The Royal Purple of Stoicism

Short story about Tyrian purple dye and the origins of Stoicism.

Tyrian PurpleThis is a short story that I used to explain Stoicism to my five year old daughter, Poppy.

The story of Stoic philosophy begins with a shipwreck. The ancient Phoenicians made their fortune by trading a famous purple dye extracted from the murex sea snail. It’s called Tyrian or Royal Purple. It was used to dye the robes of kings but making it was one of the worst jobs in the world. Many thousands of decaying shellfish had to be labouriously dissected by hand just to extract a few grams of this incredibly valuable dye.

One day a Phoenician merchant called Zeno of Citium, from the island of Cyprus, was transporting his cargo of this dye across the Mediterranean when he was caught in a storm. The ship sank but he survived, washed ashore at a port near Athens. He watched helpless on the beach as his precious cargo, his entire fortune, dissolved into the ocean. His fortune came from and now returned to the sea.

Zeno was absolutely distraught. He’d lost everything and was left wandering the streets of Athens, a foreign city, in rags. The legend says he travelled to the famous Delphic Oracle pleading for guidance from the god Apollo.

The Oracle said Zeno was to dye himself with the colour, not of dead shellfish, but of dead men. Zeno trudged back to Athens and sat down at a bookseller’s stall, feeling completely lost. He had no idea what this could possibly mean. He picked up and started reading a book at random. It was written by a famous Athenian general called Xenophon.

Murex ShellfishThe bookseller told him that Xenophon, the author, was once walking through a dark alleyway in Athens when a figure in the shadows held out a wooden staff and blocked his way. The mysterious stranger said “Excuse me, but can you tell me where someone should go if they want to buy some goods?” Xenophon was puzzled but replied, “Of course, we’re right beside the agora, one of the finest marketplaces in the world, you can buy clothes, jewellery, food, whatever your heart desires, just around the corner.” The stranger laughed and said “Thank you. But one more question, can you tell me where someone would go if they want to become a good person?”

Xenophon was completely thrown – he had no idea how to answer. So the stranger stepped out of the shadows and introduced himself… as Socrates. He said: “Well you should come with me then. Together we’ll try to discover how someone can learn to become a good person. That’s surely far more important than knowing where to obtain other sorts of goods.” From that day onward, Xenophon became one of Socrates’ closest friends and one of his most distinguished students. Many years later, after Socrates was executed, Xenophon wrote down some of the most profound things he remembered him saying. That book was called The Memorabilia of Socrates, and the shipwrecked Zeno now found himself reading it.

So what did it say? Well, the majority of people believe there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world, all different sorts of things. But Socrates said… they were all wrong. He said that there’s only one good thing and it’s inside us not outside us. He called it both sophia meaning “wisdom” and also arete meaning “excellence of character”. Indeed, the word “philosopher” just means “someone who loves wisdom”. So people asked Socrates why someone who loved wisdom would hang around in the agora of all places, the bustling market. He liked to answer paradoxically: he said it was so he could constantly remind himself how many different things there were that he did not need in life.  And he used to recite to himself the lines from a comedy:

The purple robe and silver’s shine
More fits an actor’s need than mine.

As Zeno was reading these tales about Socrates he suddenly realised what the Oracle meant when she said he had to dye himself with the colour of dead men. His destiny was to study the lives and opinions of philosophers like Socrates, from previous generations, and permanently colour his mind with their teachings.

Zeno put down the parchment, jumped up, and asked the bookseller: “Where can I find a man like this today?” And he replied, “Talk to that guy over there!” Because by chance the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes was walking right past them. Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. He flourished and became famous as a philosopher himself. So he used to say: “My most profitable journey began on the day I was shipwrecked and lost my entire fortune”. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile, near the agora where Socrates used to teach. And his followers became known as the Stoics or Philosophers of the Porch.

So having started with the first famous Stoic let’s conclude by mentioning the last, who lived nearly five hundred years later. He was one of the most powerful men in European history, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Marcus also mentions the purple Phoenician dye, which Zeno had lost in his shipwreck. He liked to say that even his own imperial purple robes were nothing more than sheep’s wool dyed in putrid shellfish gore. These external things are really nothing, he said, compared to the goal of wisdom. And what matters in life is not how we colour our clothing, but how we colour our minds.

Marcus Aurelius: the Civil War in the East (Children’s Version)

Piece of biographical fiction about Marcus Aurelius and the civil war in the eastern empire, triggered by Avidius Cassius, written for my five-year old daughter, Poppy, and other children.

NB: This is a children’s story, or rather biographical fiction based on the ancient accounts of Marcus’ reign and other evidence, including The Meditations.  I wrote it for my five-year old daughter, Poppy.  It’s a simplification of a much more detailed account I’d written for adults.


The Philosopher King

Marcus AureliusLong, long ago – over two thousand years ago – there was a famous philosopher named Socrates. Socrates was extremely wise, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. He used to talk a lot to people about the difference between a good person and a bad person. Once he said that kings are powerful and philosophers are wise, so the world would be better if all kings became philosophers, because then they would be both powerful and wise. Most kings are not philosophers, though. In fact, there had never really been a king who was a philosopher. After Socrates died, over five hundred years passed before a philosopher finally became a king. His name was Marcus Aurelius and he was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. An emperor is like a king but even more important. He rules over not one but many different countries. Marcus Aurelius ruled over a vast empire that stretched from England through Europe into the north of Africa and the Middle East. (Not Scotland, though!)

