Story Notes:
"The Ash-tree"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 11.)
In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "The Ash-tree" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands, John Alfred Taylor and Ron Weighell. I intend to add all the Story Notes to the G&S Archive in due course.

"The Ash-tree" first appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). In a letter to James McBryde in March 1904, MRJ referred to the story simply as "The Spiders" (Michael Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, Oxford 1983, p.137). It has been dramatised once for television (December 1975) as the swansong of the BBC's Christmas series of MRJ plays, and starring Edward Petherbridge. In 1986 it was included in the series of readings with dramatised scenes which Robert Powell gave of MRJ's tales (BBC 2, December 26). The original manuscript was included in Sotheby's sale of November 9, 1936. Some of the other MSS went to Eton, King's and the British Museum, but the whereabouts of "The Ash-tree" are not known.

p.40, l.19-20: Castringham Hall may have been inspired, at least loosely, by Livermere Hall in Suffolk - see the note on Livermere below. The building was demolished many years ago, but a photograph of it appears in Country Life, November 6, 1986, p.1419. MRJ longed to live in this sort of house, and the first paragraph of "The Ash-tree" is clearly heartfelt.

p.40, l.30-31: Bury St Edmunds was the site of a number of witch trials in the seventeenth century. There was no trial in 1690 however, and Mother Munning, accused in 1694, was acquitted. Therefore the trials of Amy Duny and Rose Cullender in 1664 were probably the inspiration for MRJ's invention. Though no Sir Matthew Fell was a witness, the judge was Sir Matthew Hale. He admitted the most dubious testimony, as a result of which the two were condemned to be hanged (Walter Notestein, History of Witchcraft in England from 1558-1718, reprinted by Russell and Russell 1965, pp.321-322, 261-268, 305. See also Sax Rohmer's Romance of Sorcery, 1915).

p.41, l.10: The name Mothersole appears on gravestones in the churchyard at Livermere, the Suffolk village where MRJ spent much of his childhood, living at the Rectory (his parents were buried in that same churchyard). Worby (see "An Episode of Cathedral History") is another name to be found there (Cox, The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Oxford 1986, p.7). The selection of Mothersole for "The Ash-tree" is specially apposite, as Castringham is intended to be in the same area as Livermere.

p.41, l.19-25: The Ash has strong pagan associations: Yggdrasil was an ash, and three of the Five Magic Trees of pagan Ireland were ash-trees. Ash, however, was almost invariably a force for good, and it was actually considered to be a charm against witches, so quite what Mrs Mothersole was up to it is hard to say. Perhaps MRJ is giving us a hint that Sir Matthew Fell's evidence was trumped up. If so, Fell certainly bit off more than he could chew. The "peculiarly curved knife" may have been inspired by the sickle which Druids used to gather mistletoe. The idea of the hare as a witch in disguise was, of course, widespread and common.

p.44, l.6: "Pope Borgia", Pope Alexander VI (b.1431), was pontiff from 1492 to 1503. He was the father of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia. Although rumours of the family's tendency to dispose of enemies with poison were current during his lifetime, they were probably ill-founded. That he had a ring containing poison was a popular fiction.

p.44, l.18-20: Sortilege by book, or 'drawing the sorts', usually used the Bible or Virgil. In the case of Charles I, it was the Sortes Vergillianae, in a library at Oxford at the suggestion of Lord Falkland. The King hit upon the ominous and ultimately fitting passage where Dido curses Aeneas to "fall untimely by some hostile hand".

p.44, l.33-36: "The Unsearchable Way...": The title is a perfect pastiche of those found on Protestant polemics at this time. It was a popular belief among Protestants that Rome and the Catholic Church was the Scarlet Woman of Revelation, and that the Pope was the Antichrist. Though comic, Mr Crome's explanation of Sir Matthew's death as a recrudescence of the Popish Plot fits the times. Titus Oates had been convicted of perjury and flogged nearly to death in 1685, but was released from prison during the 1688 Revolution which brought William and Mary to the Throne of England.

p.45, l.6: There is no such reference in the Gentleman's Magazine for 1772.

p.45, l.16-17: The traditional burial of witches and suicides on the unhallowed north side of the church is only one example of the association of that direction with evil and the Devil. Notice also that Mrs Mothersole was hanged outside the Northgate at Bury.

p.45, l.33: The characterisation of Sir Richard as a "pestilent innovator" is probably not tongue-in-cheek. See the description of the old and new choirs in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and Mr Worby's first remarks on the Gothic Revival in "An Episode of Cathedral History".

p.47, l.24: Polyaenus was a Macedonian rhetorician and lawyer in second century Rome, best known for his Strategica or Strategemata, a collection of stratagems and strategic aphorisms in anecdotal form.

p.48, l.10: The Bishop of Kilmore (in the Province of Armagh) in 1754 would have been Joseph Storey who held the position from 1742 to 1757.

p.49, l.15-16: MRJ's favourite animal was the cat; he was rarely without one in his home. Conversely, he was terrified of spiders. The description of the latter in terms of the former is nightmarish and must have been particularly so for him.

Copyright (c) 1989 Rosemary Pardoe.

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