Posted in Chronicles in Creation

So You Want To Draw A Map? – Part 4

No Map Is An Island

Sorry about the title; I tried, really I did, but I couldn’t resist!

Anyway, we begin this post with a moment of silence for the unexpected perils of a writer’s life; in this case that moment when you’ve been researching maps in your lunch-break, then something goes wrong and you call in the IT crowd. They come up and start minimising windows and there’s a brief moment of confusion because emblazoned across the screen all of a sudden is the word ‘MAPPORN’.

To be clear, as I hastened to explain to a colleague now laughing so hard he’s crying, Map Porn is a twitter account filled with – what else? – historical and fictional maps. There’s also a reddit site, but I don’t understand how to navigate it so you’ll have to check that out on your own if you’re interested.

This is like that time we were all explaining to our IT guys that ‘Bookshelf Porn’ was genuinely just a website full of pictures of especially nice looking bookcases, isn’t it? (Does anyone else remember Bookshelf Porn?)

Anyway, the result of this is that my Star Trek-critiquing buddy IT guy now thinks I may be too nerdy for him.

Writers: We wrote the book on weird. Literally.


First Things First…

So, why do I need to draw this map?

So in my last post, wherein I flailed around drawing a map for a king without a kingdom, I mentioned that sometimes the only way to draw the maps that you want is to start drawing and keep doing so until you reach something that looks right.

And in the spirit of that idea, I tried to think of something I am not very good at in drawing and combine that with something I didn’t have much of a pre-conceived image to work from. Sort of a ‘two things that already taste bad but put together become tolerable’ exercise, I guess.

To that end I decided to tackle drawing a cluster of islands, an archipelago for the technical of you reading this, and combine that with drawing a land for my dwarves to live in.

Now dwarves have a little bit more in folklore for me to work from than the Oak King did, which is always nice! Though not originally Celtic, they did come along with the Vikings when they settled in the North, so I’m including them anyway.

Ch.22 - So You Want To Draw A Map - Part 2Certainly we know the Anglo-Saxons took the dwarves into their folkloric hearts, because there is a record of the charm Wið Dweorh (Against a Dwarf) in the Lacnunga (‘Remedies’); a collection of miscellaneous Anglo-Saxon medical texts and prayers, written mainly in Old English and Latin. The charm, which involved writing the names of the biblically mythical Seven Sleepers of Ephesus onto seven wafers, then singing an alliterative verse three times, appears to cure sleep disturbances, although the translation’s a little iffy and might instead be tackling fevers or warts. Whatever it was, you know a creature-concept has made it into folkloric canon when they are texts on how to get rid of it!

Also is anyone else kind of convinced that this is the Anglo-Saxon version of telling your child to count sheep if they can’t sleep? This definitely seems suspiciously familiar…

What we know of dwarves for map-drawing purposes is, as I say, more helpful than with the Oak King, but that’s saying little. It was said that there were originally four dwarves, named Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri (Old Norse ‘North, South, East, and West’) who held up the sky, although they also must have had hella mating skills, because the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda (our two main sources for Viking legends) contain mention of over a hundred dwarves by name.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2Their world was named Nidavellir (Old Norse for ‘Dark Fields’), no one is allowed to ask me how to pronounce it, and one of their other functions in myth was to guard doorways in the mountains which allow access between the worlds. It also seems to be the same place as Myrkheim (‘Dark Home’ or ‘World of Darkness’), and I am happy to say that we have directions!

Yes, you too may visit the dwarves, although why on earth you’d want to is up for debate. I mean, the things I would do to get my hands on the Mead of Poetry are many and terrible, but the risk of cursed treasure, being turned to stone or simple death strikes me as a little off-putting…

Anyway, the directions go as follows:

Stóð fyr norðan, / á Niðavöllom / salr úr gulli / Sindra ættar

Before you reach the north, A dark dwelling stands, In halls of gold, Sindri’s bloodline lives.

Völuspá (Prophecy of the Völva)

So compasses out, all you adventurers! Send us postcards, if you can because as we all know the directions of seeresses are easy to follow and never misleading at all.

It seems to be a charming place to live; not only characterised by its darkness (and therefore possibly underground) its other chief feature is the never ending mist. Another name for the place (welcome to folklore, where every time we mention something it gets a new name, despite clearly being the same place) is Niflheim or ‘Abode of Mist or ‘Mist World’.

The story goes that Niflheim was the second world created, and placed right next door to Muspelheim, the world of fire. Being naturally cold and damp in Niflheim, the end result was massive clouds of fog and steam. I did read one translation that called it a ‘creating steam’ so maybe it was actually a lovely place once you got there?

Stage One – Ideas!

Well, clearly we can’t just have a world populated four dwarves, that would be sad!

Alternatively, if I grouped dwarves into clans, then that sorts out the population issues pretty well. Four major dwarvish clans then, each lead by mighty warriors, named for their respective forebears. I like it.

And since the original dwarf myths are Viking, instead of drawing one big world for these clans to live in, I thought I’d go for a collection on islands. Island chains have very diverse cultures, as each island is encouraged by separation to develop their own very distinct societies, and you just don’t see enough sea-going dwarves in literature, which is an image I really like.

Ch.20 - The Magic that Walks Among UsSo the obvious first thing we need are four main islands, positioned in the North, South, East and West. Since the world of the dwarves had so many different names throughout the recorded sagas, I could see if I can name each of them after a different legend’s moniker.

