Monthly Archives: January 2019

#19 Worm Songs and Beastly Sucklers



This episode examines the Lambton Worm, a dragon legend that inspired works by Bram Stoker and Ken Russel as well as well as the curious role of milk plays that story and in superstitions surrounding witchcraft.

The show begins with Wilkinson and Ridenour reviewing a phone message from Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast, then proceed to briefly examine the 1989 Ken Russel Film The Lair of the White Worm, mentioning along the way his other film Gothic, which would be of interest to listeners.

Publicity image from the film
Publicity image from the film

Bram Stoker’s final novel The Lair of the White Worm, upon which the Russel film is loosely based, is sadly far from his best work, written late in his life during a time of ill health. The story revolves around an aristocrat, Lady Arabella March, suspected of harboring an ancient, monstrous creature within a well hidden on her estate.  While the novel is a bit of a muddle, it does contain some intriguing descriptive passages that Wilkinson reads for us.

A snippet of a song from Russel’s film, presented as a folk song telling the story of the local worm legend is played and revealed to be a slightly revised version of an actual 1867 ballad about the Lambton Worm of Northeast England.  The legend tells how John Lambton of Lambton Hall hooked a weird and highly inedible creature while fishing, discards the beast, and lives to regret it. Without giving too much away, the story also involves a bloody battle with a dragon, a witch, a curse, and a lot of milk.

From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell
From English Fairy Tales (1913). Illus by iHerbert Cole & R. Anning Bell

The legend and song (which is written in the local Sunderland dialect) have become part of the identity of residents of County Durham and towns along the river Wear. In 2014, an entertaining symphonic retelling of the legend was presented in Durham Cathedral by The Durham University Brass Band, and we use a clip or two in the show. Most other clips are from one of two folk-play-style pub performances of the story by The Jeffreys and Hexham Morris.

We also look at a connection between the 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm legend.

The peculiar fondness of dragons for milk is next examined, beginning with a number of other dragon legends from England, some medieval tales briefly mentioned, and even an American newspaper from the 1930s.

Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
Tilberi display from The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft

We then turn our attention to the “beastly sucklers” of the title.  These include various animals into which witches transformed themselves or created in order to steal milk (sucking it from livestock by night).  They are mlk-hares, the troll-cat, the troll-ball, and the Icelandic tilberi.

The show ends with a quick look at a couple other dragon ballads that also include witches, including the particularly strange “The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea” in which a king’s daughter is transformed into a mackerel then obstinately refuses to be transformed back.

 

 

 

 


#18 Wild Men, Furry Saints, and Burning Dancers



This time round we look at the medieval myth of the Wild Man, its connection to seasonal folk traditions, peculiar influence on Church teachings, and a macabre historical incident featuring dancers costumed as Wild Men.

We begin with a bit of Edgar Allen Poe filtered through Roger Corman, namely a clip from the director’s 1964 production The Masque of the Red Death.  In the film, Corman incorporates a grisly scene borrowed from Poe’s short story “Hop Frog,” an accident revolving around highly inflammable ape costumes.

We then turn to Poe’s historical inspiration for this scene, namely a 1393 celebration held in the Parisian court of Charles VI, a masque which has come to be known as Bal des Sauvages (Ball of the Wild Men) or more commonly the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).  As you may guess, the Wild Man suits donned for this event also proved quite flammable, leaving four courtiers dead.  Graphic details are provided. While Charles also wore one of these less than safe costumes, he was not injured in the event but went on to suffer from troubles of a different sort, as we later explore.

Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483
Bals des Ardents, from Jean Froissart Chroniques, 1483

Other costume customs associated with the Wild Man are next examined — a strange case from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (involving a blood bladder), and mention is made of Wild Man costumes of straw or vegetation often identified as “straw bears,” as in the Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea, in the UK, or other vegetation clad Wild Men who appear in Carnival processions in Basel, Switzerland, Telfs, Austria, and the Wild Man Dance held every five years in Oberstdorf, Bavaria.  Audio clips from the events in Whittlesea, and Telfs are heard in the background.

Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.
Wild Man dancers from Oberstdorf, Bavaria.

Classical figures that blended into the Wild Man mythos are discussed: the satyrs, fauns, and particularly Silvanus, as are other pagan figures that tended to overlap with the Wild Man —  the Dusios of the Celts of Gaul, the schrat of German-speaking lands, and the ogre, a figure seemed particularly influential in French and Italian traditions.

While pagan versions of Wild Men were regarded by the Church as demonic, the image of the Wild Man was in some occasions adopted into saint iconography.  We see a number of examples drawn from the era of the Desert Fathers, when solitary hermitage in the wild was commonly understood to be a path to God.  Medieval artists, we learn, tended to take the “wild” aspect of these figures, rather literally, and certain church legends seem to support this.

St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.
St. Mary of Egypt from the Dunois Book of Hours.

Real world figures equated with the Wild Man are also examined.  We meet the first historical example via a painting of the 16th-century figure, Petrus Gonsalvus, an object in the famous Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) collection at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, Austria.  Other items in the collection, including a disturbing portraits of a deformed court jester and of a Hungarian nobleman living with lance embedded in his head are mentioned, as is an odd pop song related to one of P.T. Barnum’s sideshow personalities, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy.  A clip from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast” is heard.

Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.
Petrus Gonsalvus, anonymous 16th-century painting.

Oh, I also promised to post this picture of Barbara van Beck…

Barbara van Beck by William Richardson
Barbara van Beck by William Richardson

We conclude the show returning our attention to France’s Charles VI, hearing the story of his mental breakdown and behaviors and delusions that earned him the epitaph, “Charles the Mad.”

Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.
Charles VI accosted by mysterious stranger before his mental breakdown.