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The heroine is turned into a worm (dragon), usually by her stepmother, who curses her to remain so until the king's son comes to kiss her three times. When he arrives, she offers him a belt, a ring, and a sword to kiss her, promising the things would magically protect him; the third time, she turns back into a woman. In some variants, he asks who enchanted her, a werewolf or mermaid; she says it was her stepmother and curses her into a monstrous creature, permanently.
The hero of the story appears to be Ywain, from Arthurian legend. It is not clear how he came to be attached to this story, although many other Arthurian knights appear in other ballads with as little connection to their roles in the Arthurian legend, for instance Sir Lionel, who appears in a ballad of the same name.
Joseph Jacobs has suggested that The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh (which he collected for his English Fairy Tales with touches from the ballad of Kempion) is a localised version of the ballad of Kemp Owyne, itself possibly a version of the Icelandic saga of Áslól and Hjálmtèr.
"Dove Isabeau" (1989), written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Dennis Nolan, shifts the titular character to the transformed heroine but retains the narrative of the ballad, with the addition of a pet cat inhabited by the spirit of Isabeau's dead mother, who assists the hero in his rescue. Brian Peters included a recording titled "Kemp Owyne" on his album Sharper Than the Thorn. Frankie Armstrong included a recording titled "Kemp Owen" on her album The Garden of Love. Fay Hield includes a recording titled "Kemp Owen" on her album "Looking Glass". Bryony Griffith sings "Kemp Owen" on her 2014 debut solo album 'Nightshade'.
This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful (1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill (sculptor).
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "Kemp Owyne"
- Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, "The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh"
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 306, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 307, Dover Publications, New York 1965