When Marcus was just a young boy, the emperor Hadrian asked his successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him, so that he could be next in line to the throne. On the day he was adopted, young Marcus had a strange dream in which his shoulders and arms were made of ivory.  When someone asked him if they could lift a heavy weight he discovered they were much stronger than before.  A wise man told him the dream meant he was destined to be a great leader and to say beautiful things.  Antoninus gathered together the best teachers for Marcus from around the world. He learned lots of different things but the subject he loved most was philosophy, or how to become wise. When he was twelve years old he started to wear the traditional grey cloak of a philosopher and trained himself in toughness by doing things like sleeping on a mat on the ground instead of in a normal bed. He carried on studying for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still going to philosophy lessons when he was an old man. When people asked him why he spent so much time studying philosophy, Marcus used to quote Socrates’ saying: The people will only be happy when philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.

Lucius VerusWhen Antoninus died, Marcus became the new emperor of Rome but he wanted to share the job with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus. (We say “adoptive” because neither of the boys were born the sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius but he chose them both to become his sons, and took them into his family.) Marcus said he didn’t want to become emperor unless his little brother, Lucius, was emperor too. So for the first time ever Rome had two co-emperors. Marcus was older, though, and had more experience in government, so he was really the one in charge.  Marcus was very serious and worked hard.  Lucius was almost the opposite of his brother.  He was very lazy and he liked to play games and throw fancy parties instead of working, but Marcus loved him anyway because he was his little brother and he treated him in some ways like a son.

The Parthian Wars & the Plague

To keep him busy and out of trouble, Marcus sent Lucius to lead a war that had started far to the east in a land called Parthia. Lucius couldn’t be bothered fighting, though, so he just based himself in the city of Antioch, where he played dice all night long, watched gladiatorial fights and circus games, and held notorious banquets where he drank and feasted until he passed out at the table. They say while his generals and their legions were risking their lives on the battlefield of Parthia, Lucius was out hunting in the countryside or touring the seaside towns with groups of musicians and his good-for-nothing friends.  Some say Marcus was actually the one planning how to fight the war, from back in Rome, even though Lucius was based in a city closer to the fighting.  Lucius took charge of organizing all the food and supplies and avoided doing anything dangerous because he wasn’t very brave. He let his generals do all the fighting for him while he took the glory. The war raged on for five years and one of Lucius’ generals in particular, named Avidius Cassius, fought and won many battles with his legions. As he defeated more enemies he was given powers, until he was nearly as powerful as Lucius, who remained safely back in the city, far from all the action. One day, Cassius sacked an ancient town named Seleucia, with whom the Romans had agreed peace.  Despite the fact that Seleucia had welcomed the Roman soldiers as friends, Cassius ordered them to steal everything they could and destroy everything else that was left behind. People said the gods were angry with Cassius and gave his soldiers a terrible disease, called the plague. When Lucius and Cassius came back home from Parthia to Rome they were both treated as war heroes, even though Cassius had done all the fighting. The Roman people were overjoyed. But without realising it, the soldiers had also brought back something very bad indeed back from Parthia. They brought back the disease called the Antonine Plague, or smallpox.

The plague spread through the whole Roman empire, for fifteen long years. The Roman people were very sad and very worried. They say maybe a third of the population died. People with the disease would become very sick, they’d get a fever, their throat would hurt, their stomach would hurt, and their skin would become very sore and lumpy. It was horrible to see. Everyone prayed to the gods to save them and doctors tried everything they could think of to help. But back then they didn’t really understand what was going on, or how the plague worked, so even the best doctors in the empire couldn’t help much.  Maybe five million people died as a result.  Marcus Aurelius was friends with a very famous doctor named Galen who studied the plague and tried to find a cure to protect the emperors.

The Marcomanni Wars

While the disease was spreading, more and more soldiers were dying, and so the army became much weaker. Then, at the worst possible time, another disaster happened. Not long after the wars to the east, in Parthia, had ended, millions of barbarian tribesman called the Quadi and Marcomanni started to invade Rome from the other side of the empire, far to the north. They broke through into Roman towns and stole everything. People were very afraid of going to war in the north because the barbarians were so many, and the Roman armies were suffering from the plague. Lucius wanted to stay home and rest but Marcus said it was an emergency and they both needed to lead the Roman army north to drive back the invaders. Because the army was so weak, Marcus did something that shocked the people. He took slaves and gladiators into the army to help replace the soldiers who’d died from plague. And he sold many treasures from his imperial palace to raise money that was used to help pay the soldiers wages.

Marcus and Lucius put on their army cloaks and rode north to war. At first, they struggled to defeat the barbarians who numbered many more than the Romans. But gradually, as they learned more about their enemies and about the country they were in, the Romans started to win more battles. However, yet another disaster struck. Marcus wanted Lucius to stay in the north but finally gave in to his demands and allowed him to go back home. While travelling back to Rome, though, Lucius fell sick with the plague. The best doctors in the empire tried but they couldn’t save him and he died. Lucius’ family were angry and said he should never have left Rome but it was too late.  Many other noblemen died in battle on the northern frontier, and Marcus built statues to them.  Some Romans started to feel that between the plague and the wars, too many people had died.

Marcus was very sad about the loss of his brother but he continued the war in the north. Even though he’d never led an army before, and never trained as a soldier, Marcus was very wise and became a great general. The army loved and admired him. His soldiers all thought the gods were helping Marcus because of a miracle some of them claimed they’d seen. One day,  one of Marcus’ best generals and his soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by warriors of the Quadi barbarian tribe. It was the middle of summer and the Roman soldiers had no water, they were feeling very weak and thirsty because of the heat. They say Marcus prayed for them and something incredible happened. Suddenly storm clouds appeared in the sky overhead and it started raining very heavily. The soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and drank as they carried on fighting. They all cheered because of the miracle and started to fight back more bravely. As the barbarians charged at them on horseback, thunder sounded and lightning struck them. Fire and water came down from the skies and helped the Romans defeat their enemy. After this famous victory, the soldiers all celebrated Marcus’ as their supreme commander and told stories about how he brought them good luck.

