Neil Kettles is a former TGNAer and current school librarian and writer living and working in Ireland. The confusing part is that he’s Scottish and married to a CURRENT TGNAer (guess which one!).
I was re-reading the Osprey “Dragonslayers” book when I came across the story of the “Curse of the Lambton Wyrm”. There were so many great elements to the tale (family curse, improvised armour, prodigal son returning, etc.), yet also so much space within it that I knew I wanted to retell it myself, keeping true to the original story while making it my own.
To that end, here are five ways to make a legend your own!
1. Stretch it out
I imagine stories like this being told in front of a roaring fire, or at bedtime, and consequently, the word count shouldn’t be very long. The versions I’ve read certainly weren’t more than a few thousand words, and whilst that parity brings a sense of drama, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for world-building or character development. I plan to expand the legend into a 25,000 word novella, and will use the extra words to flesh out the setting.
2. Turn tropes into real characters
You know the “wise old woman” who often appears in these sorts of tales for no other reason than to deliver a bit of exposition disguised as dialogue? The “Curse of the Lambton Wyrm” utilises such a plot device – sometimes two, depending on the version – and I want to make her a real person. She will be introduced early in the narrative and her relationship with the protagonist with be well established by the time she gets to say her piece. That’s the theory anyway… now I just need to come up with a suitably un-tropey name for her!
3. Don’t use the whole legend if it doesn’t work for you
With the caveat of course that you shouldn’t cut so much that the end result is unrecognisable as the original legend! I actually need to be careful here, because the part I’m having real trouble with justifying is the curse itself. The titular wyrm/dragon/beastie notwithstanding (and I have a way to make that at least plausible in the context of the setting), the curse is the only supernatural element to the story, and I don’t like it.
4. Draw from other legends that share DNA
The Lambtons are a real family, and in their family tree, there is a “John Lambton, Knight of Rhodes” who lived at the time the wyrm is said to have ravaged the land. Very interestingly, a previous Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes (or Knights Hospitalier, if you prefer) was said to have slain a dragon when he was still a young knight. I want to include a re-telling of this story as part of the “Curse of the Lambton Wyrm”, and try my best to make it relevant to the plot!
5. Practice telling the legend as many times as you can
This is important so that you get the narrative fixed in your head. Keep these versions short – “fireside” length, if you like. Here’s mine:
John Lambton was a young lad who preferred fishing to going to church. One Sunday, he was cursing his luck when he caught an ugly eel in the River Wear. A passer-by told him to kill it before it cursed the land, but instead, John threw it down a well.
Several years later, John took the cross in repentance for his youthful indiscretions, and was gone for seven years. While he was away, the eel grew into a giant wyrm that attacked livestock during the night, and warmed itself on a rock in the middle of the river by day. Several brave knights challenged the beast, but all were crushed in the beast’s slick coils.
Jon returned to find the countryside ravaged. When he saw the wyrm curled on the rock, he knew at once it was the eel he should have killed all those years ago. He asked a wise old woman how he should defeat the creature, and she told him he needed to weld blades to his armour so that the wyrm would cut itself to pieces when it inevitably got hold of him and began to squeeze the life from him. She also warned John that he must kill the first living creature he saw after vanquishing the wyrm, or the next nine generations of Lambtons would not die peacefully in their beds.
John heeded her advice, and with blades affixed to his armour, he strode out to meet the wyrm. He challenged the creature at the same spot in the river he had caught it. Sure enough, it wrapped itself around his body, but the tighter it squeezed, the deeper the blades cut into its flesh. After a long battle, John was able to decapitate the weakened creature with a single blow from his sword.
As soon as he was out of the water, John blew on his hunting horn, having told his father this was the signal to send the old hound to the river so that John could kill it and prevent the curse. However, John’s father was old, and in his excitement, he ran to the river instead. John could not bring himself to kill his father, and so the Lambtons were cursed for nine generations.
These are just a few ways I’ve worked to make a legend my own. How do you take ownership of a retelling?