It might not be an original interpretation, but it’s a start and this map could pretty much be summarised as ‘Hey, It’s a start!’

And we’ll need some smaller islands too, partly because archipelagos have those (I checked), and partly because it gives each clan something to fight for and lose to each other, and win back through feats of strength or cunning, which is good for world-building.

Stage Two – Start Sketching (Badly)

OK, so draw a circle and quickly draw in four rough shapes, one at each point of the compass.

Islands 1Top Tip Time: If you are anything like me and feel the inescapable urge to have everything be perfect on the first try, I recommend closing your eyes for this bit. No really, close your eyes when you draw. You’re only drawing rough shapes anyway, and it will help you combat the urge to over-think everything.

I always find it a lot easier to develop and ‘fix’ something that already exists than try to create the sublimely perfect on the first attempt.

Still, looking at it now: Urgh!

Whoever saw a cluster of islands so regimented? And what on earth do I do with all that blank space in the middle?

I suppose I could do something like add another island in the middle, but then I’d have to name it and find a use for it…

No, I don’t like that idea, let’s have another go…

Stage Three – If At First You Do Not Succeed…

Brief Philosophical Moment: In try not to apologise for my weird little drawings anymore – bad first drafts lead to good final drafts. Blank paper leads to nothing.

Keep trying until you find something that works for your eyes, and then you’ll have the confidence to share it with others!

Islands 2OK, Round 2; here we come!

So this time, I’ve tried to sort-of squish the islands together a bit, crowding out some of that blank space with islands I actually want to be there.

And I’ve tried to give the islands a bit of a curve, closing the loop a bit to give a sens eof a complete little world.

Down at the bottom I’ve tried to give a sense that these islands are at least a little bit the product of contimental drift, like how Africa was once joined up with South America.

I’ve tried to combat the sense that everything’s too artifical with a perfect circle formation by gently off-setting the islands so that none of them are truly North, South, etc.

Islands 3This isn’t a bad try, but I’m pretty sure I can refine it.

Hang on.

OK, Round 3 is up and running. Now we’re even more squished up, and un-regimented. What do you think?

I feel like this map really shows my patented ‘Close your eyes and scribble, it probably won’t be as hideous as you think’ technique.

There’s a weird sense of freedom when you try this, and especially when you don’t really know what you want, it’s a helpful starting point.

At the very worst, you’ll open your eyes and think ‘OK, not that then.’ Drawing by process of elimination is as good a technique as any, I say!

I’ve added in a few little islands here and there, but all in all I’m pretty happy with this, let’s make this sketch look like an actual map, shall we?

Stage Four – Details!

This exercise has mostly been about finding a way to draw a cluster of islands I liked the look of, so when I say ‘Details’ what I mean is ‘An outline that doesn’t look like abstract art’.

Islands 4OK? OK.

And here we go! If you’re wondering how we got from Attempt 3 to Attempt 4, then the answer is fairly simple.

I put Attempt 3 under a blank sheet of paper, so that only the barest outline would show through. No tracing paper or light-behind-the-page technique, as that only encourages me in my over-thinking and tendancy to try to copy as much as possible from the previous draft.

Then I took a deep breath, made sure not to hold the pencil too tight and tried for the absolute most wiggly outline I possible could!

I’m actually really proud of the end result, and I have a bad tendancy towards drawing these smooth, flowing lines for coastlines, and they never look even remotely real. Just check out my last map for a good example!

You can see (hopefully) that in places I strayed a long way out of in from my guidelines, but that only helps the disorganisation of natural forms, I think.

All in all, I’m really pleased with this! Not bad for not knowing what I was doing!

What Next?

So, the next step for this map is enlarge it, make several copies of it and then start trying out different internal designs. Where to put the mountains and rivers and things.

But that’s for another day, and another map!

If you liked this post, why not check out the mapping mini-series masterpost for more ruminations about drawing and a discussion about a few uses for maps in a fantasy story?

Posted in Ivan's Adventures, Short Stories

A Cup of Dragon

Greetings all! I interrupt your week to show you this: Ivan has found himself a teacup to sleep in and it’s adorable!

Who’s the cutest dragon? Yep, you are!

Behold the Cuteness!

Sorry, I probably should have warned you. Too much sweetness can be fatal, I hear.

Anyway, I was trying to find a tea-related dragon story to share with you all and have yet to be successful, which is a shame.

But all is not lost!

Indeed I do have a drink-related tale to tell, and I hope that you will find it to be a suitable substitute?

We are returning to Ireland, a place we haven’t visited since St Patrick’s day. Back then we remembered the fearsome Lig-na-Baste, but today’s story is a little funnier, despite the dragon being even bigger!

The Ollipeist’s Very Difficult Nap

The Ollipeist was a big dragon – no, not big, the Ollipeist was a huge dragon.

The clue is in his name: in Irish Gaelic ‘Oll’ means ‘great’ and ‘Peist’ means ‘fabulous beast’. I like to imagine him being all decked out in gems and shiny things, like Smaug but there’s no evidence that this was so. It would have been pretty fabulous though.

What we do know is that it took a whole lake for the Ollipeist to sleep in. Now most dragons used to sleep in the bends of rivers and little underground pools deep in the mountains, but that would not have fitted the Ollipeist. He was far too big to have fitted in such a tight spot.

You’re very fabulous too, Ivan. I promise, no other dragon can out-fabulous you, stop looking like that!