During one of their most famous battles, the Romans chased the Marcomanni across the frozen river Danube. The barbarians assumed they would have a great advantage against the Romans on the ice because they were used to it, so they turned to fight, but they were in for a shock. The Romans had been training hard through the winter. When the Marcomanni surrounded them on the icy surface, the Romans packed themselves in a tight formation, placed their shields on the ice, and put one foot on top so that they could stand more firmly. Then as the barbarians charged, they grabbed the reins of their horses and pulled them to the ground, so they slipped on the ice and fell. The Romans were victorious because they’d carefully studied how to fight in these surroundings and practised tricks that would help their soldiers defeat the local tribes.

The Rebellion of Avidius Cassius

However, while Marcus was far away, busy fighting in the north, the people in the eastern empire felt neglected and were growing restless. They hadn’t seen Marcus for a long time, and Lucius was dead now. Millions of people had died of the plague and many more of their men were sent to fight with Marcus in the distant north and most of them were slain in battle and never returned home. Things were becoming expensive because taxes had increased to pay for Marcus’ war against the Marcomanni, people had to give more money to the emperor and they didn’t like that. One day, a mysterious Egyptian tribe called the Herdsmen said “We’ve had enough.” They tricked and killed two Roman officers and declared war on the Romans in Egypt. More and more people joined their revolution until the Roman Prefect or ruler of Egypt became worried. This was a big problem because most of the grain used to make bread came from Egypt, so the Romans called it the breadbasket of their empire. Marcus decided it was an emergency and told Cassius to march his legions to Egypt and stop the Herdsmen. However, to do that he had to make Cassius even more powerful, so he granted him imperium throughout the east, which meant people had to obey him as if he were the emperor. Cassius led the Roman armies into Egypt but there were so many of the Herdsmen he didn’t fight them in a pitched battle. Instead, he slowly tricked them into arguing with each other, until they fell out, and then he beat them, something we call a “divide and conquer” strategy. People said Cassius had saved Rome and they thought he was very clever. So he became an even bigger hero, and was left with supreme command throughout the eastern part of the empire.

Now since the co-emperor Lucius had died, Cassius had gradually become so powerful, that he started to feel like he should be an emperor himself. Indeed, some people even say that when Lucius was alive he tried to warn Marcus that he’d heard Cassius wanted to overthrow him.  Marcus said that he shouldn’t worry because whatever will be will be, and that they couldn’t judge Cassius based on rumours anyway.  He told Lucius to remember their adoptive father the emperor Antoninus, who used to say “No one ever kills his successor”.  However, Marcus had been very sick for many years, with pains in his chest and stomach. He found it hard to eat and at night he struggled to sleep because he was so ill. Some people say that because of his illness, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, worried that he was about to die. They say she told their friend Cassius that if Marcus was dying he was to get the army to acclaim him emperor instead, as quickly as possible, before any of their enemies could seize the role. Perhaps Faustina even planned to marry Cassius if Marcus died, to protect their son Commodus, and make sure he could become emperor one day. Nobody knows for sure, but some people say that was Faustina and Cassius’ plan. Somehow, one day, Cassius heard news that Marcus was really sick and was probably dying so the Egyptian army quickly acclaimed Cassius the new emperor. But he’d made a terrible mistake. Marcus had indeed been very ill, weeks ago, but he’d recovered and now he was better.

When the Senate, the government in Rome, found out, they were angry.  This was a huge rebellion.  They immediately declared Cassius a public enemy and took away all the money and land that belonged to him and his family. The people in Rome panicked because they thought Cassius would be so angry that now he’d march the Egyptian army into their city and destroy everything. When the people within a country fight one another, that’s called a civil war. Everyone was worried that now there were two emperors, they would have to fight over control of Rome, and there would be a huge civil war. Marcus was so far away it would have taken several weeks for the news to reach him. When he found out he thought his friend Cassius must have made a terrible mistake and would change his mind and give up, so he waited for news, but Cassius didn’t back down or surrender, instead he gathered his armies and prepared for war.  Some of Lucius’ family and other politicians in Rome also opposed Marcus’ war in the north because it was so expensive and the lives of so many Roman soldiers had been lost. So some politicians in Rome did take sides with Cassius but there weren’t very many of them. Most Romans remained loyal to Marcus, as their true emperor.

Everyone was shocked at what Cassius had done. They thought Marcus would be shocked too and really angry. But for his whole life Marcus had been preparing to respond philosophically to things like this. Every morning he would meditate and patiently tell himself “Today you will meet ingratitude, treachery, lies, and selfish people…” He planned how to deal calmly with even the most difficult situation, and never to be surprised by anything. He’d learned that from the ancient philosophers he studied as a young man. Finally, he was just about to win his wars in the north, after years and years of fighting.  However, instead, he would have to quickly pack up and march his armies all the way across the empire to fight a new war against his own friend. Fortunately, Marcus was very organised and hard working. He sent one of his generals ahead with a small army to reach Cassius first and block his path to Rome. He sent another general to Rome where he was to calm everyone down and stop the panic. Marcus himself took time to agree peace with the local tribes and prepare a much larger army, containing some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers.  When they were ready he started the long march south to defeat Cassius.

