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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lambton Worm

Illustration of John Lambton battling the Worm
The Lambton Worm is a legend from the Southern part of the North East of England in the UK. The story is one of the area's most famous pieces of folklore, having been adapted from written and oral tradition into pantomime and song formats.

The legend

The story revolves around John Lambton, a heir of the Lambton Estate, County Durham, and his battle with a giant worm (dragon) which had been terrorising the local villages. As with most myths, details of the story change with each telling.

Origin of the worm

The story states that the young John Lambton was a rebellious character who missed church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. In many versions of the story, while walking to the river, or setting up his equipment, John receives warnings from an old man that no good can come from missing church.

Penshaw Monument, from the south

John Lambton does not catch anything until the time the church service finishes, at which point he fishes out a small eel- or lamprey-like creature with nine holes on each side of its salamander-like head. Depending on the version of the story the worm is no bigger than a thumb, or about 3 feet long. In some renditions it has legs, while in others it is said to more closely resemble a snake.

At this point the old man returns, although in some versions it is a different character. John declares that he has caught the devil and decides to dispose of his catch by discarding it down a nearby well. The old man then issues further warnings about the nature of the beast.

John then forgets about the creature and eventually grows up. As a penance for his rebellious early years he joins the crusades.

The worm's wrath

Eventually the worm grows extremely large and the well becomes poisonous. The villagers start to notice livestock going missing and discover that the fully-grown worm has emerged from the well and coiled itself around a local hill.

Worm Hill, Fatfield, Washington.
In some versions of the story the hill is Penshaw Hill, that on which the Penshaw Monument now stands, but locally the credit goes to the nearby Worm Hill, in Fatfield. In most versions of the story the worm is large enough to wrap itself around Penshaw Hill 7 times. It is said that one can still see the marks of the worm on Worm Hill.

The worm terrorises the nearby villages, eating sheep, preventing cows from producing milk and snatching away small children. It then heads towards Lambton Castle where the Lord (John Lambton's aged father) manages to sedate the creature in what becomes a daily ritual of offering the worm milk of nine good cows, twenty gallons, or a filled wooden/stone trough.

A number of brave villagers try to kill the beast but are quickly dispatched. When a chunk is cut off the worm it simply reattaches the missing piece. Visiting knights also try to assault the beast but none survive. When annoyed the worm would uproot trees by coiling its tail around them. It then created devastation by waving around the uprooted trees like a club.

The vanquishing of the worm

After seven years John Lambton returns from the crusade to find his father's estates almost destitute because of the worm. John decides to fight it but first seeks the guidance of a wise woman or witch near Durham.

The witch hardens John's resolve to kill the beast by explaining his responsibility for the worm. She tells him to cover his armour in spearheads and fight the worm in the River Wear, where it now spends its days wrapped around a great rock. The witch also tells John that after killing the worm he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed for nine generations and will not die in their beds.

John prepares his armour according to the witch's instructions and arranges with his father that when he has killed the worm he will sound his hunting horn three times. On this signal his father is to release his favourite hound so that it will run to John, who can then kill the dog and thus avoid the curse.

John Lambton then fights the worm by the river. The worm tries to crush him, wrapping him in its coils, but it cuts itself on his armour's spikes. As pieces of the worm are chopped off they are washed away by the river, preventing the worm from healing itself. Eventually the worm is dead and John sounds his hunting horn three times.

The Lambton curse

Unfortunately, John's father is so excited that the beast is dead that he forgets to release the hound and rushes out to congratulate his son. John cannot bear to kill his father and so, after they meet, the hound is released and dutifully dispatched. But it is too late and nine generations of Lambtons are cursed so they shall not die peacefully in their beds.

This curse seems to have held true for at least three generations, possibly helping to contribute to the popularity of the story.

1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
2nd: Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, killed at Marston Moor.
3rd: William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
9th: Henry Lambton, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on June 26, 1761.
(General Lambton, Henry Lambton's brother, is said to have kept a horse whip by his bedside to ward off violent assaults. He died in his bed at an old age.)

The song

The story was made into a song, written in 1867 by C.M. Leumane (it has now passed into oral tradition and has several slightly different variants). The dialect is most effective when sung in a regional Mackem accent.

(There are several words in the song which readers unfamiliar with the local dialect may not understand. They are picked out in bold type and translated at the end of the relevant line.)

One Sunda morn young Lambton went
A-fishing in the Wear;
An' catched a fish upon he's heuk (=caught) (=his hook)
He thowt leuk't vary queer. (=thought looked very strange)
But whatt'n a kind ov fish it was (=what kind of)
Young Lambton cudden't tell-
He waddn't fash te carry'd hyem, (=could not be bothered to carry it home)
So he hoyed it doon a well (=threw it down)
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, (=Be quiet, boys, shut your mouths)
An' aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story, (=I'll tell you all an awful)
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aa'll tel ye 'boot the worm. (=about)
Noo Lambton felt inclined te gan (=go)
An' fight i' foreign wars.
He joined a troop ov Knights that cared
For nowther woonds nor scars, (=neither wounds)
An' off he went te Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An varry seun forgat aboot (=very soon forgot about)
The queer worm i' tha well.
But the worm got fat an' grewed an' grewed,
An' grewed an aaful size;
He'd greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes.
An' when at neets he craaled aboot (=nights) (=crawled around)
Te pick up bits o' news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He'd milk a dozen coos. (=cows)
This feorful worm would often feed (=fearful)
On caalves an' lambs an' sheep,
An' swally little bairns alive (=swallow) (=children)
When they laid doon te sleep.
An when he'd eaten aall he cud (=all he could)
An' he had had he's fill,
He craaled away an' lapped he's tail (=wrapped)
Ten times roond Pensha Hill.
The news ov this myest aaful worm (=most)
An' his queer gannins on (=goings-on)
Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears (=soon) (=got to)
Ov brave an' bowld Sor John.
So hyem he cam an' catched the beast, (=home he came and caught)
An' cut 'im in twe haalves, (=cut him in two halves)
An' that seun stopped hes eatin' bairns
An' sheep an' lambs an' caalves.
So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks (=now you know how all the folk)
On byeth sides ov the Wear (=both)
Lost lots o' sheep an' lots o' sleep
An leeved i' mortal feor. (=And lived in mortal fear)
So let's hev one te brave Sor John (=let's drink to brave Sir John)
That kept the bairns frae harm, (=from)
Saved coos an' calves by myekin' haalves (=making halves)
O' the famis Lambton Worm. (=famous)

Illustration by John Dickson Batten fromMore English Fairy Tales


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