Sidenote: Dragons like to sleep in water to help support their huge forms while they are unable to keep shifting their weight. Failure to solve such a problem can lead to a dragon effectively suffocating under its own body-weight, despite the strength of its ribs. Ivan’s a little too small for this to be a problem, but the tea cup seems to give him a better night’s sleep regardless.


The Ollipeist was a gentle giant, despite his huge size, he spent his time quietly swimming in his lake and talking to people who came to visit him. The Ollipeist liked people, and people liked him. On sunny afternoons he would come out of the lake and bask in the sunshine and the braver people might come close enough to tickle his belly and see if they could make him laugh.

Sadly, Saint Patrick had undertaken to drive all the dragons out of Ireland along with their snake and serpent cousins, and it is entirely understandable that the Ollipeist was upset when he heard this. A generally peaceful and benign dragon, rather than roaring and destroying whole villages, the Ollipeist instead went to go and sulk in his lake.

Dragons are very serious and dignified.

Sadly, just as the Ollipeist was about to fall into a grumpy nap, along the road comes a piper – a local lad called O’Rourke. O’Rourke had been celebrating a friend’s birthday, drinking after playing his pipes for the dancing, and as such was utterly sloshed.

Now, there are doubtless many people who can be completely drunk and still play beautifully, but O’Rourke was not such a man. He played with much enthusiasm, but with a skill completely unworthy of his more sober talents.

The Ollipeist grumbled to himself even more and tried to sink under the surface of the water to block out the noise.

It wasn’t working.

Yes, Ivan, even you can be dignified sometimes. Sometimes.

He tried blowing bubbles at the piper, and making the ground shake to show that he was in no mood to be disturbed, but O’Rourke remained cheerfully oblivious.

Finally the Ollipeist had had enough. With a great wave of water, the dragon rose out of his lake, reached out with his long neck and swallowed O’Rourke in one gulp!

Swallowing him down, the Ollipeist sank back into his lake. Maybe he felt a little bit bad about eating the piper, but at least the noise had stopped.


Luckily for O’Rourke, Ollipeist was so big that he made it past the dragon’s teeth, down his throat and into his huge stomach entirely unharmed.

Not that it made much difference to him at the time, for he was still far too drunk to have realised his predicament. With the grace of the truly inebriated, he hadn’t even dropped his pipes in the excitement, and he continued to march up and down the, to him, strange squishy cave, playing away just as he had before.

The Ollipeist groaned to himself. Was there no end to his terrible day? And now the noise was coming from his own body, so there was no escaping the awful racket the piper was putting out.

No Ivan, you don’t need to flee your tea cup, I promise no one’s coming to get you!

Some days it’s hard to be a dragon.

He tried to see if he could sleep through the noise, in case his mass had muffled the sound or the piper would stop soon?

No such luck. If anything the music was even louder now, and the piper’s marching back and forth was giving him a tummy ache.

Finally the Ollipeist could take it no longer and with a bit of wiggling and heaving all round, he was able to spit O’Rourke out again. He gave the man a bit of a push in the direction of the party he had left, and sank back below the water again.

Maybe the water would soothe the aches in his head and his stomach? Maybe when O’Rourke has staggered far enough away the Ollipeist could get some sleep and it would all be better in the morning?

Happily, in the end the Ollipeist was never killed.

Unfortunately Saint Patrick did eventually come after him, and the Ollipeist had to run away from him, fleeing to the ocean. As he fled, his tail carved the great Shannon Valley.

For more dragon stories, check out Ivan’s many adventures here.

New to this blog? Check out some of my other series down here:

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Posted in Chronicles in Creation

So You Want To Draw A Map? – Part 3

A Kingdom for the Oak King

Right! Now on to the actual map-drawing!

(Note: If you’ve just stumbled into this post and are wondering what’s going on, please check out the series Masterpost for some form of context)

Norwich-Cathedaral-Green-Man-1So waaay back before Easter I did a little series talking about turning some big figures of folkloric legend into real, believable characters, and one of those was Jack O’Green, or The Oak King. So I know what he’s like, but what of his kingdom?

Now, with a character like Jack, who’s effectively the God of Nature and Green Stuff, it would be really easy to just picture and reference a huge forest and call it a day, but try drawing a map of that place and I worry that it could get boring for readers (and writers!) really easily. There’s only so much to be said and inferred from trees, after all.

First Things First…

So, why do I need to draw this map?

Well, one of the reasons why I needed to start tackling The Oak and Holly Kingdoms first was because I am working off a blank sheet here.

See, when I sit down to do Tir na Nog for the Fairy Queen, with her Seelie and the Erlking’s Unseelie courts, I’ll have something to work from. There are stories that tell me something about what can be found in that kingdom, people travel there (more or less willingly) and items originate there. I have clues I can start to piece together into something I like.

Green_Man_ceiling_boss_at_St_Helen_Witton_Church,_Northwich,_CheshireThe Green Man, on the other hand… He just doesn’t have anything like that.

The Green Man is quite literally a ‘Figure of Folklore’ in that he is a lone person, a character, an image… and nothing else. I said before that there aren’t really stories about him, he’s not a major feature in any legends; he’s a bit like Tom Bombadil in that he shows up, dances and sings and feeds everyone good things and then waltzes right out of your life with nary a ripple.

He has no named castle or palace to live in, no one goes on a quest to bargain or steal a MacGuffin from him, he doesn’t kidnap a fair maiden away to his lands. He’s a figure in green who dances at May Day celebrations and he shows up in church carvings.

