THE GREAT WORM
Unaffected beast that
he was, the great
worm lived in
quite the sort of
place where one
would have gone
to look for him,
somewhere in the belly of one of those mountain ranges
in Central Asia, with a name as ragged as its silhouette.
When taking exercise, his manner was to climb, rather than
walk, along the ground, in undisguised worm fashion, when
to a distant observer it seemed that not only was his skin
loose from his muscles, but that his four short crooked legs
and his two little wings were stuck about his body quite
promiscuously. He was perfectly satisfied with his natural
colours—white and gold—nor did the vain ambition to be
painted green like other worms even so much as enter his
head. He did not snort lightning, and none but honeyed
words ever left his gentle lips.
He came into the city one day, choosing his steps most
carefully, so as not to derange public edifices, and threading
himself through triumphal arches with marvellous dexterity.
He inquired his way to the palace; and, when he reached it,
he found, as will readily be believed, that the entrance was
too small to admit him. Not being pressed for time, he
stretched himself out the full length of the terrace, with a
part of his tail hanging over the battlements.
Meanwhile, the traffic of the city had adroitly diverted
itself into the suburbs.
When the worm had lain some time without any special manifesta-
tion, one of the doorkeepers of the palace, acting under orders which he
obeyed implicitly out of deference to the military spirit of his age,
galloped up to his ear and asked, What does my lord require?
The worm took no notice of the doorkeeper, but continued to smile
because the warmth of the sun’s rays. What do you want here?
the horseman repeated in his other ear. He replied, without impatience,
that he had called to see the prince, but as the doorway was not large
enough for him to enter, he was going home again presently when
he had warmed himself.
Whereupon, the horseman wheeled about and trotted into the
palace, his lance, twenty feet long, quivering erect in the air.
Soon there was great din of brass and wailing of reeds; piercing
screams, which were words of command, rang within the wall, to which
noise was added the clatter of many hoofs. This demonstration,
intended to impress the worm, was misjudged, for it might have been
performed on his chest without disturbing him. At a distance from
which one could get a general view of the visitor, layers of carpets were
thrown down and unrolled one upon another until a comfortable surface
was attained. Sunshades were then arranged to throw a deep shade
upon a black velvet cushion streaked with gold, on which the prince
was deposited, after the Chamberlain, with customary politeness, had
scattered a few priceless diamonds upon it. The worm cast an occasional
glance on these preparations from over his eyebrows, for he was lying
on his back with the crown of his head towards them.
—Speak, worm! shouted an officer, thou gold worm!
—He isn’t gold, remarked a philosopher.
—I come, he answered, my lord, to enlist in your royal armies.
—Yes, he is, only he’s out of repair.
—Ah! Ha! is that so, you long animal, said the distinguished prince,
as his vizier held his lorgnon in position. Ha! let me see—yes! he
went on, as he was raised and supported over to the recruit. The worm
still remained lying on his back, for he had an exceedingly long tongue,
which enabled him to kiss the royal hand without altering position. The
regulation suit of armour and supply of weapons for a private of the
militia had meanwhile been brought; this blunder greatly incensed the
prince, who had mentally appointed the worm commander-in-chief. In
accordance with this decision he directed the supply of a silk-lined suit
of armour, tested weapons, and a body of attendants to look after them.
When the senior officers of the staff heard this order, their hair curled
behind where their master could not observe it.
—Stay, though; would you prefer a horse or a camel, general? The
worm hesitated to reply, for apart from the perplexity of the question,
two rival recruiting sergeants on the far side of him were trying to elicit
his age and whether he was married. Seeing his embarrassment, the
prince explained that a horse wore the plume above his head, while a
camel wore it under his chin. Of course, the worm at once decided to
have the former.
—Cough, said the surgeon-major.
—Ever had ….
—The medical officer, interrupted a philosopher, ought to know
that the general could not have attained his present rank ….
—Ever had measles?
ohoh. . . . if he had not already answered these questions satisfactorily.
—Will the philosopher mind his own business?
—Is the carpenter in attendance? asked the prince, while the vizier
obtruded the lorgnon for his master to scan the court.
—Ugh! Ugh! The horse was now led up, its shiny coat purple in the
sun. The worm admired the strings of beads with which it was deco-
rated, and the bridle straps crusted with gold. But oh, the plume!
That was the best of all! So pleased indeed was he with it, that he
begged one for his own wear.
—No, he ain’t, whispered a philosopher.
—No, he isn’t, I suppose you mean, answered the surgeon-major,
in the tone of voice habitual to him when he thought of the gallows.
The medical officer was examining his ankle with a vexed counten-
ance, as a scribe wrote out for the worm a coupon for the annual Grand-
cross lottery by way of a quarter’s salary in advance. This would have
ended the formalities, had not the court poet found an opportunity to
commence reciting the worm’s military antecedents.
—Is that that man again? asked the prince; I abolish the office.
The laureate ceased.
At this time, most of the tribes on the outskirts of the principality
had already forgotten their allegiance, or but faintly remembered it. The
prince thought, therefore, that he would send his new general marching
round his dominions with an expedition, to freshen the memories of these
The worm found that he had scarcely to show himself to the first
rebel he came across. The news of his march spread like overflowing
—An army of worms, said the panting messenger, is approaching!
—White, I think, with pink banners. And the news fled past, leaving
the municipality to hurry home and prepare with all haste flattering
memorials and presentation caskets of odious workmanship.
Then, when he arrived, a few days afterwards, the worm would find
a head citizen shivering at the extremity of a strip of red carpet leading
from the city gate beckoning to others within the walls, to come out and
Thus the army left everywhere peace and order with its hoof-prints,
daily growing deeper with the weight of presents the dromedaries had to
—What is the name of the green city yonder? was a question that ran
round the camp one morning. No one could tell. In fact, it had scarcely
been sighted when white curtains dropped before it and obscured it from
view. As the day advanced, the curtains were found to be composed of
graceful white beings, for the vanguard saw them swing in the air,
stand upright, stretching their arms and craning their necks to the sky,
then sink again in repose. Where the white host parted its ranks,
glimpses were caught of the superb details of the city, its columns of
silver, domes of emerald, and minarets.
At length, when these white folk rose up and departed in sheets, like
morning mist, wont as he was to see living things fly at his approach,
their disappearance caused the worm no surprise. He still preserved his
steady oscillations, regular as the wheeze and thud of a steamer’s engines,
and so manipulated that his train could follow him without difficulty.
The soldiers thought to have reached their destination in a few
hours; but at noon, when they threw themselves down on the ground
for a halt, overcome with the fierce heat, the splendid city had faded to a
milky blue, so like the colour of the sky that its contour could scarcely
The weary animals and men trudged on, scarcely hoping to reach
the city that day, always watching the changing blue. It is a city of
gold, said some. Its minarets are topped with amber. No, it is all
of amber. But at evening no one doubted any longer; all saw plainly
that the city was upheld by silver columns, trunks of the birch; its
battlements, daring minarets in the shape of palms, towers like the
cypress, domes like masses of foliage, golden all in the setting sun.
Within, its streets were streams, and lilies grew along the road-
But, curious to say, not a soul was to be seen about. The worm
began to fear he had pushed his conquering way too far; and that at
last he was before a city whose inhabitants were not even interested
in worms, far less afraid of them.
However, he drew his army up in line and banged all his cymbals,
at which clouds of birds arose, screeching as they crossed and circled.
Presently he saw come gliding out from the colonnade, a figure of
silent whiteness. She passed over the rippled gold around the city,
smoothly as her chariot upon the highways of the city. Her body
had the undulations of a pod, ripe swollen to bursting; her breasts
were like mounds under moonlit snow. Her hair, gold as corn at
noon, was prodigal as a waterfall; and her eyes were like pansies. Her
tiara, wrought of blue lichens and down of the night-moth, was crowned
with dainty fronds. Straight she came to the general, gliding ever, gave
him the flower she bore in her hands; then turned about and passed
way as she had appeared. The worm stuck the lily in one of the scales
upon his breast, and briefly gave order for a camp to be pitched.
Strange sounds that night made the frightened soldiers start from
sleep, and the pale sentinels saw their leader writhing round and round
the city, ploughing deep furrows as he went; and heard him moaning in
the cold moonlight—Why am I a worm?
Ah! it was too horrible; he remembered that he had been human.
Next day the march was resumed, but not many mornings from his
departure from the city of the white child, the worm sank down, a corpse.
And the lily upon his breast?—it had taken root there; and beads of his
heart’s blood smiled on every petal.
A poet lay in a white garden of lilies, shaping the images of his
fancy, as the river ran through his trailing hair.
But in his garden a long worm shook himself after sleep; forgotten
his face like a pearl, his beautiful eyes like a snake’s, his breathing hair—
all. He had complete reminiscences of a worm, and sought the deserts
and ravines the dragon loves.
Gray, John. “The Great Worm.” The Dial, vol. 1, 1889, pp. 14-18. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/dialv1-gray-worm/