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Swords, Wyrms & Vikings

One of the treasures on display at Durham Cathedral’s Open Treasure Exhibit is an impressive, enormous 13th century sword, the Conyers Falchion. According to a legend, it was used by Sir John Conyers to slay the Sockburn Wyrm. The wyrm had very bad breath (fire breathing perhaps?) and had been ravaging the countryside for seven years before Sir John came along and used the falchion to kill the beast.

Book by Paul Telfer & Linda Edwards

Scholars believe that Lewis Carroll, who grew up near the River Tees where the wyrm once roamed, may have been inspired by this legend to write the poem Jabberwocky.

Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky

Jabberwocky is one of the few poems I actually know by heart, and I imagine that a lot of people know at least its first two words even if they might not know what one of them means:

“‘Twas brillig!”

Note: “bryllyg is derived from the verb to bryl or broil, so ‘the time of broiling dinner, i.e. the close of the afternoon.”

Now you know.

The Sockburn Wyrm is not the only ancient wyrm story that has been flying around Northumbria for centuries. A study by the University of Durham indicates that there are at least 20 separate folk tales about wyrms recorded in Northumbria, County Durham and Yorkshire.

Wikimedia Commons: The Lambton Wyrm from C. E. Brock, English & Other Folk Tales

The best known of these tales are The Sockburn Wyrm, The Lambton Wyrm, and The Laidly Wyrm of Bamburgh. I’m happy to report that when I was at Bamburgh last fall I did not see the Laidly Wyrm, although I DID hear about her. Wyrm, by the way, is Old English, meaning dragon or serpent. Laidly means loathsome.

Wikimedia Commons: The Laidly Wyrm by John Batten

The various versions of these tales have the dragon eating cattle and carrying off small children. Sometimes the villagers appease the monster by offering it a daily dose of gallons and gallons of milk.

All the stories feature a young warrior who returns home from a journey to vanquish the creature who has been wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. These medieval stories were apparently based on even older tales, some of them dating to pre-Conquest times, and they were expropriated by the families to promote their chivalric past.

But why are there so many of these dragon tales in Northumbria? One theory is that they are an ancient memory of viking armies that once ravaged Anglo-Saxon England. Viking longboats (dragon ships, or drekar in Old Norse) with their carved dragon figureheads could easily be imagined as actual beasts threatening the land. Imagine that it’s the middle of the night, and you are suddenly wakened from sleep. You peer groggily out the door and see a line of fire moving towards you. Is it a fire-breathing wyrm or a viking army? Either way, small children, cattle, sheep and crops are in great danger. If it’s a viking army, though, you can be pretty sure that it won’t be appeased with a big bowl of milk.

The Annotated Alice, Lewis Carroll, Martin Gardner

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