Where Dragons Soar: And Other Animal Folk Tales of the British Isles

Where Dragons Soar: And Other Animal Folk Tales of the British Isles

by Pete Castle


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Passed down from generation to generation, the stories in this collection are as ancient and recent, powerful and fantastical, imaginary and magical as the animals of myth and legend they feature. You will find tales of beasts from across the British Isles, from the Hartlepool Monkey and Derby's Flying Donkey to the Black Dog of Peel and Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Read about dragons soaring across snow-tipped mountains, wolves prowling gloomy woods, birds in flight by rugged coastlines, and fish swimming in bottomless lakes. These enchanting tales will appeal to young and old and can be enjoyed by readers time and again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750961868
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 05/01/2016
Series: Folk Tales Series
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Pete Castle is a professional storyteller and folk musician. He appeared at the prestigious Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

Where Dragons Soar

And Other Animal Folk Tales of the British Isles

By Pete Castle

The History Press

Copyright © 2016 Pete Castle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-6859-1


Here Be Dragons

The Knight and the Dragon

    Once upon a time a knight met a dragon.
    'I'm going to kill you,' said the knight.
    'Oh, don't do that,' said the dragon, 'and
    I'll tell you a story.'
    So he began:

    Once upon a time a knight met a dragon.
    'I'm going to kill you,' said the knight.
    'Oh, don't do that,' said the dragon, 'and
    I'll tell you a story.'
    So he began:

    Once upon a time a knight met a dragon.
    'I'm going to kill you,' said the knight.
    'Oh, don't do that,' said the dragon,
    'and I'll tell you a story.'
    So he began:

    Once upon a time a knight met a dragon.
    'I'm going to kill you,' said the knight.
    'Oh, don't do that,' said the dragon, 'and
    I'll tell you a story.'
    So he began:

    Once upon a time a knight met a dragon ...
    and so on for as long as you can bear it!

The most obviously ancient-seeming tales found in Britain are those about dragons and other mysterious beasts. (The fact that they are 'ancient-seeming' doesn't necessarily mean they are actually ancient, of course.) It seems logical to start this collection with a few of those.

Stories and legends about dragon-like creatures are found all over the British Isles, often just as fragments explaining, say, the circular ditches around a prehistoric hill fort (very likely called Worm Hill), but we tend to associate dragons mostly with Wales or Cornwall or the more remote parts of the north. 'Silly Sussex', then, is not the most obvious place to start this first section, but that's what we'll do. (Silly in this sense is from the Anglo-Saxon 'sœlig', meaning 'blessed'.)

A Sussex Dragon

St Leonard's Forest is, today, part of the 'High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty'. It is a cosy, hospitable landscape which stretches from Surrey, through Sussex into Kent. It's typical 'Home Counties', 'Little England', England's 'green and pleasant land' personified. Above all, it is safe. But in the past it was the haunt of dragons!

Way back in the early years of the sixth century CE, St Leonard killed a dragon in the forest which was subsequently named after him. He was injured in the fray and lilies of the valley sprouted where his blood fell. (They still grow abundantly in some parts of the forest.)

He also banished all snakes from the area, but his cleansing was not absolutely perfect for, about a millennium later in 1614, a strange and dangerous creature was reported to be frequenting the overgrown hollows and 'vaultie places' of 'unwholesome shade' in the forest. Its home seems to have been near the village of Faygate but it was seen all over the area to within a few miles of the town of Horsham.

The creature was described as being a serpent or dragon about nine feet long, which left behind it a glutinous trail like that of a snail. The middle part of its body was thicker than the neck and tail, and there grew from its torso two large bunches 'about the size of footballs', which some people thought would eventually grow into wings. This suggests it was thought to be only a young dragon! The dragon was dark in colour, though the underneath tended to red, and round its neck it had a stripe of white scales. Descriptions are vague because the creature could only be seen from a distance.

Although it left behind it a snail-like trail it was by no means snail-like in its speed. If anyone dared to approach too close it would raise its neck and stare round, then, once it had spied its prey, it would race after them on its four stubby legs faster than a man could run. The dragon did not necessarily have to rely on its speed to catch his prey because from a distance of four rods (twenty metres) it could spit venom which caused the target to swell up and die. A man and woman who came upon the dragon by chance suffered in this way, as did the dogs set upon it by another man, as well as various cattle. Humans and cattle do not seem to have been the dragon's favoured foodstuffs, however. Although it killed them, it left them uneaten and seems to have preferred rabbits.

No one seems to know what happened to this creature and it disappeared from legend, although as late as the nineteenth century children were warned to keep out of various areas of the wood for fear of 'monstrous snakes'.

The source of this story is a pamphlet in the Harleian Miscellany with the wonderful title:

A True and Wonderful Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyance and divers Slaughters of both Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poison: in Sussex, two Miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St Leonard's Forrest, and thirtie Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614. With the true Generation of Serpents.

With a title like that they didn't really need to write the story!

