Worm in the Well

William Mayne again, and some thoughts on my latest reading.

I’ve just read Mayne’s retelling of the worm legend that has a vivid version in the singalong the Lambton Worm.

To get the Lambton song out of the way, here it is in all its glory with Bryan Ferry sounding to my mind like an escapee from a Steeleye Span tribute band and here are the lyrics. Perhaps the hectic version by Alan Price catches the C19th popular tone best… I don’t know. It was a staple song in the Co Durham school where I taught in the late 80s. My own best memory of the song was reading the lyrics to one of my reception children at the Gateshead Garden Festival (see the clip here: the worm appears at about 7′ 30″) and having to show him the word “hoy,” when he said “Is that a real word, like? That you can write down?”

It’s not the Lambtons, however, and certainly not the song, that I want to think about, but Mayne’s retelling and my reaction. I’ve already recorded how my understanding of the relationships in his Earthfasts was changed by knowing Mayne’s story, and how alert I was to ambiguities in those relationships in my adult reading that I was unaware of as a younger reader.  I was, therefore, alert for the worm story to be, in Mayne’s hands, a sort of sub-Freudian exploration of the denial of the phallic leading to confrontation and resolution.

I was wrong.

In The Worm in the Well, Mayne takes the worm in a different direction.  Two boys struggle to find justice in their place as young heirs to unequal fortunes in Feudal England, and the bitterness of their rivalry spills into the next generation and changes even the metaphysics of their world. People are sewn away into tapestries; swords and loves are lost and found; the constant commentary of the nurse (precursor to Blackadder’s Nursie, successor to C S Lewis’ Batta in Till We Have Faces and the Giant Nurse in The Silver Chair – yes, Patsy Byrne again in the BBC version) and the knowing and notknowing presence of the witch Granny Shaftoe thread through and dominate everything.

The book has some wonderful ideas: the Worm that grows more monstrous and rapacious with each rejection; the recurring tragedy of wrong choices presented like a folk tale; the brilliant depiction of a world view where magic is possible and monsters stare like heraldic beasts. Mayne has a stunningly good turn of language to describe the natural world too: “The waters of the pool went down clear into deep darkness;” “The trees scraped at the greying sky;” or “Overhead the clouds rolled together; below, the greenwood filled with darkness, blacker than nature.” There is a menace in his psychogeography throughout.

Mayne has, of course (and thanks to Nick Campbell for this lead) looked at the awful worm elsewhere. Nick C shares, in his blog post on Mayne’s other worm tale, A Game of Dark, my reticence to deal with the biography and in A Game of Dark we have another medieval worm: a stinking menace the protagonist needs to kill (although the echoes for me are with A Monster Calls). I suppose what I want to do is set to rest my disquiet at how his personal story might affect his themes, and to praise his bold, vivid glorying in the countryside.

When Alan, the inheritor of a manor and of the negative emotional history of his father, comes back from the Crusades, he finds his fief hushed, unloved and out of kilter, “insulated from the clamour of heaven.” His cry is a summons, an anthem of rewilding:

“This is my land and I order it to become noisy like the real countryside. The wind must blow, and of the river rage; the sheep must shout and the meadows rave; wild beasts must run, and the clouds must rive; men must ride and children riot.”

If I can get that biography out of my head, I hear a powerful voice telling important stories of reconciliation and renewal. Do Mayne’s flaws deafen me to his message?

2 thoughts on “Worm in the Well

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