Marcus Prepares for Civil War

Before they left, as soon as he realised Cassius wasn’t going to back down, Marcus gave a speech to his soldiers. He told them that he wasn’t angry or upset. Everyone was amazed how calm he was. He always tried to see things from both sides. He wanted to understand other people’s motives, what was important to them, and what they were thinking. When someone did something that seemed bad, he’d learned from the philosophers to pause and say to himself: “It must have seemed right to him.” So he said he wanted everyone to forgive Cassius and his friends, and let them live in peace if they would surrender. Marcus said nobody in Rome was to hurt any of Cassius’ supporters and that ones that had been exiled, or sent away, were to be invited to come back home. The soldiers were surprised he was being so gentle but that was what he’d learned from philosophy. Marcus’ response was very different from the politicians’ in Rome; whereas he remained calm and offered to pardon Cassius, the Senate were angry, panicked, and wanted to punish everyone involved in the rebellion.

The army led by Marcus began marching toward Egypt to fight the main battle of the civil war.  Something surprising happened, though, before they could reach the enemy. The legions in Egypt heard that Marcus wanted to forgive them all but their commander, Cassius, still refused to give up. The soldiers knew that Marcus had a much bigger and much stronger army, and they were afraid they were going to lose. So they decided to get rid of Cassius themselves. Two of their officers charged at him on their horses when he wasn’t expecting it, caught him by surprise, and chopped his head off. They took Cassius’ head to Marcus but he said he didn’t want to look at it and told them to bury it instead. He was sad that his friend had been killed because he said it was all a big mistake and he wanted to pardon him. Marcus had won the war, but he refused to celebrate.  He said he wanted to make sure that nobody else was killed, and he asked the Senate to give back all of Cassius’ money to his children, to let them go wherever they want to go, and to protect them from harm.

Marcus travelled around all the different countries in the east of the empire and helped to calm them down and restore peace. The people said he was a hero because they were terrified that there was going to be a civil war but he’d managed to stop it without any fighting by saying that he was going to forgive everyone involved. He was loved by all the eastern provinces and they say that many of the people there started to study philosophy because of their admiration for Marcus.

The Dog of Philosophy

Children’s story about Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes the Cynic Billboard.Let me tell you a story… Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, in ancient Greece, there was a very famous philosopher called Diogenes the Dog. Diogenes went about naked, slept on the streets, and begged for scraps of food. So the children used to make fun of him and they pointed at him shouting “You’re just a dirty dog!” If a crowd of people made fun of me and called me a dirty dog, I might cry, but Diogenes didn’t let things like that upset him. Nothing bothered him. My mother used to say: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Diogenes wasn’t hurt by words, even when people called him a nasty dog. He just laughed and said “You know what, you’re right, I am a dog… I’m the dog of Zeus!” Now, the god Hades had a pet dog, called Cerberus, whose job it was to guard all the dead people, the ghosts, in the Underworld. But Diogenes said he was the guard dog of Zeus, Hades’ brother, the god of the living. And his job was to guard over living people, and show them when they were doing wrong. He would bark at them like a dog, when he saw them doing silly things or misbehaving. Some people were scared of him but other people really loved him, and followed him around, hoping to learn from him and become wise.

Let me tell you three things about dogs… Number one: dogs love people who are nice to them and give them food; they lick their hands, rub up against their legs, and follow them around. Number two: dogs bark at people who have food but won’t share it with them. And number three: they sometimes get angry and bite people who upset them by trying to steal their food. (You have to be careful if you want to take a bone away from a dog.)

Diogenes said he was like a dog but instead of food he only wanted one thing: wisdom. If people had wisdom and gave it to him, he’d be their best friend for life, and follow them around. If they had wisdom but didn’t share it, he’d bark at them until they did. And if they didn’t have wisdom but were foolish and wanted to do bad things, he’d bite them, or hit them with his stick!

One day, Diogenes was captured by a gang of pirates. They chained him up, threw him on their ship, and sailed away with him. They wanted to sell him as a slave, which is a person that belongs to someone else like a pet, or like an animal that’s made to work for them. (People aren’t allowed to have slaves anymore because it’s wrong, but a long time ago there were lots of slaves.)

Diogenes wasn’t bothered. When they tried to sell him, he just rolled around on the floor laughing. A rich man was looking at him and Diogenes said “You look like you need a good boss, to tell you what to do!” So the man bought him, and instead of being his slave, Diogenes became his boss, and his teacher. The man and his sons followed Diogenes around and learned a lot of wisdom from him.

Now Dogs will eat almost anything and people say one day Diogenes ate an octopus that upset his tummy, because it hadn’t been cooked properly. That’s how he died. When he was gone, though, everyone missed him, and the people in his home town built a pillar with a statue of a white dog on top so they would always remember him and so their children would also learn about Diogenes the philosopher, the dog of Zeus.

Socrates the Stonemason

This is a draft of a story I wrote for my three-year old daughter, Poppy, because she keeps asking me to tell her more about Socrates.

[This is a draft of a story I wrote for my three-year old daughter, Poppy, because she keeps asking me to tell her more about Socrates.Socrates]

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, almost two and a half thousand years ago, a very wise man lived in the city of Athens.  His name was Socrates and some people say he was the wisest man who ever lived.  He said he was just a “philosopher”, though, which means someone who loves wisdom but isn’t wise yet himself.  So philosophers are always looking for wisdom.

