While sharing a few homebrews with Frank, we somehow got on the subject of wyrms. He recalled The Lambton Wyrm, a song he’d often hear in Northumberland back when Newcastle Exhibition was unfiltered and tapped from wooden casks. It’s about a knight who slays a dragon – or “wyrm” – who lives in a well and terrorizes the land.

lambton wyrm

The Wonderful Legend of the Lambton Worm (image source)

It all starts when the knight John Lambton goes fishing on a Sunday morning he really should have been at church. He catches a strange little worm-thing and throws it in a well. Years later, he goes fighting in the Crusades and we all know from Robin Hood how local leadership behaves when that happens. While John Lambton is away at the Crusades, that little worm-thing grows into a horrible dragon – The Lambton Wyrm.

The Lambton Wyrm did many terrible things. It ate all of the cows, calves, and sheep. It swallowed little birds alive. After that it would wash everything down with the milk of a dozen cows and then coil itself around a mountain. With Good Sir Lambton away what were the people to do?

Well, John Lambton eventually returned home from the Crusades and he triumphantly slew the wyrm, but the satirical legend that remains reminds us that our actions affect others – especially if we are people in positions of power.

Anyway, the story is supposedly set on Easter Sunday 1420 and the most popular version of the legend is a song credited to C.M. Leumane from 1867. It reminds me of a cross between Jabberwocky and Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas – but in a pub. It’s a song all good children in Northumberland learn and are made to perform at school pagents. Here’s a good version:


The chorus is very catchy and goes like this:

Whisht! Lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ aa’ll tell ye aall an aaful story,
Whist! lads, haad yor gobs,
An’ Aa’ll tel ye ‘boot the wyrm.

Now, since I didn’t grow up in Northumberland, my mother never said, “WHISHT, man – Haad your gob!!” to make me quiet. The only context I’d heard the word ‘gob’ used in was in ‘gobbing.’

(I wrote the link to start the clip at 45:22 with Johnny Green talking about people gobbing on The Clash, but it often plays the entire film instead – I can’t think of a better way to spend the night…)

What if gobbing had been only been revived by the British punks? After all, there was a punk group called Siouxsie and the Banshees. Horrified, I wondered if Anglo-Saxon poets had to contend with gobbing in the mead halls. Fortunately my theory was wrong and the line just means something along the lines of, “Hush lads, shut your mouths!” This makes the chorus: “Quiet lads, shut your mouths, and I’ll tell you all an awful story – I’ll tell you about the wyrm!”

This new word for me, Whisht was interesting. It reminded me of the Old English word Hwaet. It is the first word of another story about a dragon slayer from the most famous Anglo-Saxon poem ever – Beowulf.

There’s always been debate over what that word means exactly – and for good reason – after all, it is the opening word of the poem. It sets the tone for the story. It’s meant to be captivating. It’s important. Getting it wrong would be like Joe Schmo masquerading as a sorcerer fudging a word in a spell. Or in this case, Ash:


So, what does Hwaet actually mean? The OED describes it being used “to introduce or call attention to a statement.” Medieval scholars have historically suggested that the word more or less functions as an adverb, offering such translations as, ‘truly’, ‘Hear me!’, ‘What ho!’, ‘Indeed’, and ‘So.’[1] The most popular translation of Beowulf is the one done by the late Seamus Heaney. He used ‘So.’ Though Heaney is a highly celebrated poet, many medieval scholars disagree with his using the word ‘So’ to open Beowulf.

In a recent paper, George Walkden argues that the interpretive effect of hwæt is delivered by hwæt combined with the clause that follows it, not by hwæt alone.[2] In other words, it isn’t used by itself.  He argues that the ‘interjective’ hwæt “is not an interjection or an adverb.” Instead, he compares it to the way we use the word how in Modern English in exclamative clauses such as How you’ve changed!”[3]

Most of the translations of Beowulf agree that ‘hwaet’ is exclamative, however, Walkden takes it a step further by presenting evidence to support the use of the hwaet-clause as exclamative in Beowulf. The most convincing are examples from Jessica Rett’s analyses of the use of hwæt in other sources like the Old English Bede and the Old Saxon Heliland. Using Walkden’s interpretation, the famous opening line from Beowulf:

Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon

Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius

The Opening lines of Beowulf from Manuscript Cotton Vitellius (image: wikipedia)


“How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the Spear-Danes”[4]

So, (sorry, “HWÆT!”) let’s get back to Walkden’s example in Modern English. We wouldn’t say, “HOW! You’ve changed!” – unless… of… course.. it was… William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk reading Beowulf. Which, come to think of it, would be the most awesome performance of Beowulf ever! But since we’ve got medieval scholars to contend with and the modern venue for Beowulf is neither a mead hall or the Starship Enterprise, we know better…

Until then, whichever words we use to begin our own tellings of Beowulf, be they – ‘So’, ‘Whisht lads haad yor gobs’, ‘Once upon a time’, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’, or ‘Back in the day when circles were squares’, the most important thing is that we tell the story of Beowulf – preferably over some homebrews.

[1] George Walkden, “The status of hwæt in Old English,” English Language and Linguistics (Volume 17, issue 3, November 2013), 466. available online: http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/george.walkden/Walkden_2013_hwaet.pdf

[2] Walkden, 466.

[3] Walkden, 466.

[4] Walkden, 481.