The Laidly Worm/#ToadWatch2021

A 1904 painting of the tale hanging in the first stateroom at the castle, what was once the medieval kitchen.

The Tale

A beloved king based at Bamburgh mourns his former wife and searches for a new wife to rule beside him and help raise his two children, Childe Wynd and Margaret. He eventually marries an evil witch who appears as a beautiful woman. His son goes off on adventures in the Frankish realm on the Continent, while the princess is left to face the ire of her stepmother. The witch is incandescently jealous of the attention Margaret receives from the other nobles, so she places a curse only breakable by the prince, assuming he will never return, on the young maiden. Margaret is turned into a hideous dragon, and she escapes the castle and hides in a nearby cave until hunger forces her to pick off local farmer’s livestock. Her brother returns after hearing of the terror in his father’s kingdom, evading witches and warriors sent by his stepmother en route. He plans to slay the dragon, but it speaks to him in his sister’s voice, begging for three kisses to undo the curse. He obliges and Margaret is transformed back to her human form. The witch is turned into a toad to spend eternity. The princess, prince, and king likely live happily ever after.

The Background

Authorship

The story was published in 1778 by William Hutchinson in the form of a ballad in a collection of folk songs, based on a version presented by Reverend Robert Lambe of an English village near Berwick. Lambe insisted it was from a 13th-century Latin manuscript of a local bard named Duncan Frasier. It was retold in several publications in the early 19th century and expanded into a prose account nearly a century later. You can read the full ballad here starting on page 156.

Characters

While this bit of folklore often describes the princess as a Saxon (“in Ida’s time”), there’s a bit of confusion about the actual composition of the story versus the transmission and textual appearance. First, the kingdom of Bernicia, and then Northumbria, were actually Anglian, which would have an effect on the dialect and possibly the names of places and characters. That’s a nitpicky thing, but it has to be said (see the dialect differences in this old post regarding a riddle in the West Saxon dialect which is often taught in university and the Northumbrian dialect which would have been the dominant version in our area). The romantic and chivalrous tropes of the story gave us a later medieval vibe, but the names of our characters might possibly give us some insight into the dating of the story as well. It’s not uncommon to see a kernel of a story going back as far as the Iron Age being transmitted nearly a thousand years before being written down, and we do see this in Irish mythological cycles and Arthurian literature.

“Behoc” seems to have no extant sources nor any standardised accent notation beyond possible Celtic roots; we tried to chase down possible Germanic origins to match the supposed time period, but that took us down an absolutely ridiculous path that gave us the meaning “being a marshmallow” so we abandoned that thread rather quickly. It may have come from Bethóc which is found in Gaelic sources, including one that refers to a Scottish prioress living as late as the 13th century. The spelling is a roughly phonetic version of how the name would have been pronounced in Irish or Scottish Gaelic. Variants include Beathag, Bethag, Beathog, and Behag and come from the word for “life.” The “-óc” suffix is from Old Irish (in use 7th-10th centuries), while “-ag” is from Scottish Gaelic, both as a diminutive meaning “little.”

The name “Childe Wynd” seems to be a Middle English spelling, where the first part of the name is a later medieval word (from the Old English term for the son of a nobleman) and refers to a particular low-level rank of a male in their pursuit knighthood. Wynd is a Northern English/Scottish dialectical word for a side street, but here could also be a variant of the word wind.

The name of the princess, Margaret, only becomes common in English after the 11th century, likely Conquest-related since it comes from Marguerite.

Places

The rock where the prince hitches his horse. Photo by Wayne Phillips, used here under Creative Commons licence.

The main locales in the story are Bamburgh, with which you all are now rather familiar, and Spindlestone Heugh. A heugh is a crag of cliff in Northern English and Scottish for those of you like our American staff that have never encountered that word except in the regional toponyms (place-name words). The Spindlestone itself is a bit of dolerite, the same type of rock that was injected into the sandstone here at the castle and along Hadrian’s Wall as the Whin Sill, standing conspicuously; this where the prince tethered his horse before encountering his sister-turned-dragon. The site is about 8 minutes by car from the village as seen via the route below.

Google Maps.

A hamlet just a minute down the road known as Waren Mill also has dragon-y roots. A waren is a dragon’s lair, with the linguistic root that implies a place where one keeps watch; it seems to be distantly related to the words warden and guardian (which have their own interesting history that may be a subject for a future blog if we find ourselves with Anglo-Norman material). In addition, just beside Waren Mill is Budle Bay, which is mentioned explicitly in the song.

The Vocab

Laidly” (variant: “laidley”) is a Scottish and Northern English word for “loathsome” or “ugly.” It comes from the same root as the French laid, the Latin word laitus which itself can be traced to a Proto-Indo-European word (the theoretical language from which most of the European languages descend) for “unpleasant.”

A slow worm. She’s so cute! Kati Kemppainen/Shutterstock.com via Natural History Museum’s British wildlife database.

“Worm” as we use it today refers to annelids like the earthworm or parasites like roundworms and flatworms. Less common but present in the southeastern UK, we have the slow worm, a legless lizard that is actually rather adorable but gets mistaken for snakes fairly regularly. In folk tales, it could mean [sea] serpent, legless dragon-like creature, or wingless dragon; multiple legends which may be allegorical in the northeast of England (Northumberland and Durham) and the Scottish Borders tell of great dragons haranguing the locals. This usage was often written as wyrm having been borrowed in both forms at different times, but we tend to associate it with Old and Middle English. It comes from the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed wrmis, giving us the Latin vermis (root of “vermin”) and all the cognates found in modern Germanic languages.

The Toad Herself

Since the day we arrived on site, we have been telling students and young visitors to help us search for the witch-turned-toad, #ToadWatch2021. We can now announce that she hasn’t only been spotted, but she briefly sat with us for a while near Trench 5a! Presenting, Behoc:

We kind of love her. Truly a high-quality toad, as toads go. Has she had enough time to think about her crime? We don’t know how to turn her back in any case, but #ToadWatch2021 is officially over, in success.

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