The Two Warring Dragons

After a cosy, almost domestic, start in Sussex, let's leap into classic 'dragon lore' for the next story. This is an ancient tale which has been told by many different people in many different times. Each telling is different and serves a different purpose – often political or nationalistic – depending upon the teller and the age. This is my telling, put together from various sources, which sets out to have no purpose other than to make a good story.

Way back in the earliest days of Britain, when there was no sense of one United Kingdom covering the whole island and no king who could command all the country; when there were no English and no Welsh; no Anglo-Saxons and no Celts; when the Romans had yet to bring their roads and walls and their Christian religion. Way back then, in the time of myths, there were two brother kings. Llefelys ruled a kingdom across the sea, in what we now call France, and his brother, Llud, ruled what is now southern England. They were good kings who ruled their kingdoms well and remained good friends. But Llud had a problem.

On the first day of every May, when his people should have been celebrating the end of winter with the raucous, bawdy, spring festival of Beltane, his kingdom was brought to a standstill by hideous screams and shrieks. These noises rang through the skies all over the kingdom and were impossible to ignore. They were so loud that they made the worst thunderstorm you have ever experienced seem tame and harmless. They were so terrible that they caused brave men to go pale and lose all their strength; lesser men lay down and died; women miscarried and animals became barren; the very crops in the fields withered and the new, fresh leaves fell from the trees.

Every year as Beltane approached, Llud's people grew scared and they shut themselves away where they hoped they wouldn't hear the screams – but there was nowhere to escape. They hoped and prayed to their gods that it wouldn't happen again this year, but it always did, and every year the kingdom fell further into rack and ruin. No one could explain the screams, or their effect, so no one knew what to do to counteract them.

One year, when things had reached a terrifying low, Llud went to his brother Llefelys for help, to see if he could offer any explanation. Llefelys had at his disposal all the best brains in Gaul and could summon help from all over the continent and soon he was able to explain Llud's problem. The shrieks and screams, he said, were caused by two dragons engaged in a never-ending battle. As they fought they roared out their pain and anger. To stop the disaster happening every year, Llud would have to stop the dragons fighting. They could not be killed, so he had to capture them and imprison them somewhere from which they could never escape.

Now that he knew what he must do Llud returned home and began making preparations to achieve his aim. The first task was to measure his kingdom from north to south and from east to west and find the dead centre. It turned out to be just outside the town of Oxford. There Llud had a huge watertight pit, or cistern, dug and when it was complete he filled it with mead. An enormous brocaded cloth was made to cover the pit.

On the eve of Beltane, Llud sat beside the pit and saw two terrifying, unimaginable beasts fighting. As they fought they changed. They went through every bloodthirsty animal known to man and many which aren't. They were bears, they were lions, they were basilisks and griffons. They became hounds and wolves, leopards and endless coiling snakes. They grew large, they shrunk small. They tried to trick each other. As the night grew old they changed into dragons and soared into the air to continue their fight. As they swooped and battled they let out the deadly shrieks which had ravaged his kingdom for so long.

After a night of fighting in which first one and then the other dragon had seemed to have the upper hand, they both sank to the ground by the cistern where they changed into giant pigs. Smelling the mead the pigs plunged into the pit and quenched their thirsts with gallons of the intoxicating liquid. Then they collapsed in a drunken stupor. Llud was then able to bind them up in the brocaded cloth and have them transported away to the distant mountains of North Wales, where they were interred in a cave far under the ground where they could do no more harm.

Llud became a hero to his people and ruled them well for the rest of his life. They thought that the threat of the warring dragons was a thing of the past and gradually the suffering they had caused faded from memory. Centuries passed and new peoples came to the country, new wars were fought and new kings ruled. One of these was called Vortigern. Vortigern had made his stronghold in the mountains of Caernarfon in North Wales on an isolated, rocky outcrop. He called it Dinas Ffaraon Dandde, or 'the fortress of the fiery pharaoh'. From there he ruled a wide area of land, but in order to make himself stronger and even more powerful he needed to expand and strengthen his castle. The trouble was, every time he constructed a new tower or a new wall, it cracked and tumbled down.

Vortigern consulted his advisors, all the wisest sages and cleverest magicians he had at his disposal, and they told him that the only remedy was to find a boy who had no natural father and to sacrifice him. But what kind of boy has no natural father? Vortigern eventually found one, a young lad called Merlin whose father was a demon or shapeshifter, so he was 'no natural father'. Although he wasn't a shapeshifter like his father, Merlin did have more than natural powers and he was able to explain that Vortigern's advisors were wrong. Sacrificing him would make no difference. The towers and walls kept falling down, he said, because the castle was built over a vast cave in which two warring dragons were trapped. It was their writhing which shook the ground and caused the towers to fall.

Following Merlin's advice Vortigern ordered his men to dig, and sure enough they opened up a huge underground cavern from which two vast dragons, one red, one white, soared into the skies and continued their age-long battle. All the people were terrified and fled, except Merlin, who stood by the cavern applauding them on. Eventually one of the dragons was defeated and fell to earth, where it died. The other gave a great roar of victory, transformed itself into a huge serpent and crawled off into the earth to await a time when it might return to aid one or other of the peoples of these islands.