That’s not a lot to work from…

Ch.5 The Power of Names -smallNow, there are some wonderful people out there who can work really well from a blank page, but I am definitely not one of them! I need some form of structure to hang my ideas off of, and so, to the drawing board we go!

The map doesn’t need to be especially detailed, or even close to what the kingdom will eventually look like.

When I don’t know what a place looks like, I just draw any and all options I can think of until I find one I like. It’s like a sped up form of evolution, where any ideas I think are especially good make it over from one draft to the next, and the weaker ones drop off until I have something I think works really well.

This map is not going to end up as a finished or final draft. It’s a first draft and all writers know what happens to first drafts! Mwahahahahaha!

Stage One – Ideas!

So before I started drawing, I sat down and thought about what I could include in a kingdom dedicated to a Nature God. I thought to myself, ‘Well, hey, obviously plants, but there are plenty of plant-environments out there, let’s include as many as possible.’

Top Tip Time: When setting off on world-building missions, I watch a lot of David Attenborough. Nature came up with cool ideas long before we got hold of them, and seeing the huge scale and complexity of the world we live in helps me think of options I had simply not considered. Look at the themed shows; they’re different environments, areas that can support life which you might not have thought of, how specialised life has to be to survive in certain climates, and areas that will support a lot of lifeforms together.

So here’s a short list of the one’s I thought would go together well:

  • Coniferous Forest
  • Deciduous Forest
  • Grass lands/Plains
  • Heath-land/Moorland
  • Swamps
  • Marshes
  • Arctic Tundra
  • Desert

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3Those last two may seem a bit weird to include to you, but my rational was that there is still plant-life in both of these environments, and they are both fascinating and really tough. For a fairy-tale world rooted deeply in a sense of dark pragmatism, it seemed appropriate to include some of the toughest vegetation on the planet.

Also, I did think about including such things as rain-forests and mangrove swamps, but I wasn’t sure I could get everything onto one landmass and I just can’t quite see Jack O’Green, famously English folkloric figure hanging out in a rain-forest.

Stage Two – Start Sketching (Badly)

Right, so having gathered up my various different areas to be included, I needed to sketch out where and how they would fit together. I started at the top and bottom, putting in the desert in the South where it could be expected to be warmer, and the tundra in the north, which is appallingly Northern-hemisphere of me, and I now that people in Australia or New Zealand have a different experience. Sometimes you just end up going with what you know, but I’d be really interested in seeing a different take on fantasy maps that play around with the notions of compass directions and whatnot.

Landmass 1

So currently my sketch looks like this:

(I know that I can’t spell Deciduous, I’m sorry…

I write because spelling is hard!)

Anyway, you can see that I basically just squished what started out as circles of environment together into this overlapping mass of different lands. The idea being that all of these places would have their own cultures and peoples living there, but it still feels very much like one kingdom ruled by one person who has a specific ascetic going on.

I experimented a lot in this early stage with where to put things, and how big certain areas would be, and I was still tinkering with it even while moving the drawing onto the next stage! You’ll probably note that all my maps start out with this big slightly ugly sketching stage where I just play around with vague ideas until things start to feel right.

I recommend making all your early sketches look a little bit messy and unattractive – it makes throwing away a bad idea much easier than it will be if you put time and effort into making it look all pretty and fantastical, only to decide that you don’t like the ideas it’s illustrating so much now you’ve slept on it for a week.

Stage Three – Insert Backbones

Right! No more disembodied shapes, now to make it look like a real map!

First to draw a coastline, it’s not a very imaginative one, but this is only a first draft after all. I need to get better at this whole ‘wiggly line’ thing, because fighting my urge to just draw straight from A to B is not what coastlines are all about!

Landmass 2

And to add in some mountain ranges to start dividing up the kingdom a bit. Not too much following of the old sketch-lines, but then again landscapes don’t tend to follow nice interlocking curves anyway.

A big mountain range to separate the desert part a bit, and a little off-shoot range to make the grass-lands look a bit more interesting. (No, I’m not avoiding drawing grass for ages, what are you talking about?)

Lots more mountains in the north, but I associate pine forests and heaths with mountains anyway, so I guess that makes sense. The marshland has been squished out a little, I may need to think about that a bit more…

Too much mountain? Possibly, but I like drawing mountain ranges, and I’m not all that great at trees on maps, so maybe that’s best for everyone! I need to put some serious practice into drawing forests at some point, but it is not this day.

Stage Four – Details!

Right, let’s turn all these elements into a proper map, shall we?

Landmass 3There’s rivers and lakes to be added, trees to put in and grass to draw. I put in some lighter lines on the mountains so they look prettier (I have priorities, you know, and mountains are all of them…)

Please excuse the terrible place-holder names! As everyone who’s read my Power of Names post knows, this is not an area I have a whole lot of imagination in at all!

Does anyone have any tips on how to draw swampland to look different from marshland? I had absolutely no idea, so it’s been left blank for a bit until I think of something! Any recommendations in the comments will be gratefully received!

I jotted in a couple of places I could imagine a city being positioned too, although taking a second look at this, none of them are near a good source of water, so the second attempt at this map is definitely going to be tackling this problem better!

What Next?

Well, I once wrote a post, In Defence of Doing Nothing, which I swear wasn’t totally an advert for idleness! Essentially I believe in letting ideas sit for a bit before going back to them. Like with editing, it gives me a bit of distance to decide if I’m attached to an idea or not.

