English Fairy Tales (Joseph Jacobs)

Week 12: England - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

The title perhaps deserves from attention here: the "worm" is not your average creepy-crawly worm but is instead a dragon. "Laidly" is an obscure Scotch-English word, meaning "ugly" or "loathsome." Spindleston is in Northumberland, which is the northernmost county in England, near the border with Scotland. (Northumberland is also where the remains of Hadrian's Wall are located). "Heugh" is another Scotch-English word meaning "rock" or "cliff." So the title could be rephrased as "The Hideous Dragon on the Spindleston Cliffs." The 11th-century Bamborough Castle referred to in the story is one of the outstanding historical castles in England today.

IN Bamborough Castle once lived a king who had a fair wife and two children, a son named Childe Wynd and a daughter named Margaret. Childe Wynd went forth to seek his fortune, and soon after he had gone the queen his mother died. The king mourned her long and faithfully, but one day while he was hunting he came across a lady of great beauty, and fell so much in love with her that he determined to marry her. So he sent word home that he was going to bring a new queen to Bamborough Castle.

Princess Margaret was not very glad to hear of her mother's place being taken, but she did not repine, but did her father's bidding, and at the appointed day came down to the castle gate with the keys all ready to hand over to her stepmother. Soon the procession drew near, and the new queen came towards Princess Margaret, who bowed low and handed her the keys of the castle. She stood there with blushing cheeks and eyes on ground, and said: 'O welcome, father dear, to your halls and bowers, and welcome to you, my new mother, for all that's here is yours,' and again she offered the keys.

One of the king's knights who had escorted the new queen cried out in admiration: 'Surely this Northern princess is the loveliest of her kind.'

At that the new queen flushed up and cried out: 'At least your courtesy might have excepted me,' and then she muttered below her breath: 'I'll soon put an end to her beauty.'

That same night the queen, who was a noted witch, stole down to a lonely dungeon wherein she did her magic and with spells three times three, and with passes nine times nine she cast Princess Margaret under her spell. And this was her spell:

I weird ye to be a Laidly Worm,
And borrowed shall ye never be,
Until Childe Wynd, the King's own son
Come to the Heugh and thrice kiss thee;
Until the world comes to an end,
Borrowed shall ye never be.

So Lady Margaret went to bed a beauteous maiden, and rose up a Laidly Worm. And when her maidens came in to dress her in the morning they found coiled up on the bed a dreadful dragon, which uncoiled itself and came towards them. But they ran away shrieking, and the Laidly Worm crawled and crept, and crept and crawled till it reached the Heugh or rock of the Spindleston round which it coiled itself, and lay there basking with its terrible snout in the air.

Soon the country round about had reason to know of the Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh. For hunger drove the monster out from its cave and it used to devour everything it could come across. So at last they went to a mighty warlock and asked him what they should do. Then he consulted his works and familiar, and told them: 'The Laidly Worm is really the Princess Margaret and it is hunger that drives her forth to do such deeds. Put aside for her seven kine, and each day as the sun goes down, carry every drop of milk they yield to the stone trough at the foot of the Heugh, and the Laidly Worm will trouble the country no longer. But if ye would that she be borrowed to her natural shape, and that she who bespelled her be rightly punished, send over the seas for her brother, Childe Wynd.'

All was done as the warlock advised; the Laidly Worm lived on the milk of the seven kine, and the country was troubled no longer. But when Childe Wynd heard the news, he swore a mighty oath to rescue his sister and revenge her on her cruel stepmother. And three-and-thirty of his men took the oath with him. Then they set to work and built a long ship, and its keel they made of the rowan-tree. And when all was ready, they out with their oars and pulled sheer for Bamborough Keep.

But as they got near the keep the stepmother felt by her magic power that something was being wrought against her, so she summoned her familiar imps and said: 'Childe Wynd is coming over the seas; he must never land. Raise storms, or bore the hull, but nohow must he touch the shore.' Then the imps went forth to meet Childe Wynd's ship, but when they got near they found they had no power over the ship, for its keel was made of the rowan-tree. So back they came to the queen witch, who knew not what to do. She ordered her men-at-arms to resist Childe Wynd if he should land near them, and by her spells she caused the Laidly Worm to wait by the entrance of the harbour.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why did the new queen cast this terrible spell on the lady Margaret?
  • what did the warlock advise the villagers about how to deal with the Margaret-worm?
  • why was the queen not able to prevent the arrival of Margaret's brother Childe Wynd?

Source: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs (1890). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM