Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 7 (March 2005)

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published two or three times a year at irregular intervals. Click here for further information on how to buy the full hard-copy edition. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines.

Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.

Copyright © 2005 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.


(Unlinked contents can only be read in the hard-copy edition of the Newsletter)



"Speaker Lenthall's Tomb" by M.R. James

"'He was laughing in the church': A Visit to St Bertrand de Comminges" by Helen Grant

"The Value of Art and Inanimate Objects in the Ghost Stories of M.R. James" by Simon Newman

"'The Old Man on the Hill': Beelzebub in 'An Evening's Entertainment'" by Rosemary Pardoe

"Jamesian Notes & Queries":
("Just How Wicked was that Wicked Young Man?: A Look at 'An Evening's Entertainment'" by Tina Rath; "M.R. James meets The Mummy" by Steve Duffy)


"Reviews" (M.R. James [BBC4 TV documentary]; A College Mystery by A.P. Baker)

Artwork: Alan Hunter ("Stories I Have Tried to Write"); William Bond (St Bertrand de Comminges Photographs and Plan).


The first item in Newsletter 7 is an M.R. James scoop [i.e. "Speaker Lenthall's Tomb"] which I would willingly enthuse about here, but since I've written a separate little introduction for it, further comment seems superfluous! The rest of the Newsletter is quite wide-ranging in its MRJ coverage, although I still have a shortage of material about those of MRJ's associates who come within the scope of the magazine (see my previous editorial for the list of names).

The chief article this time is Helen Grant's follow-up to her well-received "Jamesian Traveller" visit to Steinfeld Abbey in issue 5. This time her destination is St Bertand de Comminges (and there is talk of Viborg of "Number 13" fame for the future!).

Something you won't find in the following pages is a lengthy response to my challenge (lettercolumn, Newsletter 6) to anyone who cared to write in and explain the charms of "The Tractate Middoth" (a story about which I'm less than enthusiastic). This is not because I haven't received any. In fact, I've got three good pieces in favour of the tale from Jacqueline Simpson, George Featherston and Clive Ward. Unfortunately, there isn't room for them this time, but they'll have their own 'rant for Dr Rant' section in "Jamesian Notes & Queries" next issue. Meanwhile, perhaps there's a popular MRJ story you dislike and would enjoy pulling apart; or, conversely, a generally unloved tale you'd like to support with a paean of praise? If so, send your comments/articles in (no need to check with me first: it doesn't matter if more than one person picks the same subject).

Finally, I have a major MRJ project (another scoop!) on the go at the moment. It should, I hope, result in a special Haunted Library booklet, which will probably be included automatically on Newsletter subscriptions early in 2006. More about this in issue 8, fingers crossed!

back to top

"The Jamesian Traveller"

"He was laughing in the church"

A Visit to St Bertrand de Comminges

by Helen Grant

"Saint-Bertrand... est aujourd'hui dans un état d'isolement et dans des conditions si déplorables, que son existence même est compromise..."

--- Louis De Fiancette D'Agos.

[For photographs, etc., follow the link on the crocodile at the bottom of this article.]

"St Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of the Pyrenees, not very far from Toulouse, and still nearer to Bagnères-de-Luchon..." Thus begins "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", one of M.R. James's greatest supernatural stories, first published in 1895. The description of St Bertrand de Comminges, "this old-world place", as "decayed" is repeated later in the tale, when the sacristan's house is described as bearing "like the rest of Comminges, the aspect of decaying age". James's visit to Comminges, a few years before the publication of the story, took place at a time when the town, and parts of St Bertrand's church, were indeed in a state of deterioration. The French Revolution, referred to at the beginning of the tale, had not only seen the end of the bishopric, but also the dispersal and execution of the clergy, the pillaging of the church and the burning of the Episcopal papers in the public square at Saint-Gaudens, a bonfire from which only a few documents escaped. The very tin from the church organ had been carried off to make balls. The cathedral, which before the Revolution had employed over sixty clerics, and administered a diocese of nearly one hundred and eighty thousand souls, was a lone relic standing in a sparsely-inhabited and dilapidated town which by 1830 was unable to scrape up a sufficient electorate.

This, then, was the backdrop against which M.R. James composed the story of the haunting of an English visitor to Comminges by a demon. The ruinous state of the town provided the perfect setting for a diabolical apparition: it recalls the Biblical instances of deserted towns being haunted by demons, a link which was clearly in MRJ's mind when he had Dennistoun refer to night monsters in the ruins of Babylon.

It is now well over a century since MRJ made his visit to St Bertrand de Comminges, time enough for further changes of fortune. Those who have enjoyed the thrilling terrors of "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" may wonder about the place which inspired the story, and what alterations the years may have wrought in Comminges. In May 2004 I visited St Bertrand de Comminges, with the intention of seeing the town and cathedral for myself. What follows is a description of what I found. I also obtained a copy of Vie et Miracles de Saint Bertrand avec une notice historique sur la ville et les évêques de Comminges, a nineteenth-century work by Baron Louis de Fiancette D'Agos, which offers a viewpoint almost contemporary with MRJ's visit,[1] and has been invaluable in understanding the changes made in the town and church since then, as well as providing a wealth of historical detail.

The Pyrenees have a long and turbulent history dating back to the Roman conquest and the barbarian invasions by the Vandals and Visigoths. A string of Cathar castles runs across the region, testimony to the last stand of that doomed sect. The Wars of Religion and indeed the French Revolution also left their mark by way of ruined and pillaged churches. The traditions of the region include some colourful aspects which would not be out of place in a Jamesian ghost story: for example, Daudet's tale of the Curé of Cucugnan, who foretold the damnation of his entire congregation in a sermon; and, of course, Rennes-le-Chateau, beloved of conspiracy theorists, where a statue of the demon Asmodeus guards the door of the parish church.

St Bertrand de Comminges itself lies some 120km south/south west of Toulouse. Today it is not so very far from the motorway running between Toulouse and Biarritz, but in the 1880s one would have had to travel overnight to be at St Bertrand's cathedral in the early morning, as was Dennistoun: we must conclude that he had actually arrived in Comminges the day before. Leaving the motorway (or indeed one of the local stations in neighbouring towns: Comminges has none), one drives through several small towns and villages, which in May are sun-drenched and bright with flowers. Of St Bertrand de Comminges and the cathedral that dominates the little hill, one can only obtain a clear view when relatively close. The view is then breathtaking, with the cathedral literally perched at the summit of the hill, standing clear of all the surrounding buildings.[2] The landscape is hilly, rising to the peaks of the Pyrenees mountains in the distance. Cows and goats wander across the fields, the heavy bells around their necks audible even from the top of the hill of Comminges. The town itself consists of lower and upper halves, the upper half within the old walls of the town and the lower on the plain below. It is with the upper part of the town that we are concerned, since all the locations of MRJ's narrative - the cathedral, the hotel and the sacristan's house - must be there if they are to conform to the details of the story; i.e. that they should not be further than a hundred yards from each other.

The town could be said to be "decayed" in the sense that it now numbers only about two hundred and fifty inhabitants; also one can see everywhere the evidence of past and faded glories, such as defaced coats of arms over the doors of some buildings. But the atmosphere on the warm May afternoon when I arrived in Comminges was sleepy rather than decayed: it is true that I was not able to discover so much as a boulangerie in the town, but there are two hotels, a neat mairie, a post office, a smart information office, and a cluster of souvenir shops and cafés, all clearly awaiting "a certain number of tourists". In addition, new life has been breathed into the community by the annual Festival du Comminges et de l'Académie Internationale de Musique, in which the cathedral plays a central role: the organ was restored in 1974 by the organ builder Jean-Pierre Swiderski, and organists visit the festival to play what is now considered to be one of the best classical organs in France.

The visitor wishing to take a hotel room in the town will seek for the Chapeau Rouge in vain. The two hotels now extant in Comminges are the Hotel du Comminges, which stands directly opposite the cathedral; and L'Oppidum, which is perhaps a hundred yards by foot through the streets but in fact nestles close under the northern flank of the cathedral. Those who want to tread in the footsteps of Dennistoun would be best-advised to take a back room at L'Oppidum, where one can gaze out of the window at night-time and see the pale moon riding high above the dark bulk of the cathedral with its crouching gargoyles and imposing flying buttresses. If one ventures out of the hotel at night, one finds the town completely quiet at 10pm, with all the cafés and shops dark and shuttered. Bats flit through the streets and the only sound piercing the cool evening air is the clanking of cows' and goats' bells.

...But let us visit St Bertrand's church early in the morning, as did Dennistoun. It is a spring morning and the early sunshine promises later heat. Walking up to the cathedral (for it is an uphill walk to the church from almost anywhere in Comminges), we find ourselves standing outside the Hotel du Comminges. Before us is a little plaza with the mairie on our right and a group of buildings housing the information office on our left. Directly ahead is the Romanesque facade of the cathedral, its square tower soaring 33 metres into the air above us and terminating in a pointed roof. This facade, the narthex and first three bays of the church belong to the twelfth-century cathedral of Bertrand de l'Isle-Jourdain, who became Saint Bertrand.[3] However, as we shall see when we enter the cathedral, the nave is Gothic, grafted onto the extant Romanesque section in the fourteenth century; and much of the interior work is sixteenth century. Lingering for a while outside the Romanesque doorway, we may observe amongst the stonework a column capital depicting a sinner being pushed by demons into the maw of a monster, symbolising Hell. Around his neck hangs a heavy bag, perhaps containing his sins: some interpret it as a depiction of a rich man with a bag of gold about his neck. Above him is a demonic head with long tusks or fangs. Amateurs of M.R. James may reflect upon the relevance to Canon Alberic, whose apparent search for wealth ended so disastrously. Leaving the unfortunate sinner to his endless descent into perdition, we pass into the cathedral.

Standing in the narthex between two mighty stone pillars, we now see the Gothic nave built by Bertrand de Got (later Pope Clement V) in the fourteenth century. The single nave is an imposing 55 metres long, 16 metres wide and 28 metres high and has eleven radiating chapels built between the church's buttresses. Yet what seizes our attention is the ornate rood screen which dominates our view at eye-level. Behind the rood screen lies what has been described as a wooden church enclosed within the stone one, a chancel carved mainly from oak and walnut, which hid the canons' services from the eyes of ordinary worshippers. We shall enter it later; from where we now stand we see only the rood screen with its ornate carvings depicting Saint Bertrand, Saint Roque and Saint Sebastian on the left, and on the right Our Lady, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Genevieve: the last of these holds a candle which a devil is attempting to blow out. An inscription names the creator of the woodwork as Jean de Mauléon, the ancestor of Canon Alberic in MRJ's story (suffice it to say that there was no Canon Alberic, though the De Mauléon family gave four canons to the cathedral over the centuries, of whom the latest was Bishop Jean). The date of the first service held there is given as 1535.

We are fortunate to be able to see the rood screen (and later the wooden chancel) in all its glory: soon after its completion, the new rules created by the Council of Trent required that masses should become more inclusive, and many churches subsequently lost the rood screens which had effectively segregated the clerics from the ordinary people. Here, a more creative solution was applied: a second altar was built in the avant-nef, to the right as one enters the church. Let us pause for a moment to contemplate this altar. Behind it hangs a large oil painting depicting the crucifixion; amongst the figures at the foot of the cross is Saint Bertrand. Is this the inspiration for the "large dark picture that hangs behind the altar", before which MRJ's sacristan kneels in prayer, with a "rain of tears on his cheeks"? Before we answer this question, we must visit the other paintings behind the main altar. For now, however, we can see that the painting at least conforms in terms of size and dark colours, though the composition can be seen plainly enough. To the right of this altar, above head height on the wall, hangs the famed stuffed crocodile. Louis de Fiancette D'Agos informs us in a list of "Mesures" that this animal is 2.3 metres long, and has a circumference of 95cm! Local legend has it that the crocodile lived in the nearby River Garonne, where it preyed upon young women. Saint Bertrand delivered the people from this menace by confronting the creature armed only with his crozier. He is said to have struck the crocodile with it, upon which le dragon[4] followed him as meekly as a lamb to the church, where it expired. A more probable but sadly prosaic explanation of the crocodile's presence is that it was a votive offering brought back from the Holy Land. Rather bizarrely it is now one of nine crocodiles designated ancient monuments in France! The crocodile does not hang over the font, which is in fact located in a dark corner to one's left as one enters the church, and is hidden away within a little wooden enclosure; nor did it hang over the font when MRJ visited the church, as Louis de Fiancette D'Agos clearly describes its location on the wall by the parish altar.

Whilst we are still in this part of the church, we may make time to admire the sixteenth-century organ also installed by Jean de Mauléon, in about 1550. This was mentioned in passing by MRJ as "the enormous dilapidated organ", and indeed at the time of his visit it was in a parlous state, having been plundered in the French Revolution and afterwards, and then only partially restored in the nineteenth century, so that it was not really equal to the acoustics of the cathedral. It was not until the 1970s, long after MRJ's visit, that it was properly restored. "Enormous" it certainly is, standing 16 metres high and supported in an angle of the south wall of the cathedral by five Corinthian columns. It has 41 stops and 3 keyboards, and a total of 3,000 pipes. A curious feature of the instrument is the low-relief wood carving which depicts the Labours of Hercules. Suffice it to say that not all who have seen it have approved. Louis de Fiancette D'Agos, who was a staunch Catholic, remarked rather sniffily: "It is above all in the subjects which decorate it [the organ] that one sees the deplorable invasion of paganism. Thus, one finds there numerous Labours of Hercules, and not one single Christian theme".[5] On the reasons behind this surprising choice of subject matter by the pious bishop we may better speculate when we later visit the chancel with its extensive wood carvings.

We have been standing here in the avant-nef for some little time, and one aspect of the church which bears upon MRJ's story has become apparent. The acoustics of the cathedral are such that a cough sounds like a gunshot, but no sound at all is audible from outside the church. The curious noises which Dennistoun heard during his visit to the cathedral - the "muffled footfalls and distant talking voices" - must certainly have come from inside the building. As regards the tower - whence he heard the thin metallic laughter - the door is still locked! It is an inconspicuous door of dark wood set into the wall close to the main doorway, and it is absolutely fast. Petitions to the cathedral guides fail to gain us entrance - the tower has not been made safe for visitors.[6]

Let us now follow the ambulatory clockwise starting with the north side of the cathedral; it is not possible to enter the south side from here as a metal railing bars our way. We now have the side of the wooden chancel to our right, and can see that it is richly ornamented with carvings of the heads of men and women. At the top is a series of grotesque, often unidentifiable creatures. On our left we come to the Chapelle de Hugues de Castillon, which houses the tomb of the bishop of that name. An effigy of Hugues de Castillon in white Saint-Béat marble lies on top of the tomb, impassively gazing upwards whilst cherubs nestle about him and at his feet a lion devours a little dog. This monument is of especial interest to the M.R. James enthusiast as it is the only one of sufficient grandeur to have inspired the description of Canon Alberic's tomb, that "great marble erection with an effigy of the Canon..." Erected in the fourteenth century, it is considerably too early for Canon Alberic, but shares with the description of Alberic's tomb the sense of pomp and circumstance; whereas the Canon's monument elaborately eulogised his learning, the Bishop's tomb is decorated with a relief of an entire funeral procession including cross-bearers and cantors.

As we come to the east end of the church we find ourselves below the only three windows which retain their sixteenth-century glass. These were installed by Jean de Mauléon, the putative ancestor of Canon Alberic, and indeed the good bishop is depicted in the middle window, kneeling below the Nativity. We are now very close to the tomb of Saint Bertrand, which stands facing east towards the great windows. The tomb is imposing; Louis de Fiancette D'Agos gives its height as 6.4 metres. Built in the fifteenth century to house the relics of the Saint, its highly ornate decoration includes a series of canvases depicting events from the life of Saint Bertrand. And now we have a conundrum: is one of these paintings the inspiration for the picture the sacristan regarded "with the eye of a suppliant in agony"? The miracles depicted include the rescue of Sancius Parra from prison and the collapse of a house on a pair of hardened sinners - though nowhere is there a painting of Saint Bertrand delivering a man whom the devil long sought to strangle.[7] All of the paintings on the tomb could be said to be "behind the altar" since the tomb backs onto the wooden chancel, and its high altar. They also constitute "a series illustrating the miracles of St Bertrand". Furthermore, their rather primitive style might merit Dennistoun's disparaging description of the painting in question as "a daub of this kind". Conversely, the one which we saw before the altar in the avant-nef more obviously "hangs behind the altar", is larger and darker and is a single painting; it is a little more difficult to imagine Dennistoun picking out from the numerous paintings clustered on the tomb of Saint Bertrand the precise one upon which the sacristan had fixed his eyes. It is not easy to settle this particular question; however we may note in favour of the paintings on the Saint's tomb, that many of them carry Latin inscriptions, as did the painting in MRJ's story, such as: FIDELI. SERVO. PROMISSA. CORONA. DATUR,[8] or INDURATI. OBRUUNTUR. PECCATORES.[9]

We cannot continue very much further around the ambulatory: our way is again barred by railings. It is necessary to retrace our steps back to the Romanesque entrance and re-enter through the cloister, passing first through the ticket office. It is rather ironic that the wooden chancel, which was originally built to segregate the canons of the cathedral from the ordinary people, is now subject to another kind of segregation: anyone may visit the parish altar and the ambulatory, but only those in possession of a ticket at 4 euros may enter the chancel! Before we leave this part of the church, we may notice high on the wall in the Chapelle Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul a large light-coloured painting. It is more modern than most of the other works in the cathedral, and depicts the town and church of St Bertrand de Comminges, with a gigantic figure of Saint Bertrand looming above it, his feet resting upon our friend the crocodile. Nothing is to be found about it in the guide books; perhaps Messieurs les Guides in the ticket office may tell us something about it later.

Finding ourselves a few minutes later back outside the cathedral's Romanesque doorway, we must allow our eyes to adjust to the bright spring sunshine before entering the ticket office. We have already spent quite some time in the cathedral, but as the morning unfolds the town looks as sleepy as ever. The faded shutters are open on the Hotel du Comminges opposite, and a few people are sipping drinks under the shade of parasols outside the hotel's little bar, but otherwise there is very little activity. Let us purchase our tickets and enter the cathedral again from the south side, passing through the cloister. The south side of the cathedral and the cloister are, of course, important in the history of Canon Alberic: a plan of these was fixed in the Canon's scrap-book along with the sepia drawing of Solomon confronting the demon. The cloister seems to have been of particular significance since a cross in gold paint was drawn in the north-west angle on the plan. The cloister, with its columns of white Saint-Béat marble and pink Campan-Sarrancolin marble, is very open and airy compared to that, say, of Steinfeld Abbey, where another of MRJ's ghost stories is set. The south side, which looks out onto a considerable drop, has a beautiful view over the Pyrenean countryside. Underfoot are small pebbles set into the ground and worn smooth by the passage of many feet, so that they now resemble tiny cobbles. The arcades are covered, as are many local houses, with orange tiles. In the centre lies a neat square of green lawn. There is very little suggestion of the occult or mysterious in the atmosphere here. So what, if anything, did MRJ see in the cloister which recommended it as a location for Canon Alberic's experiment in magic? Firstly we must note that the cloister has been remodelled a number of times, in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, with further work in the north-west corner in the sixteenth century when Bishop Jean de Mauléon was making his splendid additions to the cathedral; indeed the arms of Mauléon may be seen upon one of the vaults in the north side. Thus there has been ample opportunity for secreting treasure, or indeed for disturbing that which had much better been left in peace. The north side of the cloister, lying against the flank of the church, is styled "The Gallery of Tombs" since it houses a number of sarcophagi, belonging to canons of the cathedral and the knight Count Don Sanche de Labarthe; an ideal situation, one might conjecture, for a little necromancy. Louis de Fiancette D'Agos has diligently recorded the inscriptions upon each tomb for us and interpreted the sometimes obscure Latin abbreviations: most are simple, but MRJ might have enjoyed the splendidly morbid inscription on the monument of Vital de Ardengost, which Louis de Fiancette D'Agos floridly translates as follows: "There it lies, in its tomb, that rose of the world; now fouled and withered, it no longer gives out its sweet smell, but that which emits from the dust of the tombs".[10]

No scion of the house of Mauléon lies here, and, sad to relate, the tomb of Bishop Jean is now altogether unknown, no doubt lost in the vicissitudes of later years.

One other feature of the cloister may catch our eye: the twelfth-century Gallery of Storiated Capitals on the west side. One column stands out from the others, and that is the Pillar of the Four Evangelists; instead of the plain twin columns surmounted by carved capitals which we see elsewhere in this arcade, we have here four figures standing back to back, forming the column itself; above them the capital, much worn, depicts the signs of the Zodiac. Although the capital is much damaged, one can pick out Cancer, Leo, Sagittarius and other signs. Did these perhaps inspire the "planetary symbols" drawn by Canon Alberic on his plan of the south aisle and cloister?

Let us re-enter the cathedral from the little door on the south side - which Canon Alberic must have used if his mysterious rites encompassed both the south aisle and cloister. We pause here before the entrance to the wooden chancel of Jean de Mauléon, to look up at the arms of Mauléon emblazoned above the doorway; then at last we enter the holy of holies, the completely enclosed choir and high altar, which cannot even be glimpsed from the other side of the rood screen. Nothing, whether the glossy colour photographs of the modern guide books, or James McBryde's beautifully accurate drawing of the choir in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, can prepare one for the full glory which now bursts upon the eye. Jean de Mauléon's choir took a decade to make and comprises a total of sixty-six stalls arranged in two tiers, and a bishop's stall, all carved mainly of oak and walnut so highly burnished that the warm brown wood seems to glow. Every possible surface is intricately carved, including the misericords under the canons' tip-up seats; the dorsals, the hand rests, the bench ends, all are alive with figures, with symbols and with foliage. Here, we see a skull representing the Death of Adam; there, upon a hand rest, a crouching monkey. There are winged spirits, grotesque faces, a siren, a triton. Upon the dorsals which line the walls we see a total of forty-two carved figures, which include Old Testament characters such as Moses and Daniel (though no Solomon), the Virtues, and, on the north side, twelve Sibyls: pagan prophetesses who were "Christianised" by the early Church. And there are demons in Saint Bertrand's church: on one of the bench ends at the north side of the choir, Christ is tempted by a shaggy devil; underneath a misericord on the south side lurks a harpy, a female demon which might represent that Lilith referred to indirectly by Dennistoun when he quoted the prophet Isaiah.

The recorded guide which accompanies the visitor to this part of the church tells us that Jean de Mauléon was a Humanist.[11] This is probably an inference based on what we see of his works here in the cathedral - no written document about Bishop Jean survives, all having been lost in succeeding centuries, or worse, having perished in the bonfire of 1793. Classical (pagan) motifs freely intermingle with Christian ones: for instance the organ decorated with the Labours of Hercules, of which Louis de Fiancette D'Agos so heartily disapproved. There is also, on the south-east exterior of the wooden chancel, a series of twelve heads depicted on inlaid wood panels, which include Pope Leo X, Roland and Olivier (knights of Charlemagne); as well as Hector, Prince of Troy; Julius Caesar; and a male head which some identify as the poet Dante.[12] The inclusion of worthy classical figures in church decoration is not unusual - Plato and Aristotle, for example, found their way into a number of churches - and many Humanists were deeply devout Christians.[13] Still, we may wonder a little at the inclusion of quite so many pagan motifs, and particularly personalities such as Julius Caesar, whom it is not usual to find in churches. This may have been in MRJ's mind when he chose to make the unfortunate Canon Alberic a collateral descendant of Bishop Jean de Mauléon, perhaps thinking that a streak of unorthodox theology ran through the family!

Before we leave Saint Bertrand's church, we might make a brief visit to the cathedral treasury, housed in the upper part of the chapel of Sainte-Marguerite. If we hoped to see a profusion of costly items corresponding to that treasure sought by Canon Alberic, we are disappointed: although some beautiful ecclesiastical items have been preserved, much has been lost during the Wars of Religion and the Revolution.[14] However, amongst the ornate chalices, embroidered copes, monstrances, and other items on display, we can still see Saint Bertrand's ivory crozier (minus its crook) which MRJ mentions in his story. All the same, this is a small return for our hopes of abundant riches to tempt a Canon, or indeed of some local tradition of concealed treasures...

At this point in my visit I returned to the ticket office to pose a few questions about the cathedral, such as the whereabouts of Jean de Mauléon's tomb, which is of course lost. The two guides, M. Gérard Clouzet and M. Jacques Morère, both proud enfants de la ville,[15] are an inexhaustible source of information - much of it unrecorded in the guide books. M. Morère, perhaps regretting the absence of Bishop Jean's tomb, took me by way of consolation to see the arms of Mauléon on the exterior wall of the sixteenth-century sacristy. This building is something of a curiosity, as it was added to the Chapelle Saint-Barthélemy, so that it creates a rather odd excrescence on the plan of the nave, somewhat disturbing its symmetry. It was built by Jean de Mauléon and is accessed only from within the church. Foreseeing perhaps the Wars of Religion and the attendant pillage of church treasures, Bishop Jean had the sacristy constructed with a false floor; there is a crawl-space of 1.3 metres, the difference in height between the lower point of the arms of Mauléon on the outside wall and the roof of the tunnel walkway which passes underneath the sacristy. Did MRJ know this when he made the descendant of Jean de Mauléon search for hidden treasure within the precincts of the cathedral? Perhaps not, since Louis de Fiancette D'Agos' nineteenth-century guide is innocent of all reference to it. Still, there is a pleasing symmetry in the idea of the good Bishop hastening to conceal the treasures of the church in the sixteenth century, and his descendant Canon Alberic seeking some one hundred and fifty years later to uncover hidden riches in the same place.

