Combining some ideas from Podcast to the Curious's recent A Warning to the Curious episode, or some weird possibilities of what was going on...

[Contact Me] | [FAQ]

[Some "Dougisms" Defined]

[About Dickens of a Blog]

[Jump to Site Links]

Summary: Podcast to the Curious has released part one of their two part coverage for 'A Warning to the Curious'. Listening to them talk about some oddities in the story, started playing around with other possibilities...

BLOT: (19 Oct 2013 - 01:43:37 PM)

Combining some ideas from Podcast to the Curious's recent A Warning to the Curious episode, or some weird possibilities of what was going on...

Depending on your particular tilt towards M.R. James's ghost stories, the recent Podcast to the Curious episode covering "A Warning to the Curious" [a first of two parts] might be exciting news to you. It was to me, because I like the story and because I knew they were putting a lot of effort into bringing out the best critique on this one.

If you have no idea what I am talking about, then read "A Warning to the Curious" via Ebooks@Adelaide, or read about "A Warning to the Curious" via Wikipedia. You can even, at least right now, watch a good adaptation of it via the magic of YouTube (with a dash of disrespect for copyright). Overall, the parts you need to know to understand where I'm about to go with this are as follows: Paxton learns that three [literal] crowns have helped to protect England/East Anglia/Britain from invaders except two have been lost over time, he finds the location of the last remaining crown through a mixture of diligence and luck, bad things ensue [hence, the "Warning" part of the title]. It is a pretty tragic story, with youthful fancy embroiling Paxton in a downward spiral, and good-natured older men trying to help but largely not succeeding. I recommend.

Taken as is—a story about digging into forces you are not meant to tamper with—works just fine. If you need a moral, that is it: the unknown can be a blessing [look, you found a lost crown!] or a curse [look, you unearthed a national treasure protecting us from German invaders, you ass!] and you cannot know which until you have breached it. In many ways, this is exactly in tune with my recent post on dramatic irony in horror. You do not have to particularly read deeply into it to enjoy it, though, as always with James, there is pleasure in a deeper reading.1

Mike Taylor and Will Ross, in the podcast, chew on various ideas and questions, tossing concepts around with the story to add some depth to the coverage, and the parts that struck me was in the question of how much does coincidence versus fate play in the doom of Paxton, and how much the story is or is not a war-time tale, and how this fits into Paxton's own hobby of digging up graves instead of being involved in combat.

The genesis of this post was the first notion, there. As the guys [Mike, specifically, I think] were talking about whether or not the coincidences felt a bit much in places, I mentally toyed with an idea: What if Paxton was meant to find and guard the crown? If James was not merely engaging in Dickensian expediency-via-coincidence that crop up in some stories2, then we must question the world-view of the story: is Paxton punished for digging, or for digging for the wrong reason. Is he a betrayer or a trespasser? Kai Roberts, in On the respective world views of M.R. James and S.T. Joshi, lists Paxton as another of James's protagonists "punished for their intellectual vanity". This would endow "A Warning to the Curious" with what Roberts identifies as an "assault against materialist and positivist philosophies and especially their insidious creep into the realm of academic scholarship". Which is to say that Paxton, by having a respect for the objects of the past but not for the people, has engaged in a lopsided exploration where he can only see the modern reality of the unburied thing, an not time-buried reality of the person.

I am not examining what I think would be the "straightforward" reading of the story, though. I am wanting to look at this odd notion, that Paxton was meant to find the crown. There is a family, the Agers, who are bound to protect the last crown, at least as far back as roughly the time when one of the other crowns was destroyed. The last of them died, and a search for known family members was unfruitful. However, what if Paxton was a relative, perhaps his great-grandmother was an Ager who married into the Paxton name3? The line of defenders is described in patrilinear terms, so there could be a missing female relative somewhere up the tree [later, we learn that Paxton had no connections, which means he was at some distance from his own family tree]. Or maybe there is no familial connection and it is only that Paxton is drawn to it. Could explain why Paxton is not fighting overseas, he is meant to stay behind to defend the crown. In either case, we have to ask: Why is Paxton punished?

The simple answer is that he disturbed the crown. It is the story's one potential imbalance, though, that we have the three crowns and one has already been dug up (without any sort of stories about those responsible being particularly doomed) and one has been submerged off the near coast (though presumably right where it was buried). Why does this one crown make all the difference? It is not in its relation to the other two, as that has already been lost. Was one crown sufficient this whole time? Has England (or, East Anglia, at any rate) gone two-thirds the way to doom? Is it the crown's connection to the past of that one specific spot? Could the submerged crown be brought back to the surface? Could the melted crown [impossibly] be reformed? Would any of this prevent Paxton's fate? Why could he not have protected the crown, elsewhere? When showing it to the Narrator and Long, he was a fair steward, then why not retire it to a place less out in the wild?

Then you realize that Paxton is not being haunted by the ghost of dead kings or by an vindictive genius loci [well, unless he is]. Instead, he is haunted by the unfulfilled, died-young[-ish?] William Ager. It is Ager who haunts him, a man who merely followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and so forth, including signing into the old family prayer-book where his forefather beseeched Christ to not forget him. Ager was so moved to duty that it "hastened his end", for he had consumption. Ager who was aware that the last of the guardians were going away. As described by the vicar, "It was a dreadful grief to him to think that he was the last, but he could do nothing..." Thus Ager found a person to stand guard after all: himself, in ghostly form.

Thus both readings of the story can be true and not terribly at odds. Paxton could have been lead to find the crown and either dug it up erroneously or as he was meant to do, and Ager could have been jealous and frightened, a self-elected guardian for all of England/Britain who took it upon his ghostly self to avenge a wrong against God and Country. Vindictive enough against Paxton personally to leave the crown unprotected just to seek revenge, even though it served as no true warning—the reader knows the warning better than the people in the actual story—and so had no real purpose. One even wonders had Paxton kept the crown, forcing Ager to keep Paxton alive until someone could possibly know how to get it back, if it would have been a different ending. And, since Ager has chosen to defend the crown at extreme costs, there is an irony that he will forever damn it to be forgotten, a speck of woods that no one comes near, until it is gone.


1: In this case, discussion could be had about the multi-layered narrative: the vicar telling someone else's story to Paxton, and Paxton telling it to Long/Narrator, and the Narrator passing it on to James.

2: It can be argued, of course, that many men have searched for the crown and it only seems to be coincidence in Paxton's case because he found it and therefore there is a story to tell.

3: By a possibly weird coincidence (or is it!? dun dun dunnnnn), Ager—whose name might be a reference to the Latin ager—field—and can also be a reference to the Old English word for spear (from which the fish likely gets its name): Paxton could possibly be a name-play on "peace farm" or "peacetime".

Appendix: Errant Move Adaptations You Could Totally See Made

Enough of this downer talk, let's get it back upbeat for a moment. I began to play around with "movie adaptation" ideas, purposefully silly ones that reflect, hopefully, some actual Hollywood techniques, and that might even have been well received by all those who did not know the story so well. Stuff like...

M.R. James


Written by Doug Bolden

For those wishing to get in touch, you can contact me in a number of ways

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The longer, fuller version of this text can be found on my FAQ: "Can I Use Something I Found on the Site?".

"The hidden is greater than the seen."