Socrates’ daddy was a stonemason and sculptor called Sophroniscus, who helped to build a famous temple called the Parthenon, high up on a hill in Athens, in a place called the Acropolis.  A stonemason is a man who cuts stone and a sculptor is a man who makes beautiful statues.  When he was young, Socrates learned how to cut stone and make statues, just like his daddy.  That’s what he did for a living and he became very good at it.  Some people say he made a famous sculpture, a statue, of three beautiful goddesses called The Three Graces, which stood at the entrance to the Acropolis.

Socrates tried very hard to make statues that were perfect.  He wanted to show everyone what a totally wise and good person might look like.  He believed that wisdom and goodness were beautiful but he wasn’t really happy with the statues he created.  He felt something was missing.  So he spoke to the other stonemasons because he wanted to learn from them but he found that although they made statues of people who were good, they couldn’t really explain to him what goodness was or how to learn about it.  He said they had become like blocks of stone themselves because they lacked wisdom.  They were looking outside at the statues too much rather than looking inside themselves.

Then Socrates had an idea.  He put down his tools and from that day forward he stopped making statues.  He said he was amazed that the sculptors who tried so hard to make blocks of stone into statues of perfectly wise and good people didn’t know how to become wise or good people themselves.  So he decided to stop sculpting stone and to begin sculpting himself, his own mind, his character, and to become wise and good.  He was going to make himself beautiful rather than making beautiful statues.  Everyone thought this was funny because Socrates was not very beautiful to look at.  He had a big round belly and a snub-nose and his friend Plato said he looked like a satyr, which is a cross between a man and a goat!  Socrates laughed back at them, though, and said that true beauty comes from within, from our character.  He liked to joke that if there was a beauty contest between him and the people laughing at him then he would be the winner because he was more beautiful inside.

So he gave up being a stonemason and a sculptor and instead of doing his daddy’s job he decided to switch to doing his mummy’s job instead.  Socrates’ mummy was a midwife.  When a lady has a baby inside her tummy, a midwife is another lady who helps her give birth, so the baby can come out of her tummy and ride around in its pram. Socrates said he had become a midwife just like his mummy but he didn’t help ladies with babies in their tummies to give birth to them… He helped people, men and women, with ideas inside them to give birth to those ideas, so they could share them with other people, talk about them, and try to learn the truth about them.

Socrates helped people to give birth to ideas by asking them lots of really difficult questions about what it means to be wise and good.  He asked soldiers “What does it really mean to be brave?”, he asked leaders and politicians “What is justice?”, and he asked teachers “What is wisdom?”  Socrates said that if you can learn what it means to be a good person you’ll become wise and live a good life.  He always pretended he didn’t know the answers.  Some people say, though, that by patiently asking lots of difficult questions, helping other people to give birth to ideas, and listening carefully to what they said, Socrates became wise himself and he lived a good life.  People still remember him today, even though he died a very long time ago.

John Lambton and the Wyrm

A short story about the Lambton Worm, with some elements of Greek philosophy.

🐉 John Lambton
& the Wyrm

A child’s tale about metaphysics, magic spells, and dragons.

Copyright Š Donald Robertson, 2014.

Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you all an awful story.
Hush lads, hold your tongues;
I’ll tell you about the worm…

The Little Boy Goes Fishing

Lambton WormOnce upon a time, almost five hundred years ago, in the Northeast of England, there lived a young boy called John Lambton.  His father was a very important man, called the Earl of Lambton, and they lived in a big house called Lambton Castle.  John Lambton was a very naughty boy.  At least he seemed so on the outside.  On the inside, though, he was good – he just didn’t know it yet.

One Sunday morning when he was supposed to be going to church with the other children he decided to sneak off because it was a lovely sunny day and he wanted to smell the flowers and go fishing.  So he ran away, down a path to a big river, called the River Wear.  Half-way to the river, he he met an old man walking the other way.  The old man stopped when John Lambton drew near.  He didn’t say anything at first.  He just looked at him strangely.  Suddenly he barked “No good will come of this!”, and then turned away and walked off quickly down the path.  (Some people say the old man wasn’t really a man at all but something else, maybe a dragon or an angel in disguise.)  Anyway, John Lambton ignored him and carried on walking down to the river where he hid among some trees so nobody would find him, and began fishing.

Although he was there all day long he didn’t catch any fish, and he was getting bored.  He was just about to go home when something odd happened, though.  He felt a tug on his fishing line and he pulled a creature out of the water but it wasn’t a fish.  It was something very queer indeed: a little black worm covered in slime, and it wriggled in his hands and wrapped itself around his fingers.  John Lambton looked at the worm for a long time and the worm looked right back at him, and it gurned, which means it pulled a horrid face.  He carried it in his hands, and kept on staring at it as he began walking away from the river, back along the path toward his home, Lambton Castle.  It was an ugly-looking creature, like an eel with a strangely-shaped head, and it seemed quite angry.  As he passed the church, John Lambton suddenly felt that he had to get rid of the worm.  There was something about it that upset him.  So he threw it down a deep, dark well by the side of the road.  He wiped the slime from his hands as he walked away, and he forgot all about it…

Journey to the Holy Land

Now, John Lambton’s mother and father loved him very much.  However, with each day that passed, he felt a stronger desire to leave England, see the rest of the world, and have adventures.  Finally, that little boy grew up into a man, he became a knight, and from that time forward was known as “Sir John Lambton”.  To seek adventure, he decided to go on crusade, which meant travelling to a distant land called Palestine, or the Holy Land.  His father, the Earl of Lambton, was sad to see him go but he gave John Lambton, a very special present, something that would protect him in battle.  It was a great silver shield called Invictus, which means it can never be broken – by anything!  Nobody really knew where the great shield Invictus came from.  People said it was over a thousand years old, but there wasn’t a scratch or a dent anywhere on its surface.  The Earl of Lambton also gave his son a mighty war-horse, strong enough to carry a knight in heavy armour.  John Lambton called his horse Bucephalus, after a famous horse from long ago.  His name means “head like an ox”.  That horse was as big and strong as an ox, and as brave as a lion.

