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November 2017 Item of the Month

The Lambton Worm

Image of the title page of History of the Lambton Worm, chapbook (Ref: SD A01/04)
History of the Lambton Worm, chapbook titlepage (Ref: SD A01/04)

This well-known story is one of many that feature in the new temporary exhibition at Palace Green Library, ‘Between Worlds: Folklore and Fairy Tales from Northern Britain’ (until 25 February 2018). The pedigrees and powers of different kinds of fabulous other-worldly creatures are examined through a series of print and manuscript works from Durham University collections and loaned from the collections of the National Library of Scotland, South Shields Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Edinburgh, and Ushaw College.

The story goes that John Lambton was fishing on a Sunday – a bad beginning – but catches only a little slug-like creature. This is flung into a nearby well, and forgotten as the hero goes off on crusade. Years pass and Lambton returns home to discover this creature has grown into an immense snake which has been terrorising the country and defeating all attempts to slay it, kept in check only by John’s father, the Lord of Lambton, providing it with a daily diet of the milk from nine cows. Taking the advice of a local seer he is able to approach the creature at its lair, wrapped around a hill beside the River Wear, and to defeat it. There’s an interesting coda about a dog, but I won’t spoil it for you.

This copy of History of the Lambton Worm, from our Special Collections, is in the form of a chapbook, a popular and often ephemeral illustrated pamphlet. It was produced by William and Thomas Fordyce in Newcastle around 1850. The second tale, The Laidley Worm of Spindleston Heugh, presents a Northumbrian tale of enchantment with a happier ending.

The Lambton story still appears in modern children’s books, and has been turned into a music hall ballad. Such tales have a life of their own, and often spawn variants or change their own shape to fit the times. It has been noted by Jamie Beckett, writing for the international Records of Early English Drama project, that the Lambton Worm is a close relative of the Sockburn Worm, the popularity of the two stories tracking the decline of the Conyers family and the rise of the Lambtons. At the time this copy was published the tale of the Sockburn Worm might not have justified its republication in such a format, although folkorists in this country were then beginning to make a serious study of the genre – the Folklore Society was founded in London in 1878. The origins of such tales have been further studied by Dr Jamie Tehrani of Durham University’s Anthropology Department and Sara Graça da Silva of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, whose analysis of common stories told across Indo-European linguistic cultures finds lineages reaching back even, in the case of the tale of ‘The Smith and the Devil’ to the Bronze Age.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.