Our story starts with Young John Lambton, heir of the Lambton estate, a rich young punk who shirked his duty and smirked at misdeeds. Skipping church one Sunday to fish the River Wear (rhymes with “near”), he pulled out a hideous open-gilled eel; disgusted, he tossed the foul thing into the peasants’ well (one can picture the jerk taking a piss in the waters right after)—echoic of the French tales of Gargantua, living in a well where people tossed stones at his head.
But the weight of duty cannot be escaped so easily: shrugged from young John’s shoulders, it weighed upon his heart, a burden of guilt. After a restless Sunday night, a weary Monday morning found Lambton at church, where the priest sent him to the Crusades in penance.
Nine battle-weary years later, Lambton found his homelands in the grips of terror. First the well had grown foul; soon nearby sheep and cattle were vanishing in the night. A ring of terror and death spanned outward from the well, a navel with the umbilical worm grown gargantuan in John’s absence A few brave souls challenged the beast, but whenever it was hacked by swords it healed itself, rejoining its cleaved halves and smothering its would-be killers in a constricting embrace before devouring their lifeless bodies. John’s weary old father surrendered into truce, leaving nightly offerings for the beast outside his castle: a trough filled with milk from nine cows seemed to satiate the dragon’s ravenous hunger ("worm" stems from older words meaning "dragon"). The once proud ruler was emasculated, reduced to a wet nurse for his son’s worm.
John Lambton had turned to a priest when guilt engulfed his heart, but he turned to a witch when the worm engulfed his lands. The witch gave John a plan of attack but told him that once the serpent was defeated he was required to kill the first living thing he saw; should he fail, shirking from this duty, the Lambtons would be cursed—for nine generations, none would die in bed. (This type of deal is know as Jephthah’s Vow in reference to a similar bargain related in Old Testament, Judges 11:30-35.)
Lambton followed the witch’s plans: he crafted razor-spiked armor, waited for river-swelling rains, and rowed a boat to a rocky stand in the Wear. The Lambton worm sensed the challenge and rushed forth to kill its former captor. It coiled round the Crusader and constricted; but the tighter it gripped, the more the armor cut into its flesh. John stood fast as the serpent cleaved itself, its severed flesh rushing off in the roaring waters which prevented it from rejoining itself.
John rowed back to shore and trumpeted victory with his hunting horn, the prearranged signal to his father who was supposed to release a hound for John’s required sacrifice. But the elder Lambton, overcome with joy and relief, tottered out of the castle, arms held out wide for his son—he was the first living thing to fall under John’s horrified gaze. All John had to do was meet his father’s embrace; the razor-sharp armor would do the rest—but he could not fulfill his duty. He shouted for a hound and killed it in desperation.
History shows that nine generations of Lambtons died a violent death.As an interesting side note, Lewis Carroll spent lots of time in
We leave you a few final questions: Why are death & water so often linked? Is it simply that water is associated with life and the desecration of water therefore a harbinger of death? Then why the River Styx? And why is slipping into the earth so often associated with surrealist adventures? Our recently posted examination of the desecration of the Mississippi suggests that these are not just the stuff of European tales of yore: elemental water and earth continue to hold sway in the shadowy realm of ... imagination?
- Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon, chapter 60
Alicein Sunderland, Bryan Talbot
- The Bishoprick Garland, Sir Cuthbert Sharpe gathered 30-some versions of this tale in 1834. There were a couple reprints, but it’s still an uncommon work. We would be incredibly grateful to anyone who could supply us with a scan of the relevant pages in the The Bishoprick Garland.