Whether the victor was the red dragon of Wales or the white dragon of England depends, of course, on who is telling the story, so I'll leave that to you to decide for yourself.

When is a Dragon a Worm?

The previous story depicts the classic dragon: a gigantic creature with wings, which flies through the air, breathing fire down on to its enemies and collects to itself a hoard of gold that it then guards jealously. That kind of dragon is sometimes found in British folklore, particularly in Welsh tales. It is also the kind of dragon that occurs in more recent fantasy fiction, from Tolkien onwards.

But the real British dragon is a worm – sometimes spelled 'wurm' or 'wyrm'. The word comes from the Germanic languages and is the word for a serpent, a snake or a dragon. (I once stayed for a very short night at a hotel near the German/Austrian border called Hotel Wurm, which had as its sign a sort of 'St George and the Dragon' type picture. As I said, it was a very short night, they didn't speak English and I don't speak German, so I didn't find out whether there was a local legend attached to it, but I'd bet there was. It's a story found worldwide.)

There are plenty of worms in British folklore and it is quite a commonplace name. A quick look at major places in the road atlas comes up with about twenty towns and villages starting with Worm ... some of those are thought to be named after a man named Worm/Wyrm (in other words they are Mr Worm's town), rather than after creatures, but about half are places where snakes were found – Wormwood Scrubs being a prime example.

There is a Worm Hill near Washington in Tyne and Wear, and that is associated with this next famous tale ...

The Lambton Worm

Young Sir John Lambton was the heir to his family fortune and a large estate in County Durham. But he was not interested in estates, and only in fortunes if they meant that he could enjoy himself. Rather than study he preferred to hunt, and rather than go to church on Sunday he preferred to go fishing in the nearby River Wear. That is what he did one fateful Sunday.

On his way to the river young Sir John met one of his father's old retainers, a man who had known him since he was a toddler so wasn't scared of giving him a word of advice. He warned John that no good would come of fishing on a Sunday and he should go back and go to church as all respectable people do. John ignored the old man and went down to the river and set up his gear. It was a perfect morning for fishing and John was a skilled fisherman, but that morning he could catch nothing. (If you are a fisherman I expect you have had mornings like that.)

He could catch nothing ... that is, until he heard the distant church bell ring out the end of the service and at that very moment he felt a tug on the line. Only a small tug, it's true, and when he pulled it in he found on his hook a strange little creature, more like a worm than a fish. It was not much bigger than his thumb and it had nine tiny holes down each side of its head. John didn't know what it was, he'd never seen a fish like it, but he was fascinated by it, so he took it home with him in a jug. By the time he'd got home, though, he'd lost interest. The fish wasn't all that fascinating so he tipped it into a well.

Soon Sir John Lambton went off with other young men of similar rank to fight in the wars in Palestine – the Crusades. They were all hoping for excitement and glory. They wanted riches and adventures and Crusading seemed the surest way of finding them. They were gone for many years.

In the years that Sir John Lambton was away that little worm in the well grew and grew until it was too big for the well and it crawled off to live in the River Wear. At night it would come out and eat all the livestock it could find – cows and sheep and, if it was really hungry, it would rear up its head, poke it through the window of a house, and take small children sleeping in their cradles. Sometimes it would spend the day lazing in the sun with its tail curled round Penshaw Hill, or the nearby hill which now bears its name – Worm Hill.

Word of the monster worm spread near and far and many warriors came and attempted to win themselves glory by killing it. They all failed because any part of the worm they chopped off immediately joined back on and it became whole again. Even if a knight managed to chop the worm in half the two halves always managed to rejoin.

After many years in the Holy Land, Sir John Lambton returned home to find his estates in ruins and his lands barren and empty because of the depredations of the worm. He went into Durham and consulted an old wise woman who advised him on how he should set about killing the worm.

Following her advice, Sir John covered his armour with sharp spikes so that when the worm tried to coil round him parts of it would be cut off. He then went to face it in the middle of the River Wear so that the parts which came off would be swept away by the current and could not rejoin. The old woman also told Sir John that after he had killed the worm he should be sure to kill the first living thing he saw. If he failed to do this, a curse would fall upon his family and none of them would die peacefully in their beds for nine generations. To prevent this from happening Sir John arranged with his father that when the worm was dead he would sound his horn three times. His father would then loose young John's hunting hound, which would run to him and be sacrificed.


Excerpted from Where Dragons Soar by Pete Castle. Copyright © 2016 Pete Castle. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Here Be Dragons,
2 Man's Best Friend,
3 As Wild as a Wolf, as Wily as a Fox,
4 A Game of Cat and Mouse,
5 Down on the Farm,
6 Bread and Circuses,
7 We Three Kings,
8 Here Comes the Cavalry,
9 Hares, Horses and Hedgehogs,
10 Magical Transformations,
11 Exotic Animals,
About the Author,

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