John Lambton took the shield Invictus and travelled with his horse Bucephalus to the Holy Land, far away across land and sea.  He joined a troop of brave knights, who became his closest friends.  For many years he fought in many battles, his bravery grew, and he became famous as a soldier.  Knights ride horses but Sir John Lambton got down from his horse, Bucephalus, took off his armour, and marched on foot beside the other men, sometimes for hundreds of miles.  When the soldiers ate food and drank water, John Lambton sat and watched them from a distance.  He wouldn’t even eat a crumb or drink a drop of water until his men had eaten and drank enough.  Sometimes the soldiers had to take up picks and shovels to dig trenches and build walls.  Although John Lambton was in charge of the other men, he would still get down in the trench and dig alongside everyone else until the work was done.  So the soldiers loved him, and he became famous as a good knight and as a leader of men.

Ten years passed. With every day he spent in the Holy Land, John Lambton learned more and more about the men his army were fighting there, and he became quite sad.  He was upset because he realised that he didn’t want to fight them anymore.  He began to spend more time with the men he was supposed to be fighting.  He spoke to their wise men, who were called “philosophers”.  These men taught John Lambton many special things because they saw he was so brave and good, and the wise love the brave.  So although they were once enemies, John Lambton and the philosophers of the Holy Land now became good friends.  The knights stopped fighting and the people began to live in peace.

With no more battles, though, John Lambton decided it was time for him to return to his family home, to Lambton Castle in the Northeast of England.  He missed his mother, his father, and his friends.  This may sound strange, but it was the day he decided to stop fighting and return home that people say John Lambton became a real hero.  As he was packing his bags to leave, one of the wise men took him aside and whispered a secret in his ear.  It was a story.  He didn’t tell anyone about the secret because he didn’t feel he really understood it yet, but he kept thinking about it…

The Awful Devastation

While he was with the troop of knights, though, John Lambton had forgotten about something that he’d left behind at home.  He’d forgotten about the worm.  For ten long years, he’d been away in the Holy Land.  For ten long years the worm had been at the bottom of the well.  It lived in the dirt and mud and slime and it ate rocks – lots of rocks!  As the worm grew bigger and bigger, it swallowed bigger and bigger rocks, and it became more and more angry, until it was full of rocks and anger, and nothing else.  It grew into a great black snake with big black wings: a dragon!  It grew so big that one day it climbed out of the well, and then it crawled all over the land causing chaos and devastation, upsetting all the people.  It wrapped itself round and round cows, squashed them, and ate them.  It squashed the sheep and ate those too.  The people were so scared of the worm that as soon as they saw it coming they started running around waving their arms in the air and going “woo-woo-woo!”  When the worm was really, really angry it would wrap its tail around a big tree, rip it right out of the ground, wave it about like a big wooden club and crush the people’s houses into tiny pieces.  SMASH!  At night it would crawl all over the land causing more devastation and during the day it would wrap itself ten times around a big hill and squeeze it tight, as it went to sleep.  The people who lived near Lambton Castle started to call the place “Worm Hill” because that’s where the worm slept all day long, snoring, with smoke coming from its nostrils.

When John Lambton returned home his mother, his father, and his friends were all very happy to see him because he’d been gone for so many years, and they were proud of him because he had become a hero far away in the Holy Land.  He saw right away that something was very wrong, though, and he was very sorry for the people.  He saw the great big worm wrapped ten times around Worm Hill, squeezing it, as it slept, smoke coming from its nostrils.  He saw that the tiny worm had grown into a huge monster!  His mother and father told him what had happened, and that the worm had eaten all of the cows and sheep, and crushed all the houses.  The people told him that when they tried to cut the worm in half the two pieces would crawl back together and become one again, all fixed, good as new, as if by magic – so nobody could stop the worm.  The worm’s anger had turned into a powerful magic spell that protected it and made it very strong.  John Lambton was a hero now, though, not a little boy any more.  Deep inside he knew for sure that it was his job to stop the worm somehow and save the people – that had become his destiny.  He just didn’t know yet how he was going to do it.

John Lambton remembered something from his childhood, though.  There was a strange old woman who lived in a dark cave, hidden in the woods.  When John Lambton was a little boy, the people called her a witch.  Now, though, he realised she was actually a wise old woman.  She was a philosopher too and he knew that he needed her wisdom to help him beat the worm.  So John Lambton visited the witch’s cave, deep in the woods, late at night, when it was dark.  They both sat by the fire in her kitchen, drinking green tea, and John Lambton talked to her about his adventures far away, with the knights in Palestine.  He saw that she was wise and good, and they became friends.  So John Lambton told the wise old woman the secret that was whispered to him by the philosophers in the Holy Land.  The secret was a very special story: it was a little story within a story…

The Stranger in the Alleyway

The story goes like this…  Once upon a time, many hundreds of years ago – nearly two and half thousand years ago – there was a famous soldier, a general who led an army of ten thousand men.  His name was Xenophon.  When Xenophon was a young man, before he became famous, he was walking through the city of Athens late at night.  He walked down a very narrow street, an alleyway, between two tall buildings, and it was very dark.  Suddenly, a mysterious figure at the end of the alleyway blocked Xenophon’s path by holding out a staff, made of ash-wood.  Xenophon took a step back in surprise.  Then the man asked him a very strange question.  He said: “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?”  He meant lots of “good things” like food, and clothes, and jewellery.  Xenophon was brave so he answered confidently: “Yes, of course, Athens has one of the finest markets in the world; you can buy whatever goods you like just a few streets from here.”  “I see”, replied the stranger, “so then can you tell me where someone must go if he wants to become a good person?”  Xenophon was startled – he didn’t know what to say.  He didn’t know the answer to that question.  So the stranger lowered his staff and stepped out of the shadows…  He introduced himself and said his name was Socrates.

