The Lambton Worm

The young heir of Lambton Castle was a wild and rebellious youth who concerned himself very little with his duties as the future lord. He scorned his tutors, defied his father’s wishes, and broke every rule that was laid down for his guidance, merely for the pleasure of doing what was forbidden. When he was asked to speak clearly and politely, as became a gentleman, he deliberately spoke in a rude and disrespectful voice, as if he knew no better. On Sundays, when he was asked to go to church, he put on his oldest clothes and went fishing.

One Sunday he sat casting his line into the River Wear not far from the castle. The country folk nudged one another as they passed him, saying under their breath, “Look! There is ne’er-do-well of Lambton!” And it seemed that they had good reason to speak of him in this manner, for everytime the youth pulled in his line and saw no fish on it, he cursed the river, the day, and his bad luck with oaths loud enough for all to overhear.

He stayed fishing until church-time was over, and then prepared to go; but as he drew in his line for the last time, he felt something on the hook. He thought he had caught no less than a fine salmon for it pulled till the rod was bent like a bow; but when he finally landed the catch, he saw that it was no more than a long evil-looking worm that wriggled and wrapped itself around the line.

“Have you had any luck?” inquired a man who was walking by.

“Bah!” said the young man, “I think I have caught the devil himself!” So disgusted was he with the black wriggling worm that he tore it from the hook and flung it down a well which stood hard by.

The man stopped to look into the well and see the strange catch. It lay on the sand at the bottom, half like a newt and half like an eel. It had nine holes on each side of its mouth, and it squirmed with the pain of its wounds and with fury at being trapped in the well.

“That beast tokens no good” said the man, and went on.

The stranger’s suspicions were well founded; and as time went on, and the youth grew into a man and went abroad to fight in foreign wars, the worm lay unheeded in the well, and grew until it had strength to climb out. One day it slithered over the edge, and made off to a large rock which jutted up out of the bed of the river.

It lay basking there by day, and by night betook itself to a hill near the castle. It was soon so long that it could coil itself three times around the base of the hill. From these resting-places it began to make expeditions, and grew to be the terror of the whole countryside. It devoured the sheep and the lambs and sucked the cows dry. When the flocks were kept in the byres and the folds, it trampled over the cornfields and tore up the meadows.

The old Lord of Lambton, heavy with age, and grieved at the departure of his son, was at his wits’ end to know what to do with the serpent. In the end he sought the advice of his old steward, a man of great age and experience.

“Steward,” he said, “you must devise some means of ridding us of this monster. My labourers are leaving the land, and my crops are ruined.”

“Sir,” said the stewaard, “I cannot rid you of the worm. No man here is brave enough and skillful enough to kill it. But perhaps we can keep it from doing too much damage. There stands in your courtyard a long trough from which the horses drink. Let us fill that with milk, and perhaps that will satisfy the worm.”

The lord decided to adopt the steward’s plan, and he ordered the trough to be filled every night with new milk. It took the yield of nine of the finest oxen in Lambton to fill the trough; but the lord did not mind the expense, for every morning the worm came to drink and appeared satisfied. It spent the rest of the day sleeping, coiled round the hill or the rock in the river.

Sometimes a selfish hind would dip his can in the trough when no one was looking, and take some of the milk home for his own use, but the worm always knew when it had been robbed. If any milk was short, it flew into a rage, and rushing into the park, lashed its tail round the trees and pulled them up by the roots. So terrible was its fury that the men soon learnt to respect its wishes.

Many a gallant knight journeyed to Lambton and tried to slay the worm, but the monster defied all attempts to kill it. No sooner had it been cut in two than it came together again. No matter into how many parts it was cut, it assembled itself immediately and suffered no weakness. The best of all the knights had not skill enough to put an end to it, and it remained in peaceful possession of its favourite hill for seven long years.

By that time all despaired of killing the worm. But one day the ne’er-do-well son returned to Lambton. He was no longer a rough and shabby youth, but a man of fine stature, manly and courageous. And when he heard of the trouble that had come upon his father while he had been away, he said, “Father, I am the cause of this, for it was I who pulled the worm out of the river. I brought it here, and I will rid you of it.”

His father pleaded with him not to risk his life. He told him of the serpent’s magical powers, and of the fate of all the other knights who had tried to overcome it – how some had never been seen again, and others had been so hurt that they never recovered. But the son was resolved to make the attempt.

