(From Ghosts & Scholars 24)

Over the entrance to the Wilsthorpe maze in M.R. James's "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" there is a motto cut into the stone: "Secretum meum mihi et filiis domus meae" (My secret [is] for me and the sons of my house). James Wilson, the grandfather of Mr Humphreys' late uncle, had the maze built towards the end of the eighteenth century and, unbeknownst to Humphreys, it is not merely a labyrinth but a mausoleum. Wilson's ashes lie in the copper globe at the centre. (MRJ may have got the idea of a globe in a maze from the ancient turf maze at Hilton, near Cambridge, which has a stone globe on a pedestal in the middle.)

But what is Wilson's secret; a secret which he has handed down to his descendants? There are two possibilities, the first of which most readers over the years have assumed to be the only correct interpretation of the story. The secret may simply be the location of his remains. Thus, the inscription which Humphreys puts together from the stones removed from the maze, "Penetrans Ad Interiora Mortis" (Penetrating into the interior places of Death), merely serves as one of several clues. But if this were the case, the tale would have to be criticised severely from a structural point of view for offering this clue rather redundantly at a point after the discovery of the ashes had been made! MRJ wrote "Mr Humphreys" to fill up More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911),(1) so perhaps no further explanation for such apparent clumsiness is needed: if he had had more time, he might have reorganised the plot so that all the clues led finally to the revelation of James Wilson's ashes.

But those of us who consider the story to be one of MRJ's greatest have always had the niggling feeling that there is more going on in it than we know. "Mr Humphreys" is an oddity amongst MRJ's corpus in that it splits his enthusiasts right down the middle. Some love it, some hate it. It scored highly in the "Favourite Story" section of G&S 20's "MRJ Survey", and elsewhere howls of disagreement from certain quarters greeted S.T. Joshi's description of it as "incredibly tedious".(2) We can, perhaps, dismiss Joshi's opinion since he is notoriously out of sympathy with MRJ's intentions, but even a James buff like Samuel Russell says that the tale is "all at loose ends", with "a disappointingly feeble climax".(3)

Still the story has special magic for many of us, and not merely because of the pastiche seventeenth century sermon, which is generally acknowledged to be perfect of its type. Perhaps we feel subconsciously that we haven't got to the bottom of James Wilson's secret. It's a secret which revolves around Wilson's theology. Martin Hughes, in a 1993 article entitled "A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James",(4) was the first person to identify the origins of the Latin inscriptions in "Mr Humphreys" and to offer some suggestions to explain the figures on the globe. In doing so he has completely transformed our reading of the tale.

"Secretum meum mihi et filiis domus meae" is a straightforward variation on Isaiah's cry from the Vulgate, concerning his prophecy of God's judgement on the earth: "Secretum meum mihi, secretum meum mihi, uae mihi" (My secret [is] for me, my secret [is] for me, alas for me!) (Isaiah xxiv,16). But "Penetrans Ad Interiora Mortis" comes from the Vulgate Proverbs vii,27, where astonishingly it is part of a warning about consorting with a prostitute. Solomon warns against this "woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart" for "Her house is the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death" (in the King James version). Are we to take it from this that James Wilson's secret involved his travelling down the kind of sexual byways which are usually notable by their absence in MRJ's tales? Maybe so, to judge by the evidence provided by the copper globe. There Humphreys notes the figures of Cain instead of Hercules, Chore instead of Ophiuchus, and Absolon. Cain, who killed his brother (Genesis iv); Chore or Korah, who spoke against Moses and was swallowed up by the earth (Numbers xvi); and Absalom, who was slaughtered while entangled by his hair in a tree during a rebellion against his father, David (II Samuel xiii-xviii); are all Old Testament villains. Placed together on the globe, and accompanied by the 'Prince of Darkness', the fires of the Valley of Gehenna (Hinnom), the winged serpent, and Hostanes (the great magus of King Xerxes of Persia), they have been interpreted by those few writers who have tried to make sense of them as indicating that Wilson practised some kind of Satanism or pagan magic. Martin Hughes, however, has a different theory, which requires a more detailed examination than he gives to it, especially as he seems not to take account of its full implications. He identifies Wilson as a Cainite.

The Old Testament villains were seen as heroes by the original Cainites, a Gnostic sect denounced circa AD 180 by Irenaeus of Lyons in Against Heresies (a work familiar to MRJ and mentioned by him in The Apocryphal New Testament).(5) Irenaeus writes of the Cainites:

"...others say that Cain came from the Absolute Sovereignty above, and Esau, Korah, and the men of Sodom, along with every person of this sort, have the same origin. They were hated by the Creator because though attacked they suffered no harm, for Sophia took to herself what was her own in them. The traitor Judas was the only one of the apostles who possessed this knowledge. For this reason he brought about the mystery of the betrayal; through him all things on earth and in heaven were destroyed. They provide a work to this effect called the 'Gospel of Judas.' I have collected writings of theirs in which they urge the destruction of the works of the Womb, calling the Creator of heaven and earth Womb." (Book 1,xxxi,1-2)(6)

Like most of these early Gnostic sects, we only have their details via the Christian Fathers, but James Wilson would also have got his information solely from these suspect sources. Many Gnostic groups held that the Creator God of the Old Testament, the Demiurge, was an abortion created by Sophia (Wisdom), the last Aeon. This flawed Demiurge, imagining it was the true God, made the material cosmos, the earth being the lowest and most inferior cosmological sphere of creation. The Old Testament God was thus seen as being either evil, degenerate or barbaric (i.e. in accepting blood sacrifices). The Cainites therefore believed in what could be seen as a reversal of Old Testament tenets. If the OT was a result of the flawed Demiurge, then it was a logical step to revere its villains as heroes, and to despise figures such as Moses as traitors to humanity.

The images on the copper globe containing James Wilson's ashes can be taken as an allegory of Gnosticism. The winged Prince of Darkness is the Creator God presiding over the "umbra mortis" (shadow of death) that he has created in the material world. Various interpretations can be placed upon the winged serpent encircling the globe. According to some Gnostic groups, particularly the Ophites and the Naassenes, the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to disobey the Creator God and eat from the tree of knowledge was a symbol of true Gnosis, opposing the Demiurge who had tried to keep mankind in a state of ignorance. The winged serpent, thus interpreted, may be a guardian of the secret knowledge that Wilson possesses. On the other hand, in the Gnostic "Hymn of the Pearl", contained in the Apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the earth-encircling serpent is seen as a symbol of the evil principle. In the Acts (MRJ's translation), one of the serpent-dragon's sons says:

"I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father...I am son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth...I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere...that is outside [around] the ocean, whose tail is set in his own mouth." (Acts of Thomas, 32)(7)

If James Wilson was a Cainite, how would it have manifested itself in his lifestyle? Martin Hughes does not really deal with this at all, but it would seem that here is the core of the secret which Wilson wished to pass on to those of his family with the wit and intelligence to act on his hints. The Cainites, along with their contemporaries the Carpocratians, were labelled by Irenaeus as "licentious heretics". In Against Heresies, Irenaeus writes:

"They cannot be saved unless they experience everything, as Carpocrates also taught. At each sinful and disgusting action an angel is present; the agent must act boldly and make the impurity fall upon the angel present in the act, saying to him, 'O angel, I use your work; O power, I perform your operation.' This is 'perfect knowledge,' to perform without fear such actions as may not even be named." (Book 1, xxxi,2)

So by experiencing all things, the Cainites believed that they would be freed from an endless cycle of reincarnation, thus bringing the human soul closer to true Gnosis or knowledge.

The sermon which Mr Humphreys discovers in the library at Wilsthorpe Hall is of an earlier date than the maze, so presumably Wilson was inspired by it. In the sermon, the labyrinth represents the pitfalls of a life spent devoted to the "Jewel" of the pursuit of the "World's Pleasures". Wilson would have seen this as yet another example of the mainstream Christian theology he had rejected, so in characteristically Cainite inversion he picked the maze as a suitable temple for his own religion. And in another inversion, the OT inscription on the stones became not a warning but an invitation. Wilson's theology combined license, including sexual license judging from the context of that inscription, with aspects of Magianic magic (the Magi may have shared the Cainites' opinion of the Old Testament God). Unsurprisingly, therefore, instead of salvation he achieved a burning, agonising life in death.

As with the whole story, the shape which Wilson's ghost takes when it appears to Humphreys from a hole in the centre of the maze plan can be interpreted in two ways. Superficially it is hideously burnt because his body was cremated, but he is also burning deep in Hell (or Gehenna) for his sins. The 'Valley of the Sons of Hinnom' (Gehenna), as depicted on the globe, was a rubbish dump near Jerusalem. Formerly the site of human sacrifices to the pagan Semitic god, Moloch, it was continually on fire and became synonymous with Hell. More specifically, in the Jewish apocalyptic Book of Jubilees, which was known to MRJ, it was to the Valley of Hinnom that Jews who had been led by demons into worshipping false gods would be condemned forever on the Day of Judgement. Many apocalyptic versions of Hell reserve the most fiery tortures for those who have discarded the true God in favour of other beliefs, such as the "men and women, burning and turning themselves about and roasted as in a pan", because they "forsook the way of God" in the Apocalypse of Peter (MRJ's translation).(8) To James Wilson, in life the Valley of Hinnom was merely a symbol of everything he despised about the Judaeo-Christian religion, but in death it was all too real.

Mr Humphreys never learns Wilson's real secret, and it is perhaps just as well for his sanity that he doesn't. The question remains as to precisely how aware MRJ himself was of the implications of what he wrote. We must not over-estimate the importance of his supposed haste to complete the tale for More Ghost Stories. A likely scenario is that he started with an existing story draft - the one which was eventually published as "John Humphreys" in G&S 16 - but worked on it so extensively that he ended up with something completely new and which reflected, perhaps, his current research projects. As is made clear from his introduction to The Apocryphal New Testament (p.xxii), he knew much about the Gnostic gospels, although for various reasons he chose to exclude most of the then-available texts from that volume. Of course, it remains possible that he just picked a couple of good Latin quotes and a heresy at random, then tossed them into "Mr Humphreys" for antiquarian effect. That seems very unlikely, though - it was not the way he worked.

MRJ would have been amused if anyone had understood what James Wilson's real secret was, but he was not going to make it easy for them to find out, as a friend who asked him for an explanation of "Mr Humphreys" discovered. MRJ's reply, in a letter of 3rd January 1912, made some obvious points about Wilson's ghost taking the form of the Irish yew and the bush before the final manifestation, but kept mum about the mystery at the heart of the tale.(9) James Wilson's secret has remained MRJ's secret for a long time!

Copyright © 1997 Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls
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1. See the Preface to Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (Arnold, 1931).
2. S.T. Joshi, "M.R. James and The Limitations of The Ghost Story" (Spectral Tales 1, June 1988), p.31.
3. Samuel D. Russell, "Irony and Horror: The Art of M.R. James" (The Acolyte 12, Fall 1945); reprinted as a Ghost Story Society booklet (1993), where the quotes are on p.17.
4. Martin Hughes, "A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James" (Durham University Journal, Vol. 85, # 54/1, Jan 1993), pp.81-93.
5. M.R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford, 1924), p.xxii, etc.
6. The quotations from Against Heresies are from the translation in Robert M. Grant, The Early Church Fathers: Irenaeus of Lyons (Routledge, 1997), pp.104-105.
7. The Apocryphal New Testament, p.379.
8. Ibid, p.510. At around the same time as MRJ wrote "Mr Humphreys", he was also working on two articles about the Apocalypse of Peter, which appeared in 1911 in the Journal of Theological Studies.
9. Quoted in Michael Cox (ed.), M.R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Stories (Oxford, 1987), p.324.

October 1997

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