He had a snub nose and a big round belly, but Xenophon recognised him immediately, and he knew he was an old soldier, a war hero, and he was also a very wise man.  In fact, some people say Socrates was the wisest man who ever lived, the greatest philosopher of them all.  Socrates said to Xenophon, “You should come with me then and together we’ll try to discover how someone can become a good person.”

So they became best friends and used to talk and talk for hours together.  Many years later, Xenophon wrote a book about all the wise things he remembered his friend saying, called the Memorabilia of Socrates.  One of the things he remembered was this…  Most people say there are lots of good things and lots of bad things in the world – all sorts of different things… but Socrates said they’re all wrong.  He said there’s only one truly good thing in the world, and it’s inside you, not outside.  That was one of the things Socrates used to say, and he said it to his friend Xenophon, who remembered it and wrote it down.

So that was the story of Socrates and Xenophon and it was the secret whispered in John Lambton’s ear by the philosophers of the Holy Land.  They remembered this ancient story when everyone else had forgotten it.  It puzzled him, though, because they didn’t tell him what it was called, this good thing, that was only inside and not outside.  So he had to think about it himself, for a long time…  As he was telling this story to the old woman, though, John Lambton suddenly realised the answer: the good thing inside doesn’t really have a name!  It’s two things rolled into one: wisdom and bravery combined.  So John Lambton told this to the wise old woman and she understood and agreed with him.

When she heard this secret, the old woman saw that John Lambton was a hero and that he was learning wisdom.  The wise love the brave, so the old woman helped John Lambton as best she could.  She told him another secret, a second secret whispered in his ear.  So as John Lambton left the darkness of the witch’s cave and walked through the woods, back out in the daylight, he knew that he could now defeat the worm.

The Witch’s Secret

John Lambton’s best friend was a blacksmith, a man with a hammer and an anvil who makes things out of metal.  His name was John Smith, but everyone just called him Mr. Smith or Smithy, because that was his job, and he did it very well.  So these two friends, John Lambton and John Smith, met and spoke about the devastation caused by the worm.  Then they worked together all night long, hammering metal and making things.  John Lambton made a great longsword, and he called it “Hard Belly”, after another famous sword.  He joked that it had such a tough belly that it could eat anything, and that it was going to eat a dragon for breakfast!  His friend, Smithy, made John Lambton a very special suit of armour.  He made great big metal boots and metal greaves for John Lambton’s legs…  metal gloves or gauntlets and metal bracers for his arms…  a metal breastplate to go on his chest… and a shiny metal helmet for his head… a whole suit of armour, made with love, that shone in the sunlight like the great shield Invictus.  On the breastplate Smithy had engraved a beautiful picture of a lamb’s head, the symbol of Lambton Castle.

John Lambton told Smithy that the witch was really a lady-philosopher, a wise old woman.  She’d said they must cover the metal armour in lots and lots of sharp spikes.  So that’s what they did, the two friends working all night long together, side by side.  They used lots of broken spears and swords to make sharp spikes and when they were finished the suit of armour was bristling all over with them.  When John Lambton first tried on his new suit of armour, Smithy joked that he looked like a shiny metal hedgehog or porcupine.  Then they both rested a little while and told each other jokes and stories until morning.

At daybreak, just as the sun was rising, John Lambton put his spiky suit of armour back on and picked up his mighty longsword, called Hard Belly, and the great shield Invictus.  The wise woman had explained to him that to defeat the worm he would have to stand in the River Wear and fight there so that’s where he went, riding the mighty war-horse Bucephalus.  When he reached the banks of the River Wear, John Lambton climbed down from his big horse.  He waded into the river, at the spot where he first caught the worm when it was small and he was fishing as a boy.  He stood in the water, looked upstream, and waited there patiently for a moment.  In the distance he saw the worm coiled ten times around Worm Hill, and it was just beginning to go to sleep.  Then John Lambton called out at the top of his voice “Baarooooooo!  Baarooooooo!”, a special sound the witch taught him to make.  When the worm heard that sound it knew John Lambton was there and it awoke from its slumber.  When it saw him standing in the river it was angry.  Its eyes widened and they glowed red like fire, then they narrowed and turned black with rage, and it squeezed the hill harder than it had ever squeezed before, so the hill shook, and the rocks crumbled, and cracked, and rubble tumbled down the hillside.  People say that even today there are marks on Worm Hill where the dragon squeezed it so tight.

When John Lambton saw that the worm was awake he knelt down on one knee in the river, and the water came right up to his shoulders, and flowed around him, but because his spiked armour was heavy the river didn’t wash him away.  He knelt down and leant on the hilt – the handle – of his mighty longsword for support.  He watched the great black dragon uncoil itself from the hill and slither down into the River Wear.  He saw it swimming toward him, coming faster and faster and faster downstream, as it grew angrier and angrier, rushing down the river toward him.

