Lambton Worm, The
DESCRIPTION: Young Lambton catches a fish of an unknown kind. Wanting to know what it is, he puts it down a well, then sets off for the Crusades. The fish grows into a serpent that leaves the well and does great damage. The lord comes home and kills the creature
EARLIEST DATE: 1892
KEYWORDS: animal monster fishing fight
FOUND IN: Britain(England(North))
REFERENCES (5 citations):
PBB 104, "The Lambton Worm" (1 text)
ADDITIONAL: Katherine Briggs, _A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language_, Part A: Folk Narratives, 1970, volume A.1, pp. 373-376, "The Lambton Worm" (a prose version)
[Cuthbert Sharp], _The Bishopric Garland, A Collection of Legends, Songs, Ballads, &c Belonging to the County of Durham_, 1834 (references are to the 1969 reprint), p. 21, "The Worme of Lambton" (1 prose version)
Jacqueline Simpson, _British Dragons_, 1980; second edition with new introduction, Wordsworth/Folklore Society, 2000, pp. 141-142, "The Lambton Worm" (1 text); also a prose text from c. 1875 on pp. 137-140
NOTES: Reputed to be about a Northumbrian lord's attempt to raise taxes (see the Digital Tradition notes). I know of no hard evidence of this.
The Briggs version, and the prose summary in Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002, pp. 159-160, tell a second part of the tale. A prophecy had told Lambton of a curse on his family, that could only be expiated, once he had killed the worm, by killing the first living thing he encountered. Lambton arranged to have a dog come to him -- but his father, forgetting the prophecy, instead ran to meet his son. Lambton could not bring himself to kill his father, and his family was cursed for nine generations.
The curse story is of course a variant on the tale of Jepthah's daughter (Judges 11:30-40), which is a fairly common motif.
Jacqueline Simpson, British Dragons, 1980; second edition with new introduction, Wordsworth/Folklore Society, 2000, pp. 47-48, makes the interesting point that, although we think of dragons as creatures living by fire, in Britain they are often associated with watery habitats. The Lambton Worm is a clear example. Simpson, p. 30, goes on to note that some other great monsters, such as the Babylonian Tiamat and the Indian Vrtra, are also associated with water but often thought of as "dragons."
Simpson, p. 64, also observes that Young Lambton is unusual among dragon-slayers in that his conquest did not result in him founding a noble house; the family was already established. A further unusual element is that religious motifs are an integral part of the story; Simpson, p. 128, calls this unusual.
Interestingly, there was a nineteenth century pamphlet recounting this tale; the cover is shown on p. 81 of Simpson. It shows Lambton in a suit of armor covered in sharp points, which Simpson, p. 80, reports was a common way of dealing with worms and dragons: The snakelike creatures would try to crush their prey and be stabbed on the spikes. - RBW
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