12 SEPTEMBER 2019
THE LAIDLY WORM
SERIES · I EPISODE · VII
There was once a girl who lived in the land of Northumbria, in the village of Bamburgh where lies a great castle and the Church of St. Aidan. And she heard told that down at Spindlestone Heugh there lived a great and loathsome worm. And the breath of this worm was so hot and poisonous that for seven miles east and seven miles west, and seven miles north and south, no blade or grass or corn would grow, so deadly was her mouth, unless she was fed every morning with the milk of seven fat-fleshed cows...
The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh is a Northumbrian ballad about a princess who was magically transformed into a dragon (the Laidly Worm), first published in a collection of folk songs in the year 1778. It is sometimes called The Laidly Worm of Bamborough. The tale has been re-told many times as a prose folk tale, and is included in many English fairy tale collections. However, some have said this tale may in fact have been a literary creation based on some local myths (see the article from Heddon-on-the-Wall Local History Society).
The creatures which we commonly call dragons were known interchangeably as dragons, serpents, worms (or ‘wyrms’) in the past. They were fantasticalpredatory serpents, and their size and appearance could differ from familiar modern-day depictions. They were described as being any size from that of a snake, to the size of a dog, a cow, or an elephant, as well as the gigantic sizes we are familiar with. Many depictions of St George, for instance, show him crushing a dragonbeneath his own feet, a shield, or his horses’ hoofs. In some tales like the Lambton Worm, they grow from the size of worms to cattle-devouring serpents. Edward Topsell’s History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (published 1685), had separate entries for dragons and ‘winged dragons’:
‘There are divers sorts of Dragons, distinguished partly by their Countries, partly by their quantity and magnitude, and partly by the different form of their external parts… There be some Dragons which have wings and no feet, some again have both feet and wings, and some neither feet nor wings, but are only distinguished from the common sort of Serpents by the combe growing upon their heads, and the beard under their cheeks…’
He also wrote that dragons were ‘certain great beasts, and there are none greater upon the earth’, but that there were
‘likewise other kinde of Dragons in Macedonia, where they are so meek, that women feed them, and suffer them to suck their breasts like little children [...] their Infants also play with them, riding upon them and pinching them, as they would do with Dogs, without any harm, and sleeping with them in their beds.’
Spindleston Heugh is a dolerite crag in the Parish of Easington, Northumberland, in the vicinity of the village of Bamburgh and the medieval castle positioned there. The spindle stone itself is a natural stone column known as ‘bridle rock’, because Childe Wynde is said to have thrown his horses’ bridle across it. The ballad also describes a cave and a stone trough where the worm lived, but the local cave and trough reputed to belong to the worm were destroyed by quarrying work in the nineteenth century.
This story was written very much with the idea that the Laidly Worm was a large, dragon-like serpent. Rick found photographs of the spindle stone/bridle rock, and never having visited the place or found any visual clues to scale it by, imagined it to be a large rock formation. However, we later saw artwork depicting the bridle rock - and the reason Childe Wynde throws his horses’ bridle over it is because it is just the right size to tie your horse! This suggests the Laidly Worm isn’t the great dragon it appears in Rick’s illustrations and in our telling above: a version needs to be told, perhaps, in which it appears as a swift and lethal, raptor-like creature!
Rick: I also like to imagine that the magical properties of a dragon might include being able to grow large and small as occasion (or story) demanded. So our Laidly Worm can twine itself around a rock, lay its head in the queen’s lap, and still unfurl itself to so great a size as to catch up Childe Wynde’s boat in its great coils.
Bamburgh Castle is built on the site of an old Celtic fort called Din Gaurie and later an Anglo-Saxon citadel which may have been the capital of the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia. The King referred to in the Laidly Worm, King Ida, is a historical ruler who captured the castle in the year 547; it was later destroyed and resettled by the Vikings. The Bamburgh Castle we know today was constructed by the Normans. Thomas Malory identified Bamburgh Castle with Joyous Gard, the mythical home of Sir Lancelot, and depending on how far your mythical head-canon stretches, it was also the childhood home of 'Uthred, son of Uhtred' in Bernard Cornwall’s The Last Viking, during its phase as the Viking fort called Bebbanburg.
Rick’s version of this tale has been creatively re-worked to add additional context to the characters and relationships in the original ballad. The invention of a childhood relationship between Princess Margaret and the fairy queen is intended to re-centre the narrative on the female protagonists and explore a different dynamic between these characters.
Rick: The original story, built around the ‘Snow White’ trope of the beautiful princess and the jealous step-mother, could no doubt be made to speak to a contemporary audience by the right storyteller. Indeed, running both versions of this tale by a famously contemplative friend prompted her to meditate on the social dynamics of beauty for a whole weekend! For this male interpreter, however, it was easier and more satisfying to blow up a tired trope and replace it with something that felt marginally fresher.
This folktale references the belief that rowan-tree wood was protective against witches. This probably came about because the Old English name of the rowan was cwic-beám, which survives in the name quickbeam (also quicken, quicken-tree, and variants). This name by the 19th century was reinterpreted as connected to the word witch, from a dialectal variant wick for quick and names such as wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, and wiggan-tree, giving rise to names such as witch-hazel and witch-tree. Welsh tradition also believed the Cross which Christ was hanged on was carved from the wood of this tree. ‘Flying rowans’ - symbiotic rowan trees growing out of hollows in oak or maple trees - were valued as magical wands, like the kind Wynde uses in our tale to transform the fairy queen into a toad.
IN FOLK SONG
Several variations of the tale told in Laidly Worm appear in different folk ballads. In Kemp Owayne or Kemp Owen, the knightly brother returns to confront the dragon, who persuades him to give her three kisses by offering him a series of three treasures with talismanic powers of protection, after which she transforms back into his sister. In The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea, it is the brother who is transformed into a dragon and his sister a fish, and it is left to their father to uncover the treachery of his new wife. In the surviving versions the brother is freed, but the sister remains trapped in the form of a fish. Despite all these different versions, we haven't found any examples of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh itself being recorded as a folk ballad, even though it was originally published this way.
'The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh in The Northumberland Garland; or Newcastle Nightingale, Joseph Ritson, Newcastle, MDCCXCIII, Harding and Wright, London, 1809.
Other Ballad Sources
"The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Jun. 2019. Web. 8 Jul. 2019.
"The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 5 Oct. 2018. Web. 8 Jul. 2019.