Here there be dragons: The Wantley Dragon

The most famous dragonslayer in all England was St. George, of course (Though the dragon-killer has been de-canonized. Kind of like the de-planetization of Pluto).

But perhaps the most interesting dragonslayer is More of More Hall, who did away with a dire creature threatening the village of Wantley in the time of Queen Elizabeth the First. The horrible dragon just consumed more and more of the village resources until the villagers could take no more.

So they went to their local knight, More of More Hall and begged him to take on the dragon.

More agreed, on the condition that before he went out, he a damsel with dark hair and fair skin would oil him up and, er, help him with his armor.

He might have needed help with his armor because he had it made specially for the purpose, with 6 inch long spikes covering it.

The battle raged on for three days, with dragon and knight equally matched. With one sweep of his mighty claws, the dragon knocked away the knight’s sword, leaving him with no weapon. As a desperate last message, Sir More kicked out, aiming for the dragon’s, er, uh, ‘throat’. His aim was true and the dragon collapsed in pain, for the knight had found the creature’s one vulnerable spot. The dragon was vanquished and Sir More (and the damsel, presumably) retired to More Hall.

Good story? It’s just a story. Well, a ballad, in fact. And it doesn’t date from the time of good Queen Bess. Instead it’s from the 1600’s.

The ‘dragon’ of the story is a satire of Sir Francis Wortley, the diocese ecclesiastic of Wharncliffe at the time. He had a disagreement with his parish about what the tithe should be. ‘Sir More’ was a lawyer who ‘rescued’ the townspeople by bringing a suit against Wortley–kicking him in the ‘throat.’


Black Shuck: Demon dog

In 1577, an enormous black dog killed three people in a church in Bungay, East Anglia, in England. It strangled two of them and shrunk the other.

There are lots of stories of demonic dogs, particularly in England. Often they’re called the Black Shuck, or the Old Shuck. But these stories aren’t often as gruesome as the one of 1577. Usually the dog just appears, scares the living daylights out of you with its glowing eyes, and trots off.

But in some parts of England, they believe the Black Shuck is a bad omen, and if you see it, it’s a signal that someone you love will die soon.

Bad dog.


Herne the Hunter

Illustration of Herne the Hunter

Image via Wikipedia

There is an old tale goes, that Herne the
Hunter (sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)
Doth all the winter time, at still midnight
Walk round about an Oak, with great ragg’d-hornes,
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And make milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a Spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed-Eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter, for a truth
-William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Herne the Hunter is one of the oldest ghosts on the book — obviously, if he’s mentioned in a play that was written around 1597. Supposedly, Herne was a hunter employed by Richard the Second in the region of Windsor Forest in England. Poor Herne was attacked by a white deer (though he’d likely been hunting the deer), nearly killing him. The local wizard was only able to cure him by sticking the deer’s antlers on his head and sacrificing Herne’s hunting skills (though personally, I wouldn’t have been all that keen to keep them anyway).

However, the other hunters framed Herne as a poacher — which was a big, big no-no on Royal land in those days. The next day Herne, antlers and all, was found hanging from a local oak tree. But was it murder or suicide?

As these things go, Herne stuck around, becoming a ghost and generally hung around haunting the forest. He rides around on his ghost horse, accompanied by other ghostly hunters, demonic dogs, and a hunting owl.

But he’s just a local legend, right? Not a demon at all, right?

Well… Check out the Gundestrup cauldron, a silver vessel suspected to be from the first century, that was found in Denmark:

That antlered guy look familiar? That might be the Celtic god Cernunnos, who was a fertility god and general horny guy (sorry, I should have resisted that one). He looks an awful lot like our Herne, no? And their names kind of sound a bit similar…

Also, any spectral spirit who goes out hunting might just be connected up with the Wild Hunt, which is a group of ghosts, spirits, or even the faery, who band together once in a while to go chasing after some spiritual game.

So, is Herne just another ghost, or is there something more going on here?

Here there be dragons: The Lambton Worm

In Germanic countries, and in England (because the English just took everything from everywhere), there was a kind of dragon called a ‘worm’ or ‘wurm.’

On Easter Sunday, 1420, John Lambton, the degenerate heir of Lambton Castle, skipped church to go fishing in the River Weir. He didn’t catch anything for a long time, so just to add to his wickedness, he started to swear.

Now, at this point, some versions of the legend include an old man passing by warning John he’d better watch himself. This seems unlikely, since any old man who could warn John without being a bit of a hypocrite would be in church himself. It’s a good addition to the legend, though, since it forms a nice parallel with the witch that comes later.

After spewing some good curses, he felt a tug on the line. Not a fish. The slimy black thing, three feet long, had nine sets of gills, huge eyes, and the face of a devil. Suddenly not so hungry for seafood, Lambton threw it down the nearest well. And off he went to the crusades, some say to make up for his rebellious youth.