Now, even though his eyes should have been wide open with fear, John Lambton closed his eyes, and he relaxed inside, he calmed his mind, because he needed to concentrate and he needed to call up all of his bravery to defeat the giant worm.  Even though his hands should have been shaking with fear, they weren’t, they were calm and steady…  Even though his heart should have been pounding fast – boom, boom, boom – it was slow and steady, and its rhythm was peaceful…  Even though his muscles should have been tense, and his face should have been wrinkled with fear and worry, they weren’t…  His face was calm, and his body was relaxed.

For one minute his eyes remained closed, and he remembered what the wise women had taught him, and what the wise men in the Holy Land had said.  The witch told him to speak to his heart and to summon up his bravery and the wise men told him the secret of bravery: it was something the philosopher Socrates had said long, long ago, in the distant past.  So he spoke to his heart and he said: “Worm, you can crush me but you cannot harm me…”  John Lambton realised now that nothing could ever harm the goodness inside of him, whatever the outcome of the battle.  There was nothing the worm or anyone else could do to take away his wisdom and bravery because it came from deep within him, from his heart, right at his very centre.  He whispered those words to himself three times as he knelt in the river… and he took a deep breath in… and then he breathed out slowly… and he raised his head… and he opened his eyes, and looked up… and the dragon was upon him!

The Wyrm Battle

As the worm rushed down the River Wear toward John Lambton, one of his friends was watching from the river side, high up in a tree where he’d hidden.  John Lambton’s friend was called Catweazle, and he was a bard, a man who writes songs and plays music.  Catweazle was very circumspect, which means he always paid attention and knew everything that was going on.  He saw everything that happened in the river.  He watched the whole battle unfold, and he wrote a song about it.  Other people heard his song and they wrote songs of their own, about the hero John Lambton, and the dreaded worm, and those songs have been sung for hundreds of years.  This is what Catweazle the Bard saw that day…

The worm leapt upon John Lambton but because the brave knight was kneeling deep, up to his shoulders, in the water, it couldn’t see that he was covered in spikes, like a metal hedgehog or a porcupine.  It wrapped itself round and round his body and tried to crush him with all of its might but when it did this the worm got a nasty surprise – it got spiked!  The worm cried “Rooooaaaaaar!”, which means “Ouch!”, because it hurts to grab something spiky – the suit of armour was like a big metal cactus.  The worm had to let go of John Lambton right away, but as it let go it thrashed its massive tail and knocked John Lambton off balance so he didn’t see what was coming.  The dragon opened its great big mouth as wide as it could, as if it were about to bite John Lambton or even swallow him whole… but Catweazle saw what was happenning from up in his tree and he yelled “Look out!  Look out!”  When John Lambton heard his friend, quick as lightning, he threw his great shield, called Invictus, as hard as he could, right into the dragon’s mouth.  It wedged right there in his jaws and though the dragon tried to bite down he couldn’t break the shield – it was stuck in his mouth.

So for a moment, the worm was distracted as it tried to shake the shield loose, and get it out of its mouth.  When he saw this, the knight rose out of the River Wear and he lifted his mighty longsword, Hard Belly, high over his head, and brought it down with all his strength, so powerfully that it chopped the dragon clean in half.  John Lambton was fast, though, as well as strong.  So he kept swinging his sword again and again, until the worm was sliced up into a hundred tiny pieces.  Usually the worm’s anger created a magic spell that protected it, so that when it was chopped into pieces, those pieces would be drawn back together, to join together, and fix him.  Today the worm was in the River Wear, though, and the waters were flowing fast and strong around him, and around the knight John Lambton.  So all those pieces were swept away, down the river, and into the sea, before the worm’s magic could join them back together again.

Now some people say that the dragon’s magic was so powerful that he’s still alive even though he’s in lots of little pieces spread across the bottom of the ocean.  John Lambton’s father told him, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere”, though, and he said that means the worm is gone for good and he’s never coming back.  Anyway, the people were all very relieved, and very happy.  Catweazle sang his song about the brave knight Sir John Lambton and how he tricked the great worm, and beat him, and saved the people, and their sheep and cows, and houses.  John Lambton danced.  His mother and father danced.  His friends Catweazel and Smithy danced.  Even the wise old woman, the witch, danced.  The people were all so happy they danced to Catweazle’s song.  They told John Lambton they were very proud of him indeed.  So his story became a famous legend, a great story, that people have told their children, for hundreds of years… and now you know that story, and one day perhaps you’ll be able to tell your children the legend of the Lambton Worm too.

– 🐲 –

 

Appendix: The Song

One Sunda morn young Lambton went

A-fishing in the Wear;

An’ catched a fish upon he’s heuk

He thowt leuk’t vary queer.

But whatt’n a kind ov fish it was

Young Lambton cudden’t tell-

He waddn’t fash te carry’d hyem,

So he hoyed it doon a well

 

Chorus

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 gan

An’ fight i’ foreign wars.

He joined a troop ov Knights that cared

For nowther woonds nor scars,

An’ off he went te Palestine

Where queer things him befel,

An varry seun forgat aboot

The queer worm i’ tha well.

But the worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,

An’ grewed an aaful size;

He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,

An greet big goggly eyes.

An’ when at neets he craaled aboot

Te pick up bits o’ news,

If he felt dry upon the road,

He’d milk a dozen coos.

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 Pensha Hill.

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 hyem he cam an’ catched the beast,

An’ cut ‘im in twe haalves,

An’ that seun stopped hes 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 myekin’ haalves

O’ the famis Lambton Worm.