There is one other topic upon which Messieurs les Guides are able to offer some unexpected help, and that is the location of the sacristan's house as described in MRJ's story. This had, I must admit, given me some little trouble: the house must be within a hundred yards of the church, as the sacristan describes it so in the story, and it must be "rather larger than its neighbours - stone-built, with a shield carved over the door". Assuming that MRJ had based the sacristan's house upon a real place (which seems likely considering how many other details of the story are based upon fact), a proliferation of buildings could have been the one in question. There is, for example, a sixteenth-century house close to L'Oppidum, which is considerably grander (though not larger) than its neighbours, and is stone built, with a front of red brick and black timber. There is also the fifteenth-century Maison Bridaut, now the post office, which is considerably larger than the other houses surrounding it, and much more imposing too, with a kind of turret standing four stories high and with the remains of a coat of arms carved over the doorway. There is even the old gendarmerie, which must be one of the largest buildings in the upper town of Comminges; the front, which is under renovation, appears of too recent a date for Canon Alberic, but the back is clearly very much older. There are, however, no carved shields to be seen anywhere upon it, at least at this date. It seemed impossible to say which of these buildings, or any of the other possible houses, was the one upon which the sacristan's house was based. Light was at last shed upon the mystery by M. Clouzet the guide, when I started to tell him about the reason for my interest in Comminges, and to ask about the paintings in the church. It soon became apparent that he was aware of M.R. James's visit in the 1890s and the story it inspired. To my surprise, he started to tell me about the painting of Saint Bertrand and the crocodile which hangs in the Chapelle Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul. What had this relatively modern picture to do with MRJ? It seems that the painting was the work of a local artist, Bertrand Rixens, who died in 1921. About Bertrand Rixens, there is very little to tell. His name, though unusual to our ears, is quite ordinary locally; the area must have many Bertrands named after its local saint, and Rixens is a very common surname in the Pyrenees. Apart from a few commissions carried out in the town, Bertrand Rixens remains obscure, but he does have one special point of interest for us: he is said to have known M.R. James. Can this be proved at a distance of over a century? It seems doubtful. And yet - Bertrand Rixens lived in the house which almost certainly inspired MRJ's description of the sacristan's house, the former dwelling-place of Canon Alberic de Mauléon. It stands a little downhill from the Maison Bridaut, by the archway known as the Porte Cabirole. Stone-built with a facing of stones and mortar, it has several sets of arms, now defaced, carved over the doorway. This was the Episcopal palace, built in the sixteenth century, and bearing still the date 1549 above the door. Later pressed into use by the Justice de Paix, the words La Loy (the Law) were carved over its effaced arms. Its location fits: any hotel in the upper town is likely to be within a few hundred yards at most, and L'Oppidum is within a hundred. It is most certainly "stone-built, with a shield carved over the door". It was also the residence of ecclesiastics of the town. MRJ must have stood before this stout stone doorway, and if he did meet Bertrand Rixens, he must surely have entered, and perhaps found himself in a "high chamber with a stone floor, full of moving shadows cast by a wood-fire that flickered on a great hearth", as did Dennistoun. But we who now stand before the massive wooden door can follow him no further. The house is still inhabited by the Rixens family; a nephew of Bertrand Rixens had it after his death, and his wife still lives there. But it is not possible to speak to her, this last very distant link with M.R. James's visit: she is, as the guide told me simply, "Very, very old".

Acknowledgements: Je voudrais rendre grâces aux Messieurs les Guides de la Cathedral de St-Bertrand de Comminges: M. Gérard Clouzet et M. Jacques Morère.


[1] The exact publication date of this book is unknown, though it is certainly late nineteenth century. A dedication early in the text asks for the reader's prayers for the soul of the author's mother, who died in 1853. I used a facsimile edition published by Lacour.

[2] Superb views of the cathedral (exterior and interior) can be seen on the cathedral website at: <>.

[3] The original cathedral having been built by Saint Bertrand, and the later enlarged version housing his relics, it can fairly be termed "St Bertrand's church"; however the cathedral is actually dedicated to Sainte-Marie.

[4] Louis de Fiancette D'Agos: "Le dragon le suit comme un agneau jusque sur la place de la cathédrale où il expire".

[5] "C'est surtout dans les sujets qui le décorent que l'on voit la deplorable invasion du paganisme. Ainsi, on y trouve plusieurs travaux d'Hercule et pas une seule idée chrétienne." Louis de Fiancette D'Agos was a very fervent Catholic. In chapter three of Vie et Miracles... he describes the Church as being like the ark which saved our forefathers from the flood, travelling onwards through the ages carrying in its bosom all who do not wish to perish.

[6] The great bell Bertrande still hangs in this tower and can be heard on Sundays.

[7] The miracles attributed to Saint Bertrand do not include the deliverance of a man whom the devil long sought to strangle. Saint Bertrand is, however, said to have cured a woman of noble birth of a demonic possession: during the exorcism the demon cruelly shook and tormented the woman; the Saint threw holy water over the woman and ordered the demon to come out, upon which it obeyed and left her body, causing her to vomit blood. The story is recorded by Louis de Fiancette D'Agos, as is a second story of a woman who was cured of a demonic possession after praying at the tomb of Saint Bertrand. Neither of these miracles is depicted on the Saint's tomb.

[8] The crown promised to the faithful servant is given.

[9] The hardened sinners are destroyed.

[10] Louis de Fiancette D'Agos' translation is a very free one! The Latin reads: HC. JACET. I. TVBA. ROZA. MVDI. NO. ROZA. MVDA. NO. REDOLET. SET. OLET. QD. REDOLE. SOLET. De Fiancette D'Agos' French reads: "Là-gît, dans sa tombe, cette rose du monde; aujourd'hui souillée et flétrie, elle ne répand plus sa bonne odeur, mais celle qui s'exhale de la pourriture des tombeaux."

[11] In the Renaissance sense as opposed to modern secular Humanism.

[12] Dante is considered a forerunner of Renaissance Humanism. His guide in the Divine Comedy is the Roman poet Virgil.

[13] The great scholar Erasmus, for example, had no issue with the idea of a "Saint Socrates".

[14] This is true of items elsewhere in the cathedral: the bust of Saint Bertrand housed in his tomb, for example, is a silver-plated replacement of a solid silver bust carried off during the Revolution.

[15] Natives of the town.

The crocodile at St Bertand de Comminges: photograph by William Bond.
For more of William Bond's St Bertrand photographs, etc., click on the picture.

back to top

"The Old Man on the Hill"

Beelzebub in "An Evening's Entertainment"

by Rosemary Pardoe

Ten years ago, in my Ghosts & Scholars Story Notes for "An Evening's Entertainment", I pointed out that the haunting in the tale - the seasonal manifestation of swarms of poisonous black flies - appears to be related to Beelzebub: the "Lord of flies", as the sexton puts it.[1] Yet it is clear that Mr Davis and his companion were involved in a continuation or revival of the Druidic worship of a pagan sun deity, connected with the "old figure cut out in the hill-side". I found it impossible to equate the Judaeo-Christian demon Beelzebub with the ceremonies apparently indulged in by the two men, particularly at the equinoxes and solstices; their deaths at the Autumn equinox; and their wearing of the wheel sun-symbol. The original Semitic and Philistine god Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, has not normally been associated by scholars with the sun (although one nineteenth-century author did think that the flies might be sacred animals, "a symbol of the solar heat").[2]

In the Story Notes, I also identified the hill figure in the tale as almost certainly inspired by the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset, mentioned by M.R. James as "the wicked old giant" in his 1925 book Abbeys. Significantly, MRJ was completing and proofing Abbeys in the months just before he wrote "An Evening's Entertainment", which seems to have been produced in a hurry to finish up his A Warning to the Curious (1925).[3]

I have now discovered another author who, just four years after the appearance of "An Evening's Entertainment", was proposing a link between Beelzebub and the Cerne Giant, although it is a very different one to MRJ's.

What exactly is the huge, 180-foot high, image cut into the chalk of the Dorset hillside just north of the small town of Cerne Abbas? It depicts a naked man, highly phallicly endowed, and brandishing a club in his right hand. Originally he seems to have carried something on his left arm, possibly a cloak or an animal skin, but this has disappeared. Theories abound concerning his identity. Could he be a Celtic sun or fertility god, such as Bel or Nodens; a Romano-British god, such as Priapus or Saturn; a British version of Hercules; the Wild Huntsman; an Iron Age warrior (these warriors were invariably portrayed in carvings, etc., with an erect penis like that of the Cerne figure); the Saxon sky god, Tiw; or even a joke by the sixteenth-century monks of Cerne Abbey on their randy abbot? All of these have been put forward, and some candidates a good deal more outré![4] The 'randy abbot' theory was a popular one for some time, but there is no evidence whatsoever for it, and the accusations of misconduct against the abbot in question seem to have been trumped up at the time by an enemy.

According to an account dating from the thirteenth century (and possibly other earlier texts, depending on how one reads the relevant sections), Cerne was the centre of worship of a god named "Helith" or "Hel" when St Augustine, by tradition, founded the Abbey at the end of the sixth century. Various authors have assumed that the Cerne Giant was this "Hel", hence a tenuous link with the Greek sun god Helios (and with King Herla of the Wild Hunt, of whom more anon). But the first written record of the Giant itself dates back only as far as 1694, when the churchwardens' accounts for Cerne recorded an amount paid for the "repaireing of ye Giant". The most fashionable theory today is that the figure was cut in the 1650s, as a caricature of Oliver Cromwell as Hercules, by the local Lord Denzil Holles. However, the evidence for this is flimsily circumstantial at best, and many good logical arguments can be cited against it. It could well be true that the Cerne Giant was, indeed, originally cut in the seventeenth century, but (as is often repeated by writers on the subject) "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence".

The explanation favoured by MRJ in Abbeys is that the "wicked old giant...":

" perhaps the most striking monument of the early paganism of the country. Whether he is British or Saxon, who shall say? Some have thought that he represents what Caesar describes - a wicker figure in which troops of victims were enclosed and then burnt to death. On this hypothesis the figure would have been marked out by a palisade of wattles on the ground, and the victims, bound, crowded into the enclosure."[5]

This surely qualifies as one of the more outré theories mentioned above! It was first suggested in 1872 by J.S. Phené, and taken up by W. de St Croix in the following decade, although more particularly in relation to the Wilmington Long Man in Sussex, rather than the Cerne Giant.[6] Their thesis was that the wicker man as an upright construction would not have worked in practice as it would have collapsed soon after being set on fire, thus releasing all those inside. Both authors were writing in publications which would not have been among MRJ's regular reading matter (an architectural and a Sussex archaeological periodical respectively), and the idea did not receive any popular recognition. Perhaps, however, it was reported in the contemporary newspapers and this is where he initially encountered it. Is there an echo of something similar in "An Evening's Entertainment", when the grandmother's father talks to Mr Davis about the worship of "the old man on the hill", and how "he'd heard and read about the heathens and their sacrifices", on which grandmother comments: "what you'll learn some day for yourself, Charles, when you go to school and begin your Latin"?

To return now to the matter of the Beelzebub/Cerne Giant connection. It was proposed by Stuart Piggott in an article entitled "The character of Beelzebub in the Mummers' Play", which appeared in Folk-Lore in 1929.[7] In the Christmas Mummers' Play, of the commonest "hero-combat" variety, which was once popular throughout most of England, a hero (usually St George) fights an antagonist, one or other of them then having to be revived by a 'quack' doctor. Among the peripheral characters is the comic figure of Beelzebub. He (or occasionally She!) appears armed with a club and a frying pan, quoting a rhyme of this sort:

Here I come Beelzebub,
And over my shoulder I carry my club;
And in my hand a frying pan,
And I think myself a jolly old man.

The Cerne Giant, of course, also carries a club, but in addition, there is a rectangular earthwork just above the Giant's head, known as the Trendle or Frying Pan. Were the Mummers' devil and Cerne's gigantic figure representations of the same ancient, long-lost god? Perhaps this deity was the leader of the Wild Hunt, Herle (i.e. the King Herla about whom Walter Map wrote in the twelfth century): an equivalent personage in medieval French legend, Herlechin/Herlequin - a demonic giant leading his company of damned souls on their endless hunt - was recorded as carrying a club. And perhaps he only became linked with the name Beelzebub via the latter's familiar appearance in the Harrowing of Hell segment in some of the medieval Mystery Play cycles, for "it is a commonplace of religious history that the deity of one religion becomes the devil of that which supplants it". This was Stuart Piggott's premise. "Can we see in Beelzebub of the Mummers' Plays the degenerate and degraded survival of Helith or Herlechin?" he asked.[8]

To which our answer would now be a conditional "No!" If there is a connection between the Cerne Giant and the Mummers' Beelzebub, it cannot be through their mutual reference back to the same god of antiquity. In the 1920s, the Mummers' Play was believed to be a trivialised remnant of an age-old heathen ceremony of death and rebirth, but it is now generally accepted that the Play was not performed much earlier than the eighteenteenth century. It was particularly popular during the Victorian era, and just possibly the Cerne locals saw a similarity between Beelzebub and their Giant at this time, giving the Trendle the Frying Pan epithet as a result.[9]

Rodney Castleden in The Cerne Giant (1996) turned this around: "It could even be that the Giant was known by the name Beelzebub, a nickname perhaps, and that the four lines [in the Mummers' Play] were meant as a specific reference to the Cerne Giant".[10]

"All told," wrote a puzzled Ronald Hutton in his scholarly 1996 work on the events of the ritual year, "the collapse of the theory of pagan origins has created more problems than it has solved in the quest for the origins of the Mummers' Play". For Hutton, "'Beelzebub', with his club and pan" is the "most remarkable" of the players: "Beelzebub does look amazingly like the ancient Celtic god-form venerated in Gaul under the name of Sucellus and in Ireland as the Daghda, a male figure carrying a club and a pot or cauldron". The Daghda or Sucellus has, needless to say, been offered as a candidate for the Cerne Giant.[11]

Stuart Piggott seems to have been the first to come up with a perceived link between the Mummers' Beelzebub and the Dorset hill figure, or at least the first to write about it. Could MRJ have drawn the same conclusions independently a few years before, maybe via his knowledge of Walter Map; thereby justifying to himself the unlikely juxtaposition of Beelzebub and the pagan "old man on the hill" in "An Evening's Entertainment"?[12] Or could he have read about it in an earlier source so obscure it has now been forgotten? Probably the similarity between this aspect of MRJ's plot and Piggott's hypothesis is coincidental, and they are entirely unconnected, but you can never be quite certain with MRJ!


