Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs, The
DESCRIPTION: When the king returns from traveling, his daughter welcomes him. A lord calls her very fair; her stepmother turns her to a worm. Child Wynd arrives and, with difficulty, transforms her back. He turns the queen into a toad
EARLIEST DATE: 1812 (Bell); Child estimates the date of the "Hagg Worm" version as c. 1775
KEYWORDS: animal magic royalty jealousy beauty father stepmother revenge
FOUND IN: Britain(England(North))
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Child 34 Appendix, "The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heughs" (1 text plus a "more popular" version, "The Hagg Worm," in the addenda to volume IV)
Stokoe/Reay, pp. 180-181, "The Laidley Worm" (1 slightly defective text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Joseph Jacobs, collector, _English Fairy Tales_, originally published 1890; revised edition 1898 (I use the 1967 Dover paperback reprint), pp. 183-187, "The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh" (a prose retelling)
ST C034A (Partial)
cf. "Kemp Owyne" [Child 34]
NOTES [550 words]: Child prints this ballad as an appendix to #34, "Kemp Owyne." There are, however, just enough known versions of the "Laidley Worm" (including Stokoe's, with a tune of uncertain origin) that we split them. Child was probably confused by the Victorian reworking by a Rev. Lamb, who Victorianized the legend and produced what must have looked like a fake (Simpson, p. 59). And Walter Scott, who had a version, didn't bother to print it. It must have looked very artificial to Child, but Simpson offers evidence that the story, at least, was known in Northumberland.
Alexander, p. 158, describes this as the "most enduring" of the many tales told about Bamborough. He says that "the Spindlestone [was] a natural rock towering close to the castle."
According to Simpson, p. 60, a local rock, "which is said to be that to which the hero tethered his horse, can still be seen, but the worm's cave has been destroyed in the course of quarreying. At one time in the nineteenth century, a trough was pointed out... as being that from which the worm drank its daily ration of milk; writing in the 1860's, William Henderson noted that local girls were frightened of meeting a venomous toad which was believed to haunt thebeach bear Bamburgh Castle, thinking that it would magically ruin their beauty."
The reference to a King based in, or at least leaving his daughter in, Bamborough (Bamburgh), is puzzling; being near the Scots border (but never in Scotland), it is a rather unsafe place; in any case, few Kings of England spent much time in the north, except in cases such as that of Henry VI when he was a fugitive. If, then, we assume a King who campaigned in Scotland, had daughters, and had a second wife, the obvious choice is Edward I (reigned 1272-1307). Which seems awfully early.... Plus it leaves the hopeless Edward II as the man who is trying to rescue the girl.
The theme of a beautiful daughter and jealous stepmother and a transformation is of course commonplace, with the best known version being "Snow White" (which is from the Grimm collection: #53, Schneewittchen, printed 1812, from the Hassenpflug family).
Simpson, p. 79, notes the curious fact that dragons seem to have been widely reputed to like milk -- even though almost all representation make them reptilian, not mammalian. A fondness for milk violates most of the laws of biology. But then, so do dragons....
Jacobs, p. 256, comments, "There is certainly something Celtic about the Laidly being and the deliverance kiss, as Mr. Nott, as pointed out, Academy, April 30, 1892, and Miss Weston has shown the connection in her Legend of Sir Gawain, p. 49. Indeed, may not Owein be identical with Gawain?" The connection Jacobs refers to is to "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" [Child 31], or to its relative "The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnall." In the "Laidly Worm," Child Wynd recalls his sister by kissing her; in "The Marriage of Sir Gawain," Gawain turns Dame Ragnall beautiful by agreeing to love her.
Another possible link is with the well-known romance of "Libeaus Desconus" or "The Fair Unknown" (Ritson/Goldsmid, p. 35); they are probably referring to the so-called "fearsome kiss" in which the hero kisses a serpent, thus freeing her from an enchantment and causing her to become a beautiful woman (Lupack, p. 318). - RBW
Last updated in version 3.3
- Alexander: Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- Jacobs: Joseph Jacobs, collector, English Fairy Tales, originally published 1890; revised edition 1898 (I use the 1967 Dover paperback reprint)
- Lupack: Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Oxford University Press, 2005 (I use the 2007 paperback edition)
- Ritson/Goldsmid: Joseph Ritson, editor, revised by Edmund Goldsmid, Ancient English Metrical Romances, volume II, E. & G. Goldsmid, 1885 ("Digitized by Google")
- Simpson: Jacqueline Simpson, British Dragons, 1980; second edition with new introduction, Wordsworth/Folklore Society, 2000
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