The Laidly Worm and Other
Loathly Ladies of Lore

Most people have at least passing familiarity with Beauty and the Beast, a tale that has inspired many a speculative novel, but not with the similar stories that involve a cursed woman, such as The Laidly (or Laidley) Worm.

This lesser-known folktale has a number of variants, all of which revolve around a young woman turned into a horrible serpent or dragon. This misfortune befalls her through no fault of her own, rather from the malicious deeds of an evildoer (frequently her stepmother) who sees her as a rival and places her under a curse. She suffers, bound in this grotesque form, until she’s transformed back into her natural state by three kisses from her brother, who receives instruction that the only way to regain his sister is plant three kisses on the scaly cheek of the dragon–quite the task for a renowned dragon hunter.

Though this particular tale doesn’t portray the romantic love of Beauty and the Beast, it still depicts the ability of love to free and transform the most hideous of beasts, and it’s intriguing because it explores a woman transformed, rather than a man.

The Laidly Worm falls into the greater tradition of the “loathly lady” stories–a woman trapped in some repulsive form (often an old hag or a loathsome creature like a dragon) who may only be freed by a kiss (or alternately, when a man agrees to marry her despite her appearance). At that point, she’s released from the bonds of her false form and transformed back into her original, lovely state. Many similar stories can also be found in the Aarne-Thompson category 402, the Animal Bride.

Though these stories abound in the folklore of many regions, for some reason, tales of the monstrous man have permeated our current culture far more than that of the loathly lady. Why do you think that’s the case?

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10 Responses to The Laidly Worm and Other
Loathly Ladies of Lore

  1. Interesting! I wonder if the women’s movement has had anything to do with it. I’ve heard in the ABA anyway that editors want “kick-ass” heroines. Being a monster doesn’t seem to fit that mold.

    Just one possibility.

    Becky

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Oh, that’s a good thought. Especially given that the loathly ladies are dependent on a man to gain freedom from their curse. That’s hardly suited to the extreme feminist mindset.

      I think there’s also an element where women are drawn to stories in which the love of a woman redeems the man. I’m not sure why that so strongly appeals, but it’s a common theme across genres (whether the focus of the story or a romantic subplot). That’s helped to promote the Beauty and the Beast type stories. I don’t think men are drawn to the reverse sort of story, at least not to the same degree.

  2. When I was a kid my favorite story from our illustrated fairy tale book was “The White Cat” (http://mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/310.htm). It shares the structure of a woman transformed, although she’s turned into a cat instead of scaly monster. But (SPOILER ALERT), in order for the Prince to turn her back into a person, he has to cut her head off! That’s certainly a different twist on the ol’ transformation story.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michelle! I haven’t read The White Cat in a while, but I also had it in fairy tale collection I loved as a child. It’s certainly more shocking to chop off someone’s head than give them a kiss. 🙂

      It reminds me a bit also of some of the variants of the Frog Prince, where she hurls him against the wall, and the act transforms him into a prince. Sometimes kindness does the trick, other times its a seemingly harsh deed. Such are the ways of fairy tales!

  3. Mary says:

    Good post, Sarah. This certainly gives me some interesting new aspects to think about. As far as why men seem to get themselves transformed into monsters and other hideous things more often than ladies… I really don’t know what I think. Rebecca could be right, the women’s movement could bee to blame, but I just don’t know.
    I really liked the unique touch to the Laidly Worm story–the fact that her brother was the one who had to save her. It seems like so much of the time if there’s going to be any love in a story, it has to be romantic love, and parent-child or sibling love gets overlooked. That’s part of why I wanted to showcase a loving brother-sister relationship in my novel, Son of The Shield.

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I’m sure there are a number of cultural forces at work behind which tales have endured into our era versus slipping into oblivion. I’ve noticed that the fairy tales that showcase sibling devotion don’t usually receive as much attention as the ones that highlight romantic love, when in reality familial love is also a significant part of life. It’s especially interesting when you consider that even Disney movies, which are marketed to children, focus on romantic love rather than on the family ties that might be more applicable for those of younger ages. It’s not that I don’t enjoy romantic fairy tales and stories, but like you, I appreciate tales of sibling devotion as well. I’m glad to hear you’re tackling this element in your book!

  4. Jeff Chapman says:

    Fascinating, Sarah. I haven’t read “The Laidly Worm” so I’ll have to look that one up. A couple other examples of “loathly lady” stories are “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In these tales, the curse of ugliness is broken when the new husband grants sovereignty to his bride.

    Why are men depicted as monsters? That’s obvious. They are monsters. : )

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      The loathly lady tales have a long and complex history, and I’m only familiar with some of the stories. In the two you mentioned, what the women most desire is their freedom/sovereignty, which makes them seem a bit more proactive than the princess in The Laidly Worm, though all depend on the men’s actions to free them. It’s interesting stuff, regardless of what form the story takes.

      And thanks for giving a man’s perspective on the men as monsters motif. 🙂

  5. Kessie says:

    Jumped here from a link on Speculative Faith. Hi there!

    I have to admit, I’ve never read those particular fairy tales with the loathly ladies, but they sound fascinating. I did read Howl’s Moving Castle, and enjoyed it immensely (when the heroine is cursed and made old, and her only chance at having the curse lifted is to go to the eeeevil wizard Howl who isn’t really all that evil).

    But aside from that, I can’t recall the last time I read a story or book where the hero had to rescue the heroine. It’s always the other way around. Maybe it is because of the feminist movement?

    • Sarah Sawyer says:

      I’m glad you dropped in and joined the conversation, Kessie! Howl’s Moving Castle sounds like the prefect example of a novel-length loathly lady tale. I haven’t read any books that picked up this motif, so it’s neat to hear they’re out there!

      I do think the feminist movement could have played a role in this. It’s not in vogue to portray a heroine who needs any kind of assistance and certainly not deliverance from her own hideous form/appearance. I appreciate that storytellers wanted to move beyond the damsel in distress concept, but it’s simply not realistic to say a woman will never be in need of rescue. 🙂

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