[1] Ghosts & Scholars 18 (1994), pp.33-34; reprinted in M.R. James, A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings (Ash-Tree Press, 2001), pp.359-360.

[2] Entry for "Baal Zebub" in Karel van der Toorn et al. (ed.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Eerdmans, 1999), pp.154.

[3] The other possible identification of the figure (assuming MRJ was inspired by a real place, as he almost invariably was) is the Wilmington Long Man in Sussex. I stated in the Story Notes, when considering whether Cerne or Wilmington was the more probable location, that the Long Man of Wilmington had never been linked with the Greek sun-god, Helios. While this is true, I now know that the Long Man has been associated with sun-god worship by some authors, but by no means as frequently as has the Cerne Giant. It remains the case that the Cerne area is far more likely to be the story's setting, both because of possibly related nearby place-names (as discussed in the Story Notes) and because of MRJ's roughly contemporary concern with it during the preparation of Abbeys. Wilmington Priory did not come within the scope of Abbeys (i.e. the part of the country covered by the Great Western Railway), nor am I aware of his ever having written about it or the Long Man anywhere else.

[4] For more on all the theories concerning the Cerne Giant, see: Rodney Castleden, Ancient British Hill Figures (S.B. Publications, 2000), especially Chapters 9 ("Cerne Giant") and 10 ("Long Man of Wilmington"); Rodney Castleden, The Cerne Giant (Dorset Publishing Company, 1996); Rodney Castleden, The Wilmington Giant: The Quest for a Lost Myth (Turnstone Press, 1983); Timothy Darvill et al, The Cerne Giant: An antiquity on trial (Oxbow Books, 1999); Paul Newman, Lost Gods of Albion: The Chalk Hill-Figures of Britain (Sutton Publishing, 1997), especially Chapters 5 ("The Cerne Giant") and 8 ("The Long Man of Wilmington").

[5] M.R. James, Abbeys (Great Western Railway, 1925), p.149.

[6] Rodney Castleden, The Wilmington Giant, pp.77-80; Paul Newman, Lost Gods of Albion, pp.146-148.

[7] Stuart Piggott, "The character of Beelzebub in the Mummers' Play", Folk-Lore 40 (1929), pp.193-195.

[8] Ibid, p.194; Stuart Piggott, "The Name of the Giant of Cerne", Antiquity 6 (1932), pp.214-216.

[9] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp.70-80; Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford University Press, 2000; paperback edition, 2003), pp.250-253 (entry on "mumming plays"); Timothy Darvill et al, The Cerne Giant, p.117.

[10] Rodney Castleden, The Cerne Giant, p.83.

[11] Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun, pp.78-79; Rodney Castleden, The Wilmington Giant, pp.81-82. In Ronald Hutton's earlier The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles (Blackwell, 1991), he again discusses the relatively recent date of the Mummers' Play, and compares Beelzebub with the Daghda/Sucellus. He then goes on to assert that the latter's "image is also carved upon the west wall of the medieval church at Copgrove in Yorkshire" (p.328 in the 2001 edition). I'm not convinced by this attribution. The Copgrove figure seems rather to depict a kind of sheelagh-na-gig (holding a bowl or ball, but not a club): in fact, it is often listed among the country's sheelagh-na-gigs. This is disappointing as the carving is known as "The Devil's Stone", which would tie in nicely with Beelzebub.

[12] MRJ first produced an edition of Walter Map's De Nugis Curialium in the original Latin in 1914 (Anecdota Oxoniensia series xiv). His English translation of Map was published in 1923 (Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion), a couple of years before "An Evening's Entertainment". The story of King Herla there (pp.13-17) is annotated at length by Edwin Sidney Hartland with mentions of Hel, Herle and the Continental "Herlequin". Sadly Map's King Herla does not wield a club.

back to top

Just How Wicked was
that Wicked Young Man?

A Look at "An Evening's Entertainment"

by Tina Rath

My husband Tony and I read a version of "An Evening's Entertainment" for the M.R. James Convention organised in Rochester by Katherine Haynes, and while I was preparing the text for performance I was struck by the question: What - exactly - was going on there? Some years later (my thought processes are slow) I formulated this little article. The story may not be entirely familiar; although it is one of my own favourites it rarely features on other's lists of the best of James, so I shall give a brief description.

It begins with the author musing on what sort of tale the old grandmothers in old fashioned novels might have told their child-audiences. The scene, the winter fireside and the fascinated children, is often described, but we never hear one of the stories. After a brief, but funny, foray into the kind of worthy Victorian book aimed at teaching children scientific facts in the most boring way possible while pretending to amuse them, he embarks on a reconstruction of one of those old wives' tales, told to Charles and Fanny to keep them quiet while their father, the Squire, sleeps off his port beside the fire. The grandmother is re-telling something her mother told to her, interspersed with her own memories of her father's recollections of the same event. The children have strayed near a lane where a cottage once stood, and she tells the story of the two men who once lived there, a Mr Davis, and a young man whom he brought to live with him, perhaps as a servant, perhaps as a pupil. They had the odd habit of staying out all night at certain times of the year, and the young man made the possibly sinister remark that "we don't want for company at such times..." Then one September morning the young man was found hanging from an oak tree and further investigation revealed Mr Davis, on the dining room table, his breast bone "split through from the top downwards with an axe!" And there was no doubt, she says, that "the wicked young man" had drugged Mr Davis, "then used him as he did, and, after that, the sense of his sin had come upon him and he had cast himself away". Mr White, the parson, told his congregation that the men were "guilty... of the dreadful sin of idolatry" and suggested that others in the neighbourhood could also be guilty... (with the clear implication that "They know who they are... and so do we..."). The corpses were buried outside consecrated ground, without ceremony (in a nice touch they were carried to their grave by bearers "with their hats on their heads"). The cottage was burned down. A few nasty and possibly supernatural events followed, connected with mysterious flies that haunt the lane, but gradually they died out.

