🐉 John Lambton
& the Wyrm
A child’s tale about metaphysics, magic spells, and dragons.
Copyright © 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
Once 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 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 great wooden staff or walking stick. 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 woman 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 philosophers told him the secret of bravery: it was something that 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
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.
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.