The Worm in the Well
Hodder Children’s Books 2003 (2002)
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye’s aall an aaful story,
Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
Aa’ll tell ye ‘boot the worm.
The title of this children’s novel brought to mind a ballad a fellow student used to sing many decades ago. He was from County Durham and in amongst his faithful renditions of Dylan songs was a folksy doggerel about the Lambton Worm, a dreadful medieval creature eventually vanquished by the Heir of Lambton (though not before the Heir had brought down a curse on his descendants).
The traditional story is a familiar tale type in the mould of St George and the Dragon, and Perseus and the sea monster. What William Mayne did was to take elements from this and mix them with motifs from other myths, legends and fantasy, yet all in a fashion that can disconcert the unsuspecting reader, whether child or adult.
Ostensibly this is a story of childhood frenemies Robin of the Dale and Meric of the Eastmarch. They go fishing at a spring (don’t imagine a twee wishing well, however) only to abandon a strange creature which they have caught — an act which will have lasting consequences, for they have ignored the advice of the local witch, Granny Shaftoe.
In the first of several time shifts we also meet the offspring of Robin and Meric, namely Allan and Margaret, who have been caught up in subsequent ramifications. There are geographical shifts too as we meet the males at different times variously in England or the Holy Land (for this is during the time of the Crusades). You will by now have guessed that the ‘worm’ in the well grows to be a carnivorous monster devastating the countryside.
So far so familiar. But Mayne was always an unconventional storyteller and so we immediately find ourselves in unfamiliar territory. Deliberate anachronisms, shifting points of view, time-hopping, poetic turns of phrase, asides and black humour all combine to make this a rollercoaster ride. Identities are hidden and revealed, the future is both suggested and occluded, and Granny Shaftoe’s strange shape-shifting familiar adds to the general unsettling feel of the narrative.
Will this children’s fiction bring us to a satisfying conclusion or will the horror prevail? Luckily the anachronisms (unexpected objects like safety pins and tins of baked beans) and ridiculous figures (particularly the Nurse, an escapee from Romeo and Juliet perhaps) allow for rapid changes of tone, mitigating the frightening passages.
What I appreciated about Mayne’s fiction, and what may possibly go above the heads of younger readers, were the subtler allusions and borrowings from other fictions and traditions. The Robin Hood tales, for example, furnish the Lord of Dale’s name — Robin — and his son Allan (from Alan a Dale, though the Northumbrian placename Allendale may have contributed); the Arthurian legends yield the sword in the lake motif; Jacobus de Vorágine’s Golden Legend tells of St Margaret of Antioch who survived being swallowed by a dragon; and a few others.
I enjoyed this rendering of the well-known dragon-slaying theme for its wild unpredictability, though there’ll be many who can’t (or won’t) appreciate such niceties. Awesome or awful? If you come across this then at least you will have been forewarned!
An offering for Readers Imbibing Peril XIV? Possibly. Thanks to Dale at Earth Balm Creative for a copy of this