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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 May 2024

Malcolm Guite encounters dragons at a church in the village of Ludham

THERE are some creatures that you expect to find only in the pages of a fantasy book or a knightly romance: dragons, for example, or “woodwos”, those wild men (and women) of the woods who make an occasional appearance in medieval legend. Both appear, for example, in a couple of lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, describing Gawain’s difficulties as he makes his way through “the wyldrenesse of Wyrale”, the Wirral Peninsula, on the way to his encounter with the Green Knight himself:

Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with
    wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe

Simon Armitage translates these lines as

Here he scraps with serpents and snarling
Here he tangles with woodwos causing trouble
    in the crags.

“Wormez” is here translated as “serpents”, though a better translation in this context might be “dragons”. It was not in the pages of Gawain, or even in the Wirral, however, that I unexpectedly encountered both a dragon and a pair of woodwos, but in a parish church in Norfolk.

I was at St Catherine’s, Ludham, where Maggie was taking the service, and, while she was getting ready in the vestry, I stopped to admire the beautiful 15th-century font. There, I saw carvings of the magnificent heraldic creatures that I might expect in any church: the four living creatures around the throne who became emblems of each of the four Gospels; there was also a woman carrying a child — very appropriate for a font — and an abbot, possibly the abbot of St Bennet’s, and another cleric with a rosary — all very right and proper emblems of the Christian faith into which a child is to be baptised. But, also, in between these carved panels on the very same font, are a male and female woodwo, wonderfully hairy, clothed in animal skins and carrying clubs.

What are they doing there? The church’s guidebook points, rather doubtfully, to an obscure reference in Isaiah 13.21: “But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.”

But perhaps a better explanation for these creatures that were part of the mythology of these islands in pre-Christian times was that they must come to the font, too: all that we are and have been comes to those waters for cleansing and renewal. Having enjoyed the woodwos, my eye was drawn to a display near by, titled “The Legend of the Ludham Dragon”, illustrated with a magnificent green dragon, rampant.

The display told the story of the Ludham Dragon, who had terrorised residents, emerging from its lair in a series of tunnels under the village each evening until someone found the entrance and blocked it with a stone. Unfortunately, the dragon was out at the time, and flew off in rage over to the Bishop’s palace and then “to the ruined Abbey of St Benet, where it passed under the great archway and vanished in the vaults beneath, never to be seen again”.

Oddly enough, dragons and palaces get a mention in the very next verse in Isaiah, after the one that they had referred to for the woodwos: “And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces.”

C. S. Lewis once said that reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A faerie romance as a teenager had baptised his imagination; and I wondered whether the carvings on the font in Ludham were also a kind of baptism of the wider English imagination: a making of room in church for older mysteries brought to the light of One in whom all things hold together and find their meaning.

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