Reading Time: 4 minutes

lambtonworm1Enough with the seriousness. Time for another bedtime story monster.

Years ago, in northeast England, in the valley of the River Wear (rhymes with “tear”), lived a young man named John Lambton. John wasn’t much for church and one Sunday skipped it altogether to go fishing in the Wear. But instead of a fish, John caught only a strange worm, a little beastie with nine holes on each side of its head. It was too ugly to eat, so he discarded the thing down a nearby well, forgot about it, grew up, and joined the Crusades.

(Now there’s some deep time for you. American folktales are notoriously short of heroes who join the Crusades.)

Lest ye doubt this actually happened, I offer proof in the form of an actual folk song:

One Sunday mornin’ Lambton went a-fishing in the Wear;
An’ catched a fish upon he’s hook
He thot look’t very queer.
But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was young Lambton cuddent tell
He did nae wish tae carry hem,
So he hoyed it doon a well

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined te gae
An’ fight i’ foreign wars.
He joined a troop ov Knights that cared
For neither woonds nor scars,
An’ off he went te Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An very soon forgat aboot
The queer worm i’ the well.

The worm “growed and growed an aaful suze.” Soon the villagers began noticing that their cows had all been milked—this was getting serious—then that the odd cow had gone entirely missing. The Worm (which we shall now capitalize out of respect) had emerged from the well and between bouts of dairy mayhem lay coiled around a local hill—ten times around the hill.

Jes’ the leedies, noo:

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

Everyboody, noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Jus’ the lads, noo, nace and lood—don’t be lettin’ the ladies shame ye none!

This feorful worm would often feed
On caalves an’ lambs an’ sheep,
an’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon te sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aall he cud
An’ he had had he’s fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped he’s tail
Ten times roond Pensher Hill.

“Little bairns” are children, by the way, swallowed whole by the beastie as they slept.

lambton2Many brave knights tried to kill it, only to be vanquished by the Worm (imagine that on your tombstone) which uprooted trees and brandished them like clubs. In case you were having trouble picturing giant worm battle methodology.

Blah blah blah, John returned from the Crusades and killed it:

The news ov this myest aaful worm
An’ his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears
Ov brave an’ bowld Sor John.
So home he cam an’ catched the beast
An’ cut ’im in twe haalves,
An’ that soon stooped he’s eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs an’ caalves.

So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks
On byeth sides ov the Wear
Lost lots o’ sheep an’ lots o’ sleep
An leeved i’ mortal feor.
So let’s hev one te brave Sor John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an’ calves by makin’ haalves
O’ the famis Lambton Worm.

Everyboody noo!

Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs, an’ aa’ll tel ye ’boot the worm.

Doubt ye still? The story is established as historical fact by the existence in Weardale of a hill named Worm Hill, the circumference of which is precisely one-tenth the length of a giant worm. Explain that!

slugElsewhere in the North, you’ll hear tales and songs of the Sockburn Worm, the Linton Worm, and the Laidley Worm. The huge black local slugs might have had something to do with this obsession, but it’s also a prominent thread in Anglo-Saxon legend, this fear of ending up in the diet of worms. I could make the obvious mortality point—we all end up eaten by worms—but I’ll spare us both.

(But we do, you know.)

Conversely, I figure things must get ever less ominous as you dip into Southern Europe. In Italy they probably tell cautionary tales in which magical goats lead children to invest unwisely. Must look into that.

An etymological note: “wyrm” means “serpent” in Anglo-Saxon, whence “worm”–a little snake. Again with the damn serpents.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.