending it to you.”

“You didn’t. I stole it.”

I settle myself beside her on one of the sitting stones by the water’s edge.

“I think you’d better explain.”

“Well,” says Ultima, putting her fingertips together, “I took it into my head to explore your dragonless world a little. I followed the path you come down to this pond, which led me to the fancy glass doors of your study. You weren’t there. I went out your front door and wandered around a bit.

“My, what cramped spaces you reside and move around in. I couldn’t bring my dragon along if I tried.

“Well, as I returned through your study, I chose a book at random from the shelves. A culture’s writings tell a lot about themselves, and this book has given me great alarm for your world.”

“For example,” I prompt.

“I’ll use The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, although my fears are raised by the patterns occurring in many of the stories.”

“Remind me of the tale,” I ask.

A king, whose wife had died, takes another wife, who turns out to be a witch. The king’s son, Childe Wynd, had long ago gone off adventuring, but his daughter, Margaret, the witch turns into a dragon.

The dragon ravages the countryside until, on the advice of a warlock, she is daily fed the milk of nine cows. The warlock also advises a message be sent to Childe Wynd.

Childe Wynd causes a boat to be built, making sure the keel is made of rowan wood. Then he and his men row for the keep at Bamborough Castle, where the witch queen holds court.

Sensing his approach, the witch queen sends out her demons to sink his ship, but he is protected by the rowan-wood keel. She then sends out her dragon, who cannot harm the ship but can push it back out to sea.

Childe Wynd feigns a retreat, but circles around and lands at another place. When he sets foot on ground, the witch queen’s power begins to fade. Childe Wynd finds the dying dragon and is about to slay it when the dragon begs, with his sister’s voice, for him to kiss it three times. This he does, and Margaret returns to her human form.

Child Wynd then turns the cowering witch into a black toad and takes over his father’s throne. The black toad, to this day, can be seen in the gardens of Bamborough Castle.

“Yes,” I say, “I recall the tale. Really charming, I think.”

Ultima stares at me, unabashedly and with alarm.

“Perhaps,” I suggest, “should we talk about this.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2021 The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part Two

Bambro’ Castle, Northumberland null John Sell Cotman

On Marriage

“Let’s start,” Ultima says, “with your world’s unhealthy obsession with people marrying each other.”

“I take it then, you don’t have marriages in your world?” I probe.

“We do. We,” she says with emphasis, “are married to our dragons, pretty much from birth.”

“Goodness, you don’t have children by your dragons, do you?”

“Well of course not. Children are through liaisons. Now, some liaisons are permanent and others come and go. If I understand correctly, your marriages are like our permanent liaisons, only you are bound until one of the party dies.”

“I’ll confess, our marriage vows say, ‘. . . until death do you part.’ However, the reality is that there are many that end in divorce.”

“Divorce,” Ultima echoes. “That word is not in my world’s vocabulary.”

“A separation, parting of ways,” I explain.

“Oh! Such a thing does not happen between humans and dragons. We are ‘. . . until death do us part.” That is, I am sorry to say, hard on our dragons, they being much longer-lived than we humans. They must endure death in all of their marriages.”

Sounds to me as though humans are like pets to the dragons, I say to myself.

“But,” Ultima continues, “this notion of divorce, I did not see that reflected in your fairy tales.’

I think about that for a little. “No, you wouldn’t. The tales never deal with divorce. More often the first wife dies, and the man remarries, bringing his new wife’s daughter or daughters into his household to the subjection of his own daughter.”

“Well,” says Ultima, “in our tale, poor Margaret gets turned into a ‘worm’ as the story calls a dragon. And let me object to your world’s treatment of dragons. My goodness, calling them worms as if they are akin to squishy, slimy, earth-burrowing creatures. Turning humans into dragons as some sort of punishment? What in your world is that about?  But, I will let that pass for argument’s sake.”

I smile to myself.

“If,” she moves on, “divorce is not being represented in the fairy tales, what else is not fully represented? I want to talk about the disappearing fathers.

“In our tale, the king is out hunting and brings back a bride. His children, who are the hero and heroine of the tale, are left out in the cold, while their father simply fades out of the narrative. Can you explain that?”

“That is a fairy-tale trope,” I say. “Fathers in reality . . .”

Wait, what was that item I read that 20 percent of households are single-parent and almost all those parents are women.  Maybe fathers do fade away.  

“. . . in reality it probably had to do with many of the fathers’ occupations as sailors, soldiers, traveling merchants, and even fishermen, who were not at home for long stretches of time, while their wives were not being sailors, soldiers, merchants, or fishermen, but minding the home front. I think the men had less to do with the raising of their children. Even men who were farmers and woodcutters labored in the fields during the day while their wives were laboring at the hearth, tending to the children.

“I get the sense the fathers did not pay much attention until the children became adults, and then more interest was paid to the sons than the daughters.”

Fairy Tales of the Month: May 2021 The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh – Part Three


From Wild Fruits of the Country Side by F. Edward Hulme, 1907

About Women

“More interest was paid to the sons than the daughters,” Ultima repeats, picking up a pebble, throwing it  into the pond, and watching the ripples. “That brings me to my next concern. Your attitude toward dragons is bad enough, but your attitude toward women may be worse and ultimately harmful.

“Margaret was not consulted over the selection of the king’s new queen, nor did she act as though she expected to be consulted. The king’s selection was some witch he found while out hunting. I hardly think she could be royalty, while Margaret was of good lineage, but that did her not a bit of good.

“In all the stories I read, the heroines were largely there to be rescued or to be victims and could not make decisions for themselves. Other women, the ones who did make decisions, were the evil stepmothers and/or witches, suggesting that women were either innocent and ineffectual or conniving and evil.

“In addition, this Childe Wynd, who had gone off to seek his fortune, leaving his sister and dying mother, can waltz back into the picture and take over his father’s throne without a thank-you to anyone. He just smells of prerogative.

“What have you to say about that?” Ultima crosses her arms in front of her.

I do understand the chord this strikes in her. Still, I squirm a little on my sitting stone and stall by relighting my pipe.

“That is a reflection of the attitude toward women that was prevalent at the time the tales were developed. But by the end of the nineteenth century, women, at least in my part of the world, had gained many rights previously reserved for men; for example, the right to vote. In the present time, women are now represented in all the professions, also, previously, reserved for men.

“Oh, I won’t say we have solved all the problems. Women are still underrepresented, underpaid, and underappreciated, but I feel great progress has been made.”

Ultima looks at me quizzically. “You said the nineteenth century. What century are you in now in your world?”

“The twenty-first.”

“What? Two hundred years since you recognized the problem and you still haven’t fixed an obvious, simple discrepancy? Well, that’s what you get without the guiding paw of a dragon.”

I don’t think I’ll bring up our racial problems.

“One more thing,” she fusses, “What is this rowan tree?”

Ah! A safe topic.

“In that group of our ancestors we call the Celts, the rowan tree was sacred. Their mystics, called Druids, claimed that the first woman came from the rowan tree. This tree has lovely white blossoms in the spring that, by fall, ripen into clusters of bright red berries, each with what looks like a five-pointed star on its bottom. The star suggested the idea of protection to the Celts. The Celts also figured out a way to use the berries to make wine.

“It is also called the witch tree because it can be used as a protection against evil, although magic wands were made from it and could be used by witches.”

A half-remembered thought comes to me. “I do recall something about a green dragon protecting a sacred rowan tree.”

“Well,” Ultima says, “that’s a little better, but still, I worry for your chaotic world. It may snuff itself out of existence at any moment.”

She may be right.

Your thoughts?