“It would be a stain on my honour,” he said, “if I sat here idle and let the worm live.”

However, before he went out to meet the worm, the heir of Lambton had the wisdom to consult an old witch who lived near by.

“If there is anyone who can tell me how to match this monster,” he said, “it is you.”

“You were wise to come to me,” she said, “for I can help you. You must not fight the worm on land, but you must stand on his rock in the middle of the river, and let him attack you there. Then, in addition, before the fight you must stud your suit of armour with the sharpest spear blades the smith can make, so that when the worm tries to crush you in its coil, it will cut itself to pieces.”

“Thank you,” said the young lord. “How shall I repay you for your advice?”

“You will repay me,” said the witch, “by observing this one condition. When you have conquered the worm, you must slay the first living thing you meet. If you fail to do so, the Lords of Lambton for nine generations will never die in their beds.”

The young man hurried home to tell his father the good news. He was overjoyed that he had discovered how to master the worm.

“And as for the condition that the witch has laid down,” he said, “that is a light matter. You must not watch this combat, father, but stay in the woods, and when you hear me blow my bugle horn you will know that I have been successful. Then let slip one of my hounds. It will run to me, and be the first living thing I meet.”

Then the young lord gave instructions to the blacksmith to stud his armour with spear blades, and went to the rock and prepared for the conflict. He had not long to wait for the worm. No sooner had it emptied the milk trough than it slid towards the river and prepared to occupy the rock. When it beheld the young lord there, it bellowed with rage and made ready to seize him; but with one quick blow he sliced off part of its tail. Immediately he perceived how wise the witch had been to advise him to stand on the rock, for no sooner had the tail fallen than the swift waters of the Wear carried it away. Perceiving it had been outwitted, the worm coiled itself about his body and legs, but the harder it pressed about him, the deeper stabbed the spear blades and the more it cut itself. Freeing his arm, the young lord lopped off more and more of the monster’s trunk, and in its rage it severed itself against his armour. In a short while it had cut itself into pieces. As soon as it fell, each piece was carried downstream, and at last the young man stood alone and triumphant on the rock.

Leaping ashore, he blew his bugle horn. But to his dismay he saw running towards him, not the hound, but his own father; for the poor old man had forgotten everything but his joy at his son’s success. The son was overwhelmed with grief, but he could not raise his sword against his parent. Still hoping to avert the witch’s curse, he turned his eyes from his father, and running past him, plunged his sword into the hound which came running out of the wood. But it was in vain. The worm had been slain, and great celebrations were held that night in Lambton Castle; but the witch’s curse had not been lifted, and for nine generations after that time, not one of the Lords of Lambton died peacefully in his bed.

From Folk Tales of the North Country

The Lambton Worm

One sunday morn young Lambton
went a-fishin' in the Wear;
An' catched a fish upon his heuk,
He thowt leuk't varry queer,
But whatt'n a kind of fish it was
Young Lambton couldn't tell.
He waddn't fash to carry it hyem,
So he hoyed it in a well.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined to gan
An' fight in foreign wars.
He joined a troop o' Knights that cared
for neither wounds nor scars,
An' off he went to Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An' varry seun forgot aboot
The queer worm i' the well.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

But the worm got fat an' growed an' growed,
An' growed an aaful size;
He'd greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An' greet big goggle eyes.
An' when at neets he craaled aboot
To pick up bits o'news,
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

This fearful worm wad often feed
On calves an' lambs an' sheep,
An' swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon to sleep.
An' when he'd eaten aall he cud
An' he had had he's fill,
He craaled away an' lapped his tail
Seven times roond Pensher Hill.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

The news of this most aaful worm
An' his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, gat to the ears
Of brave an' bowld Sir John.
So hyem he cam an' catched the beast
An' cut 'im in three halves,
An' that seum stopped he's eatin' bairns,
An' sheep an' lambs and calves.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the folks
On byeth sides of the Wear
Lost lots o' sheep an' lots o' sleep
An' lived in mortal fear.
So let's hev one to brave Sir John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an'  calves by myekin' haalves
O' the famis Lambton Worm.

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,
An' Aall tell ye 'boot the worm.

Noo lads, Aa'll haad me gob,
That's aall Aa knaa aboot the story
Of Sir John's clivvor job
Wi' the aaful Lambton Worm.