So there’ll be some other maps and whatnot, I’ll have a bit of a play around and do a bit more research to see if there’s any folklore that I think I can make off with and apply.

Then I’ll redraw the map, probably a bit larger. There were a few places on this draft that got a bit squished as I ran out of space, so a bit of extra space will be a bonus. It will also allow me to put more detail in, and think about what kind of settlements Jack O’Green’s lands would need or want.

As always, I hope that this was helpful to some of you and interesting at least for others!

If you did like this post, do check out the Chronicles in Creation series here, and if you have any cool ideas for The Green Man’s kingdom, please do drop me a note in the comments – it’s great to hear what other people think after all!

See you next time, everyone!


Posted in Ivan's Adventures

Happy St George’s Day! (The Legend of the Lambton Worm)

Hi everyone! You’ve seen a lot of Ivan’s escapades recently, but we could hardly let the Feast of Saint George go by without celebrating it, could we?

Now, you’re all on a solemn oath not to tell Ivan about why we celebrate Saint George just yet, OK? I’m trusting you on this! He’s got hold of the idea that Saint George is the dragon and this is hilarious and adorable! His excitement at the idea of a whole day dedicated to dragons is very sweet to behold.

Ivan’s only a young dragon after all. Saint Patrick was bad enough and all he did was throw all the serpents out of Ireland!

That said, enjoy Ivan hoarding up all the red-and-white books he can find and sit back for a good old English dragon story to celebrate the day!


The Legend of the Lambton Worm

There are some myths which we tell our children, and they are epic and full of great lessons and would make for a really good Hollywood blockbuster (if they haven’t already.)

And then there are the ones which I refuse to believe only I hear and think ‘this absolutely made the front page of the medieval local newspapers.’

The legend of the Lambton Worm is one such story, and incidentally is another contender for that animated children’s TV series I want the BBC to start making pronto! Everything about it is kind of amazing and cool, but is simultaneously one man’s utter idiocy made manifest.

Our story begins with one John Lambton, a young lad who decided to skip going to church one Sunday in favour of going fishing. As he snuck off to the river, he was hailed by an elderly lady, the local wise woman. She frowned sternly at John, telling him solemnly that “nothing good can come of fishing on the Sabbath.” John only laughed at her, and continued on his way.


There is an old saying in fishing circles that “there’s a fine line between fishing and standing on the shore like an idiot,” and apparently John Lambton combined both perfectly. He caught absolutely nothing the whole time church was in session, but once the church service was ended he finally got a bite. To his disappointment, John had not caught himself a good-sized fish however, but a teeny tiny worm of some kind. He didn’t know what it was and thought to take it home with him to ask his father.

It was only as he had walked halfway back to his home that he realised the flaw in his brilliant plan; his father would surely want to know where John had found this creature, and John would have to explain his choice to go fishing instead of going to church. Recognising that his father would take something of a dim view of this mischief, John resolved the problem by simply chucking the worm into a nearby well.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, John Lambton grows up and goes off to fight in the Crusades for seven long years and in his absence all matter of evil was wrought on those he left behind.

Because the teeny tiny worm that John threw into the well began to grow. And grow. And grow and grow and grow. The well became poisoned in the end and the Worm began to venture outside of it to feast on the sheep and cattle in the surrounding fields. And still it grew!

Penshaw Monument on Penshaw Hill – note the ridges all around the hillside from the Lambton Worm’s coils squeezing it tightly in its sleep.

Soon the local farmers and villages began to notice that they had far fewer animals than they ought, and to their horror they found the great Worm, having totally out-grown the well by now, had coiled itself around Penshaw Hill to sleep through the daytime. Having eaten so many sheep and cows, the Worm began to raid the villages too, taking and eating small children. And yet it was so big by now that there was nothing anyone could do to stop it or keep it out!

They turned to the aged Lord Lambton for help. He was far too old to fight the creature, but he was a wise man who had seen much of the world. Lord Lambton finally succeeded in minimising the danger by drugging the Worm daily with the milk of nine cows, enough to fill up a huge stone trough. The Worm was so full after such a rich drink that it was no longer inclined to hunt and eat livestock or children anymore. But things could not go on like this forever…

Thankfully it was at this point that young John Lambton, older and perhaps just a little bit wiser returned home from the Crusades. He was, as you may expect, surprised at the devastation he returned to. The people around Lambton were too tired and plagued by misfortune to greet him with much enthusiasm.

His father, Lord Lambton, explained to John what had befallen the place in his absence, and John, realising the connection between the little worm he had discarded on the estate many years before and the monster which terrorised them now, was sufficiently repentant to declare that he would kill the Lambton Worm.


“Meanwhile,young Lambton had repented of his youthful imprudences,and knowing that the growth of the worm was the outcome of his Sabbath-breaking, he determined on slaying the fierce monster. Consequently, after consulting a wise woman, he armed himself in a coat of mail studded with razor blades, and went down to the river side in search of the serpent, which he found coiled round a tree.” North Country Sketches, Notes, Essays and reviews, 1893

In a turn of events which at the very least illustrates John Lambton having acquired something in the way of good sense in his travels, John did not go crashing down to Penshaw Hill to slay the beast (or, more likely, be eaten by it!) No, instead John went very humbly and politely to speak with the wise woman whose wisdom he had spurned once before.