A few years later, the locals started to notice their chickens going missing. Then their pigs. Then their cattle. Then, one day, some observant fellow said, “Hey, what’s that big black thing wrapped around that hill over there?” (The hill was either Penshaw Hill or the more aptly named Worm Hill.)

Well, as it turns out, the worm had grown, Jörmungandr-like, big enough to wrap around the hill seven times.

Some brave local youths try their luck at slaying the thing, but the worm is luckier. The only thing the locals can do to save their sheep is offer the worm a troughful of milk every morning in the courtyard of Lambton Castle.

When John Lambton gets back from the crusades, he recognizes the leech he pulled out of the river. Horrified, he also recognizes his responsibility. His sin created it. He’s got to deal with it. But before he does, he consults the local wise woman (See how he’s grown as a person? Before he ignored the old man, now he seeks out aged advice.). She tells him if he has to win, he must wear a suit of spiky armor and confront the worm while standing in the river.

If he does succeed, she tells him, he’s got to kill the first living thing he encounters after the fight or his family will be cursed for nine generations.

After a truly epic battle, John kills the worm. But instead of heading out to the nearest field and slaughtering the first bull that walks up to him, like a sensible person would have done, the moron heads home. His own father comes running out to meet him.

Now soft-hearted John can’t kill his own dad, so he puts the family dog to death hoping it’ll be a good substitute.

Of course this didn’t work. The next nine generations of Lambtons die tragic deaths. Thanks, Grandpa John!

But the Lambton family outlived the curse, and four hundred years later, John’s namesake John George (The name of another famous dragonslayer) Lambton became the first Governor of the Province of Canada. What’s really interesting is where they built the monument to the second John Lambton.

Penshaw Hill.

John Polidori’s The Vampyre

As a writer, I have a special loathing for what Google Books does to published authors, believing that it violates copyright and that if any other company had done what Google did, they would have been sued into bankruptcy several times over. Don’t get me started on the settlement. If you don’t know about this, the settlement BINDS copyright holders who DON’T agree to it. If you don’t opt out, that means you’re in. I’m not sure how that’s legal. (Could I pick a hot guy, put an ad in the paper to let him know I’m marrying him and if he doesn’t show up, that means he agrees?)

However, for out of copyright books, it’s beyond awesome. I can use it for research, and it’s great for books so old that the copyright has expired and they are hard to get.

Like John Polidori’s The Vampyre, that I talked about yesterday. Here it is.

Vampires we know and love #4: The first English Vampire

Think vampires are all the same? Think again! Vampires come in more flavors than Baskin-Robbins ice cream. So, this special DotW feature, Vampires we know and love, spotlights different kinds of bloodsucking fiends from around the world.

The first English Vampire

Or should I say “vampyre?”

The most famous ghost story-telling session in the history of the world happened in June 1816, in a rented house, Maison Chappius, at Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Present were poet Percy Bysshe Shelley; the author he would soon marry, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; her half-sister Claire Clairmont (whose parents had obviously been drunk when they named her); the poet Lord Byron; and Dr. John Polidori, Byron’s doctor and traveling companion.

the players

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mary Shelley
Claire Clairmont (She later bore Byron a daughter, Allegra.)
George Gordon, 6th Baron Byron
John Polidori

It was rainy and the whole company was bored. They turned to reading a book of ghost stories out loud, “Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d’Histoires d’Apparitions de Spectres, Revenans, Fantomes.” That means “Fanstamagoriana, or Collection of Stories of Apparitions of Spectres, Revenants, Phantoms.”

After reading this, Byron–or someone else–suggested that they all write ghost stories themselves and tell them to the group.

By the way, the lot of them were drunk/wasted most of the time.

According to Mary Shelley’s diary, Polidori’s story was pretty bad. But Byron told a story with vampiric elements that wasn’t.

Byron got sick of Polidori and fired him soon after.

A couple of years later, a vampire story appeared in New Monthly Magazine. It had Bryon’s name attached to it, but it was written by Polidori, ‘inspired by’ the notes he had taken on Byron’s ghost story from Geneva. Whether Polidori meant for it to published or not is up in the air. It was titled The Vampyre.

Also, Byron was listed as the author.

Byron was mad, mad, mad. Especially since the vampire villain seemed to have a lot in common with him. Goethe said it was the best thing Byron had ever written (except he didn’t write it).
Byron denied the story and wrote his own vampire tale “Fragment of a Story.”

But it would never change the fact that “The Vampyre” was the first English vampire story and “Fragment of a Story” was the second.

Polidori killed himself. Eventually someone wrote a story in which Byron is a vampire.

But the moral of the story should be this:
While Byron abandoned his tale, forever giving up the chance to write the first ever vampire story and Polidori had to borrow someone else’s name to get published… Mary Shelley kept working on her own story. She stuck to it and worked her arse off.

Eventually, hers was the only novel to come out of that story-telling session, and while The Vampyre and Fragment of a Novel became kinda famous, hers lives on to this day.

It’s a little something called Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

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