As a sideways break from my ruminations on the faeries and their abodes, here are some contemplations on the magico-folkloric tale of the Lambton Wyrm, from the North-East of England. A version of the article was originally published on the Ancient Origins website.
“Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye aall an awful story. Whisht! lads, haad ya gobs,
An aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the wyrm.”
(C.M. Leumane, 1867)
There are more than twenty folktales from north-east England and Scotland that include the motif of a ‘wyrm’, a huge dragon-like, wingless serpent that terrorises neighbourhoods – sometimes for many years – before being eventually slain (motifs classified in the Aarne-Thompson folktale index as B22.214.171.124, B11.2.1, and B11.11). These wyrm folktales are not exclusive to this geographical area – one appears in Somerset as the Gurt Wyrm of Shervage Wood, and there are several German, Scandinavian and Irish examples. Indeed, Dale Drinnon demonstrates that this folkloric motif can be found worldwide, in both stories and in cryptozoological anecdotes. But there does seem to be a cluster of the story type in Northumberland, North Yorkshire, County Durham and the Scottish Borders. Two of the best known examples are the Linton Wyrm and the Sockburn Wyrm, beasts that hide by day but then emerge at night to scorch the land, eat livestock and occasionally people. In all cases a hero appears on the scene, and due to various ruses, is able to dispatch the wyrm, thus saving the people from further predation. These folktales are always set during the medieval period, but only transfer from oral tradition to literary sources from the 16th century onwards. One of the fullest renditions of this folktale type is that of the Lambton Wyrm, from County Durham, first recorded in 1785, but evidently drawing on a much earlier oral tradition, with the action set in the late 12th century.
Apart from the wyrm itself, the main protagonist is a young squire, John Lambton, heir to the Lambton estate. One Sabbath he decides to abscond himself from the church service at Brugeford Chapel in order to do some fishing on the River Wear instead. He catches no fish but he does land a small, black eel-like creature with razor-sharp teeth and nine holes along each side of its head. Heading home with his unwelcome catch (in some versions John calls it ‘a devil’), he meets a stranger who warns him that the creature will cause trouble unless the young squire deals with it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain what dealing with it meant and so John decides on a policy of disposal by lobbing it into a well.
Time passes and John goes off to the Crusades, where he stays for seven years. But whilst he is away his tiddler grows into a monstrous wyrm, leaves the well and proceeds to terrorise the locality, ravaging crops, animals and humans. It’s a black, venomous serpent without wings or legs, and is large enough to coil itself round the local Worm Hill three times. The locals manage to placate the wyrm by giving it regular tributes of milk and livestock, but after seven years this has impoverished the village and estate.
This is when John returns from the Middle East, where he has evidently been knighted. With a monster abroad and the lands of his father laid waste, he takes the interesting decision to visit the local ‘wise woman’, who, after berating him for causing the disaster in the first place, instructs him to commission a suit of armour covered in spikes, and repair to the river where he caught the wyrm, to do battle. Curiously, she also insists that once the wyrm is dispatched, John then needs to kill the first living thing he sees or else his descendants will suffer the curse of violent deaths for the next nine generations. The spiked-up knight does as he is told and when the wyrm attacks him, it is sliced to pieces by the armour, before John decapitates it with his sword. Unfortunately, John’s father (still the Lord of Lambton) is first on the scene after the battle. John refrains from carrying out the wise-woman’s harsh directions, dooming the next nine lords of Lambton to grisly deaths.
This medieval folktale only gained a literary foothold in 1785 when the antiquarian William Hutchinson picked up what was evidently an oral tradition:
“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says was once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women.”
During the 19th century the story gained much traction as a popular folktale, finding its way into local histories, ballads, poems, plays and even a pantomime (from which come the lyrics at the top of this article). It’s popularity has continued to this day (there are several Lambton Worm pubs in the locality) and it has become the most celebrated of British ‘dragon’ stories. But from where does the story originate, and what does it mean?
The Genesis of the Wyrm
The etymology of the word ‘wyrm’ derives from either Old Norse or Old English. This might allow an interpretation of the Lambton Wyrm story as being a memory of Viking raids along the north-east coast of England in the 8th and 9th centuries. There were certainly several such chronicled raids that used the River Wear as an access route inland. The dragon prows of the Viking longboats may have become transformed over time into the monstrous beast that ravaged the countryside. The number of wyrm stories in this much-raided area of the country might also support this hypothesis. Although this interpretation would require a long gestation period in the folk memory, it is not inconceivable, and might be supported by the similarly long period of story survivals from other British myths such as the Arthurian legends, where historic fragments from the 5th and 6th centuries were mutated through time, until the characters and narratives became overlain with the customs and mores of the later Middle Ages.
However, this assessment doesn’t quite tally with the relatively close historic dating of the story, which could have included elements of its Anglo-Saxon roots if the events (however radically modified) had been generated from this time. Instead we are given a definite protagonist in the heir to the lordship, John Lambton, and all versions of the story place the time period as during the Crusades. This would put the genesis of the story in the 12th or 13th centuries, and local historian Audrey Fletcher has traced the earliest recorded mention of a John Lambton to a land charter dated between 1183 and 1200, where John de Lamtun is a witness. This would coincide with the Third Crusade, joint-led by King Richard I between 1187-92, where there was a large contingent of English noblemen travelling to the Holy Land.