She was not pleased to see him, and told him in no uncertain terms of the pain he had brought to people he was beholden to. She did not mince her words in the slightest as she expounded her opinion on his foolish actions and lack of forethought in taking a creature from its proper home and depositing it without thought in a land it was not suited to. Away from the sea, to which it was doubtless swimming from its spawning grounds, the Worm had been forced to turn to other sources of food, and now it must be killed for this.

John’s guilt and embarrassment at her words may be imagined.

Illustration of the legend of the Lambton Worm, English fairy and other folk tales, by Edwin Sidney Hartland, 1890

Having thoroughly scolded John for his youthful mistakes, the wise woman sat him down at last and told him what to do. He must have fixed to his armour, she said, as many blades and razors as he could she said, for the creature seemed to kill its prey by crushing them to death between its massive coils. The blades would protect against this.

John stood up to leave, much relieved to have both good advice and a ready escape from the wise woman’s words. To his dismay she curtly told him to sit himself back down, for she had not yet finished. As punishment for his thoughtless actions which had harmed farmers, bereaved families and would now lead to the death of a creature entirely out of its natural place in the world, when once John Lambton had killed the Worm, he must then kill the first thing to meet him on his return home. If he failed, she warned, then a full nine generations of his family would not die in their beds…

John tried to protest, but the wise woman would hear none of it and at last John was obliged to take his leave and explain to his father what must be done to free the land of the Lambton Worm… and why the price was being exacted.

The two men hatched a plan between them in the hopes of minimising the damage. Once John had slain the beast, he would blow three blasts on his hunting horn. His father, Lord Lambton, would then release John’s beloved hunting hound which would run to greet him and though John would be deeply grieved to lose his old friend, his father declared that it would be the least to be paid for all that had occurred.

Off John Lambton went in his bladed armour, off to seek and kill the Lambton Worm. His found it at last, down by the river where the whole nightmare had begun. The Worm tried to coil itself around John, but it only succeeded in cutting itself to shreds on his armour and John’s sword finished the job. As the Lambton Worm lay dying, John gave the agreed upon three blasts with his horn.

But Justice is not evaded so easily, now is it?

For John’s father, Lord Lambton had spent a very long and worried day wondering what the fate of his son should be, especially so soon after returning from war. Yes, he was angry with the lad’s poor decisions, but a father’s love cannot be shaken by youthful misdeeds, and he was at his wits’ ends as the sun began to sink in the sky. Finally he heard the three blows from his son’s hunting horn and in his relief and excitement he entirely forgot to release the hunting hound, and ran to greet his son instead!

Oh the despair John Lambton felt as his father embraced him on his return! He tried to avert the disaster by running to kill his hound as soon as possible, but it was too late, and he certainly could not bring himself to slay his father!


And so the Lambton Curse was cast, and the Lambton worm was avenged.

Ah, but perhaps you do not believe in curses, hmm? Well, records are not so easy to come by, I’ll grant you, but this much is certainly known. For Robert Lambton, he drowned in the river at Newrig, and Sir William Lambton was killed in the first battle of the English Civil War at Marston Moor. And William Lambton, his son, died in battle at Wakefield in that same war, so he did.

It is commonly agreed upon that the last Lambton to die from the Curse was Henry Lambton, who died in his carriage while crossing the Lambton Bridge on 26 June 1761. And even those who lived did not escape entirely sane – Henry’s brother, General Lambton, kept a horse whip by his bedside the whole of his life in the hopes of warding off an untimely demise. Perhaps it worked after all, for the General did indeed manage to die in his bed, of old age…

As always, the lesson is clearly to listen when wise ladies tell you to stop doing something foolish and to leave strange mythical creatures where you found them instead of bringing them home!

Hope you enjoyed the retelling, and see you next time!

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Making Men of Myths – Part 3

Welcome back from Making Men of Myths – Part 2. This is a direct follow on from the previous post, which was split due to length. If you’re interested in the Fairy Queen and her tragic, tragic life, then go back and read that post if you haven’t already!

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3

The Three Brothers

One of my initial biggest problems when I was creating characters was that I had three characters who were very similar in some things. They were all representative of nature-based mythos, they were all so old it’s hard to find the start of their stories and they tended be depicted as looking very similar.

The solution was obvious; make them into brothers and then the similarities are a natural product of their relationship, and only serve to make them more interesting as a group. Families are always interesting and having a set of three brothers is just one of those ancient concepts that keeps cropping up so often that it’s like a trope of folklore before ‘tropes’ were even a thing. So many stories begin with ‘Once upon a time there were three brothers’ that you could build an entire sub-genre by this point.

The Erlking

The Erlking very much takes on the persona of the Eldest Brother from the trope; he is the proudest, he’s focused on persona gain rather than the good of others, but is cunning and unscrupulous in how he achieves those goals. If this were a traditional fairy tale, he’d be undone by these faults, but let’s face it, folklore is not only about teaching small children good morals, and the ‘good people’ don’t always win.

Erlkönig, Moritz von Schwind

In terms of anything concrete, the Erlking has basically one source for me; in 1782, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem called “Erlkönig” in which a little boy dies as a result of being chased down by the Erlking who steals his … soul? Life force? It’s not really clear to me. All the while his father tells him that there’s nothing chasing their horse through the woods, it’s all just the fog, although he seems less convinced as the journey continues, and when they arrive at their home, the boy is dead. Like all of the really simple horror stories, it’s absolutely horrifying if you read it for yourself, because for a long time the reader’s not sure what’s real either.