So - what really happened? The "wicked young man" was wearing a white gown and a pendant with a little ornament "like a wheel" (a sun sign?) when he was found, and he was, as I said, hanging from an oak with all those Druidical and Norse connections. Mr Davis was semi-naked and bound with strips of linen. Were they both sacrifices to the pagan gods whom he and the young man had been meeting, with others (and not all of those others actually alive...), to worship at the chalk figure, cut in the hillside? Could it have been sun-worship? The "wise man" who is brought in to cure the grandmother's arm after she is bitten by one of those sinister flies suggests this when he says "When the sun's gathering his strength, and when he's in the height of it, and when he's beginning to lose his hold, and when he's in his weakness, them that haunts about that lane had best take heed to themselves". (Although this does sound like a joke, as it just about sums up the four seasons, and doesn't really leave any time when the lane wouldn't be dangerous...) That is one possibility. But there are others: the sexton remarks grimly "Lord of flies, sir," after the first fly infestation, which is a fairly transparent reference to Beelzebub, the Philistine deity, whose name Milton gave to one of the fallen angels. Were they devil-worshippers? Mr White's reference to "idolatry" could fit in with this theory as well as the pagan one. Or had they been practising witch-craft? James would certainly have known that the church once equated witch-craft with idolatry because it involves offering the latria or absolute worship that belongs to God alone to demons instead, and Mr White could have been a clergyman of the old school. And the grandmother actually mentions witch-craft, in a round-about way (she is, after all, talking to children). Her father, she says, thinks about the young man's remark about "not wanting for company" and remembers that "there was a lot of talk in the villages roundabout"; indeed, she adds, he had to interfere to stop them swimming a suspected witch. Was the talk about witch meetings, Sabbaths, being held on the hill? And were they? So... Paganism, devil worship or witch-craft, it clearly went horribly wrong for Mr Davis and the young man. Did their demon masters turn on them, as they are said to be prone to do?

Or is the story not really supernatural at all? "Well, now," says the grandmother, "what did those two men do with themselves? Of course I can't tell you half the foolish things that the people got into their heads, and we know, don't we, that you mustn't speak evil when you aren't sure it's true, even when people are dead and gone." Was one of those ideas that Mr Davis and his protégé were lovers? It does look as if they might have been. And was it a relationship which involved - perhaps - a little bondage, a bit of dressing-up, some S and M? Did they take drugs (those "herbs and jars with liquors")? And meet like-minded people on the hills on those summer nights - a kind of local Hell-Fire Club? And was Mr Davis' death due to taking things just a thrill too far? And the young man - was he indeed shocked out of his (drug-induced?) haze when he realised what he had done, and did he then hang himself as the grandmother suggested? But if he did, her description of the scene does not work. We are not told that there was any blood on him, or on his white robe; only that there was a bloody hatchet at his feet. Surely there must have been a rush of blood from the terrible axe wound that killed Mr Davis. The killer would have been soaked from head to foot. Where did it all go? Of course it is perfectly possible that the young man was naked when he struck the blow - but what did he do then? Wash all the blood off, and dress himself in that ritual gown before killing himself? It seems very unlikely. Was someone else there: one of those people from the meetings on the hills, who had joined Mr Davis and his friend for a private party where something went horribly wrong? Could the young man have been just as much a victim as Mr Davis? It would be possible to reconstruct a scenario like this: the three embark on a game involving bondage and a hatchet - dangerous in any situation, but complicated by the fact that they have taken some of those herbal preparations. It goes too far and Mr Davis is killed. The young man is the only witness. Dazed, drugged, he is led off to the oak grove and strung up (and perhaps this has happened before too, in another game, but this time he is allowed to strangle). The bloody weapon is laid at his feet. And the murderer slips away into the night.

I think all these ambiguities are part of the story: James says at the beginning that he is reconstructing a fire-side story - that is, he is making it up as he goes along. His narrator is deeply unreliable: she is repeating something she was told, long ago, with all those possibilities for distortion, and forgetting; she must also remember her audience, and suppress unsuitable details (although, for modern tastes perhaps she does not go quite far enough there); the story is what she, the author and we like to make of it.

"What's that, Fanny? A light in your room? The idea of such a thing!" And we are left in the dark.

back to top


M.R. James
BBC4 (digital) TV documentary; shown on December 22nd, 2004, and repeated on Christmas Day;
directed and produced by Pete Lawrence; research & sound by Jake Hayes and Rob Davis.

Reviewed by David Rowlands.

This 25-minute documentary was followed over the Christmas period by four of the BBC's old MRJ adaptations: Whistle and I'll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1974), A Warning to the Curious (Clark, 1972), and The Stalls of Barchester (Clark, 1971). But sadly not Lost Hearts - for my money, the best!

For the dedicated Jamesian, the verdict on the programme may well be the same as mine - adequate! It makes no absurd blunders, puts across no heretical notions and generally presents an interesting portrayal of the man and his stories: a testimonial to sound research by Jake Hayes. I do wish, however, that a director/producer would arise with the guts to break away from this almost universal "talking heads" approach. You get no proper interviews, just brief quotes and quips from "personalities" to suit the chosen theme. In this instance it works reasonably well, with the most sensible being from Christopher Frayling, while it was a delight to see Michael Cox appearing after his long illness. I think he was wrong, though, to opine that MRJ's talent for mimicry possibly led him to "dramatise" his readings - while he may unconsciously have slipped into "Barker" at appropriate moments, the evidence of those present is that MRJ read the stories unemotionally and without theatrical effects.

Other pundits interpolated were Ruth Rendell, Muriel Gray, Kim Newman and Lawrence Gordon Clark. For me personally there were too many brief excerpts from the dramatisations, and the segments of Christopher Lee as MRJ may also have confused slightly, but they were quite well chosen and apt. Uninitiated viewers may have been puzzled at seeing Michael Hordern in nightwear as both Professor Parkins and Scrooge!

Inevitably much of the footage shot for the documentary ended up on the cutting-room floor - a particularly poignant loss is the interview which was conducted with Dr Peter Lawrence (no relation to the director), a 90-year-old ex-Eton master (Maths & House) who was one of the scouts at Worbarrow in 1927 to whom MRJ read "Wailing Well". I hope this footage/interview is not lost. However, we get some good scenes of Eton College Library and the hearth-fire was taken in the Provost's Lodge, once MRJ's home.

To the uninitiated, it seems the programme may have had good impact. One of my bellringers borrowed the Belfry copy of The Collected Ghost Stories (it's that sort of Library!) and told me that he'd seen the documentary by chance and it had made him want to read the stories. He's now into Michael Cox's biography.

back to top

go to Newsletter Issue 1
go to Newsletter Issue 2
go to Newsletter Issue 3
go to Newsletter Issue 4

go to Newsletter Issue 5
go to Newsletter Issue 6

back to Jamesian News Page
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page