But even if this is the historic John Lambton, made into the hero of the story, the narrative still requires explanation. The 19th-century antiquarian Robert Surtees suggested the story might be literally true, and wrote to Sir Walter Scott in 1810 with the idea:
”I have lately often been near the supposed haunts of the Lambton Worm, and I really feel much inclined to adopt your idea, that animals of this description may have been formally nourished to a much larger size in our woods and waters. Of four of these prodigies which our bishopric is said to have produced, it is observable that all of them had their haunts on large rivers. The country round Lambton seems particularly favourable for the production of such a creature.”
The possibility of a very large reptile or amphibian roaming the Durham countryside, and terrorising the populace to a state of destitution in the late 12th century seems remote. And there is no surviving mention of the event in any of the medieval chronicles, where these ‘marvels’ can often be found. Dale Drinnon has suggested that stories of this type may have had their genesis in sightings of giant eels (the original creature caught by John Lambton is described as ‘eel-like’) in waterways and rivers, although even if this is a possibility it does not explain the subsequent laying waste of the hinterland that is a vital component of this particular folktale motif. But the belief in dragon-like creatures during the Middle Ages was widespread and persistent. Perhaps if the genesis of the story is placed at some time several generations after the historic John Lambton, we may begin to see an allegorical story overlaying what people would have accepted as a real story, discreetly removed from the actual events by several decades or even centuries.
The Meaning of the Wyrm
Dragon-slaying heroes such as St Michael and St George were common medieval motifs, and are usually seen as allegories for the defeat of paganism by Christianity. At a deeper level the folktale may even encapsulate the suppression of perceived prehistoric earth energies, embodied by the wyrm, through a representative of Christianity. If the geopathic inclinations of pre-Christian belief systems were stored in the folk-memory, the story may be conveying an implicate Christian message of religious victory over a serpentine paganism that viewed reality in a more animistic manner.
There are Classical precedents for this story of good (the hero) overcoming evil (the serpent) in Phorbas of Rhodes, who rid the island of a nest of giant serpents, and Hercules slaying a dragon on the banks of the River Sagaris. This is codified in the star constellation of Hercules poised next to the Celestial River (the Milky Way) and the constellation of Draco, the Dragon. These eternal stories of good overcoming evil may well be what the story of the Lambton Wyrm is designed to convey. This would require the provenance of the story to have originated from a literate and educated source, but there are also enough elements of morality and vernacular detail to give the story a lasting quality; a tale that could be popularised and told through the centuries in the locality, without the purveyors or the listeners necessarily understanding the more cosmic meaning of the folktale.
The morality comes in the form of the wyrm being allowed to exist through the recklessness of John Lambton and his inattentiveness to the church service. His penance, in this case going on Crusade, permits his cleansing and ability to slay the serpent. The vernacular detail is contained in the specific landscape, including features that would have been well-known to anyone telling or listening to the story, such as the River Wear, Brugeford Chapel, and Worm Hill with the well near its base. We can also glimpse an ingrained vernacular characterisation of the medieval ‘wise woman’, who plays an important role in the story, and is the person John goes to (ahead of a churchman or peer) to find out what to do about the wyrm. There is even the implied doomy kismet foretold for future generations of Lambtons for not following her instructions, suggesting that these women were significant characters in the medieval mind.
As with all folktales of this complex type, there are probably many overlays of meaning that have accumulated over the centuries. The fact that there are so many of these wyrm folktales congregating within the north-east region of Britain, does suggest that they are describing some real set of events (perhaps the Viking raids) however remodelled they have become over time. This local vernacular meaning probably ensured the stories survived from the oral tradition to the literary tradition. We could even entertain the the more prosaic explanation that the wyrm in the well represented a warning against polluting water sources. In the medieval period, fresh water sources were of paramount importance to the health of local communities, and their contamination would be likely to bring pestilence and disease to all who relied on them. The wyrm may simply be a symbolic representative of this, coded into folklore, as an admonishment to look after water sources. Blaming a poisonous wyrm might even provide an excuse for a recalcitrant landlord who had not ensured the cleanliness of a water-head on his land (thanks to Mark Lidster for this pragmatic interpretation).
But the stories are certainly also passing on archetypal symbols, using allegorical language to convey timeless human values. In the Lambton Wyrm story there are several important concepts being transmitted through the idiom of folklore, not only the triumph of good over evil, but also the need for the hero (the good Christian) to be cleansed of sin before being able to achieve victory. The wyrm seems to represent the ultimate evil, conquered only by Christian virtue. It’s another example of ancient folklore containing deeper meaning, layered beneath the telling of a good yarn.
Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends, 6 volumes (Bloomington, 1955-1958)
There are several folk songs about the Lambton Wyrm, most of them utilising the dialect-rich words of C.M. Leumane. Here’s one by Tony Wilson. More surprisingly, there is also a version by Bryan Ferry, which can be listened to here. Thanks again to Mark Lidster for bringing these to my attention.
The cover image is by the talented artist Martin Cash, whose esoteric artwork can be explored here.