“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Der Erlkönig, Carl Gustav Carus

The Erlking’s name literally means ‘Elf-king’ and once again we’re looking at the Power of Names here, because I decided to just leave his name at that. No first name, or any kind of moniker outside of that title. Giving something a name humanises it; I name all my computer equipment for that exact reason (I feel less stupid while I swear at the printer if I’ve named it) and a character who genuinely does not have a name, only a title to identify himself by is intrinsically unsettling. Especially if he chooses that for himself.

The poem shows the Erlking killing a little boy, and references that he has daughters accompanying him on this hunt, although he promises the boy that the daughters will play games with him, and dance and sing with him. He wears a crown and a cloak, and seems to be pretty scary to look at because having caught sight of him, the boy hides his face in fear. And that’s it.

“My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through dry leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

It might not be a lot, but like keeping his title as his name, I liked the idea that the Erlking is always seen wearing the marks of his authority, a crown and a cloak of gold (in the poem, there’s a reference to the Erlking’s mother giving out golden robes). It seemed fitting because the Erlking’s name translates as ‘Elf king’ the ruler of the Unseelie Court of Fairies (the ones who will not only steal your soul, but will almost certainly eat you, and/or make you suffer for all enternity.) It also further helps to distance the Erlking from the reader; wealthy and powerful, yet scary to look at.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

Goethe_erlkonigThe sort of character who hunts down and kills little boys while they hide in their fathers’ arms is totally consistent with the kind of man who would leave his wife broken-hearted after stealing her children away from her. Combined with his title of ‘Elf King’, it seemed completely natural to make him Maeve’s Fairy King, which also raises the uncomfortable question of the Erlking’s daughters. Did the Erlking turn them into the child-killing monsters they are in the poem, or were they like that already? I decided to bring up the idea in the stories, but leave the answer very much unclear – there’s something far more unsettling about both Maeve and the Erlking if you aren’t completely clear whether their children were changed by the Erlking or if they’d always prayed on the souls of innocents.

Jack O’Green, the Oak/Holly King

Jack has struggled as a character for me, for the longest time he had ‘Second Brother’ from Three Brothers Stories written all over him; he makes the same mistakes as Eldest Brother, is just as proud, but not as inventive. Which is a bit of a shame, but then I realised that he was based off such a vague concept, of course he was dull!

There are three main figures I pulled from with Jack and they are all short on details.

A roof boss in 16th century ceiling of St Helen Witton Church, Northwich, Cheshire

He started out purely as The Green Man, a figure carved into buildings, especially churches, since before the Roman times. He’s usually recognised as a representation of fertility, rebirth (hence the church-thing) and Nature as a whole. The problem here is that ‘Nature spirit’ doesn’t tell us very much; it’s not a legend with a story that you can get a sense of character out of. When he’s connected with vegetation deities (what with being made out of foliage) he’s usually associated with ones patronising forests, ‘wild fields’ and groves, so I took a strong sense of ‘Wildness’ for his character – still broad, but at least it was a start.

Green man in Norwich Cathedral, East Anglia

He got his name from the tradition of the Jack O’Green, also known as Jack-in-the-Green, a figure of the older more … bawdy… May Day celebrations and, for reasons I’m not completely clear on yet but still looking into, chimney sweeps. This figure is a man dressed completely in foliage who often leads the processions, and dancing, and he dates back to the mid-sixteenth century in some parts of England. I’ll be honest, the most I got from this was his name and a love of parties and drinking in a kind-of Bacchic tradition of wildness and unrestrained behaviour – dangerous, sure (see the legend of the first Bacchanalia and shudder), but mostly fun.

Whitefield Green Man by Paul Sivell

The biggest part of his make-up came from the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. For those who love themselves some gruesome legends, the story goes that every year in autumn, the Holly King battles and slaughters the Oak King so he can reign over the world in Winter (the Oak King being dismembered is why the leaves turn red in Autumn; they’ve been stained so by the Oak King’s blood). The Oak King is reborn and rejuvenated in Spring, however, and battles the Holly King and defeats him, so he reigns over Summer. There are a lot of folk traditions surrounding this myth and some of them are more bloody than others, but the general theme of most vegetation deities’ legends is that they are horribly killed and sacrificed for winter, and then regrow in spring. This is far more appealing to my gory taste than Demeter being sad that her daughter ran off with Hades.

This probably tells you something terrible about me… Oops.

Anyway, I tried out the idea of making Jack into two people, maybe having Four Brothers, maybe taking Jack out of the group altogether (deciding against that option as I really liked the Three Brothers story idea, by the way) and then I came to a solution.

Now I recognise that this only really works because Jack is a very mythological character and therefore the rules of what is normal are very different. But the best solution I could find, which would also give me plenty to work with on making Jack interesting in his own right and not simply as an extension of his brothers, would be to have two personalities for Jack, a summer-time Oak King and a winter-time Holly King. I could make the Oak King a fun, mostly benevolent thrower of parties, and the Holly King a pricklier, sharper (pun!) figure who’s very practical and pragmatic, interested in getting his people through this time of hardship. They’d both be rulers over all the nature-based spirits in Fey, and interested in their well-being, but the Oak King could be all ‘buck up, there’s free food and good music, things will be fine and there probably won’t be a drunken brawl later’ and the Holly King could be more ‘my people are more defenceless than ever and you will harm them over my cold and rotted corpse’.

Success! It took a lot of very different myths to make Jack into a whole person, but it was definitely worth the effort, and shows how tiny fragments can be stitched together into something new and yet not totally unrelated.

Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter has one very distinct starting point – Shakespeare. And as is often the way with Shakespeare, we don’t really know where he picked the idea up from, or how much he changed it. Anyway, in The Merry Wives of Windsor there’s this little bit of dialogue:

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes 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.


So Herne is written as a ghostly figure, he’s got chains and appears at midnight and in the winter, which is pretty normal for a ghost. But he’s also a little weird in that ghosts of this time don’t tend to cause cows to produce blood rather than milk (lovely) and there definitely aren’t any ghostly stags.

Herne_the_Hunter (2)
Illustration by George Cruikshank, scanned by Steven J Plunkett

The things that interested me in Herne the hunter however, are (of course) the horns, but also the way “he blasts the tree” which suggests lightning to me. And the reason this is interesting is that I naturally connected this to the Wild Hunt.

Wodan’s Wilde Jagd, Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

The Wild Hunt has a lot of variations; it’s a staple right across European folklore, wherever you go, the Wild Hunt will be there somewhere. Its general tale goes like this: there’s a ghostly hunt of men, horses and hounds, that rides through the night in a wild bloodlust. There’s usually a terrible storm when the Wild Hunt rides by, and even over the awful sounds of the wind and rain and thunder, you can still hear the dogs baying and the horns of the huntsmen. The riders are sometimes elves or demons or the dead, and the leader is always named; it can be Odin, but it also could be led by any number of biblical figures.

In England the legend goes that an Anglo-Saxon king, Herla, along with his hunting companions, chase a stag through the Underworld for a day and a night and when he returned he found that it was now three hundred years later. He and his hunt are cursed that they must always keep riding until a special white hound jumps down from Herla’s horse. One huntsman panics, tries to dismount before this happens and he crumbles to dust as those three centuries catch up to him all at once. The Hunt still rides on to this day, all the time getting further and further from the time they have known, which makes me wonder if by now they ever want to stop riding…

Over time these legends have been conflated a little, and one version I was told said that Herle was a Huntsman to Richard III (?) and was grievously wounded by a stag while out hunting. He passed out but came around to see a mysterious figure standing over him offering to heal him in return for working for a new master. Herle accepts (presumably because he didn’t listen to his mother’s fireside stories) and the figure heals him but is revealed to be the devil (because of course he was). The devil fixes the stags horns onto Herle’s head as a reminder of his bargain and sets him to work as the Devil’s Huntsman, doomed to chase down and catch the souls of the damned and drag them into Hell.


Gundestrup Cernunnos

Anyway, there are also a lot of horned gods who share appearances with the description of Herle, Cernunnos being the most notable, and so he’s also acquired a reputation as a god or spirit of the wild forests and nature as well, which is why he and Jack being brothers works so well. And his hunting down of people ties him to the Erlking, so you can see why it was easier to put the three of them into a group rather than work to distance each from the other. Bonding them together with their similarities was much more compelling, but making them all different was necessary too.

Herne is very much the Youngest Brother out of the trope, although I’d be the first to admit not on first impression. Like his brothers, he’s proud and brash and has a potential for danger even in advance of the world he lives in. Herne, very much like his brothers, essentially exudes a constant impression that you would not like to run into him in a dark alleyway, he’s the embodiment of ‘Wild’, an untamed being who’s unpredictable and cunning.

The thing that is interesting and distinct (to me) about the Youngest Brother from the Three Brothers Story tradition is how his completely different approach to his older brothers is what wins him through. He is unconventional from the environment he’s been set up in. Traditionally the Youngest Brother is kindly and honourable, but also very straight-forward in his outlook. He therefore either defeats or totally evades the traps laid out on the adventure, which his brothers fall into because of their pride or greed. And yes, I know that this trait is over-used, but well-done versions of this story usually build up this dynamic in interesting ways with good set-up and punch-line beats. For example, if the Younger Brother is starved by his older brothers, then he will later share his food with a starving waif out of empathy and understanding. The Younger Brother has not triumphed from an innate special goodness, but from learning from the actions of his brothers that his actions affect other people.

CordesWildeJagd (1)
Die Wilde Jagd, Johann Wilhelm Cordes

So what could make Herne different and contrast him with his brothers, the Erlking and the Oak King? I suppose I could have made him this kindly, Santa Claus-like figure who rescues orphaned children or something, but … Well, I thought that this wouldn’t sit well with the tone of the stories I was plotting, nor would it gel very well with the kind of world that Fey is. Fey is a world where literally everyone in it is inherently deadly, and an honourable, kindly person still holding a prominent place in the world just isn’t believable.

In the end I made Herne disinterested in power and responsibility. I find Poseidon to be the more intimidating of The Big Three in Percy Jackson because he’s clearly so secure in his own power that he has no need to show any of it, contrasting with Hades and Zeus who can’t stop showing off how powerful they are. Similarly, Herne could be more frightening than his brothers because, despite having a lot of power, he would far rather run around with his Wild Hunt and chase people. Herne’s Hunt would be thirty people strong at most, and the fact that he would still garner as much attention in Fey as the Erlking ruling the Unseelie court and the Oak King with all his nature spirits says a lot more than words can.

So there we have it, a set of mythical brothers to clash and come together and scare the pants off everyone else! And it only took somewhere in the region of twenty different stories and myths and one Shakespearean play to get us here, too!

Thanks for staying with me for all three parts of this piece! If you enjoyed this and found it useful, check out the rest of the series here.