Maia Agonistes: The War of the Months in M. R. James’s “The Ash-Tree”
by Terry W. Thompson
[page 101] Abstract: M. R. James enjoyed a long and successful career as a professor and administrator, but today, his prolific scholarly writings have been eclipsed by the thirty-plus ghost stories. One of those supernatural tales is "The Ash-Tree.” In this account of the seventeenth-century witch trials in England, James uses two opposing months of the year—one masculine, the other feminine—to add mythological and cultural resonance to his tale of a wronged woman's revenge from the grave.
Keywords: Mars, Maia, witch trials, revenge
One of the most unlikely ghost story writers of his generation was M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James (1862-1936), professor, dean, and provost at both Eton College and Cambridge University. A lifelong academic, James spent the majority of his compositional energy on producing scholarly books and articles, but as a respite from this work, he composed ghost stories, over thirty in all, “urbane and learned” (Cox 142) works that were intended to be read aloud at Christmas time for the entertainment of friends. Among these stories is “The Ash-Tree,” first published in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, his debut collection, in 1904, and rarely anthologized since. Throughout this intergenerational revenge tale, James sets in opposition the months of March and May, each named only once but together having a rich symbology that underscores the contrast between a landed English nobleman and the widow whom he helps to send to the gallows as a witch.
According to Jack Sullivan, the best English ghost stories “have elegant surfaces” (8), and in “The Ash-Tree,” that stylishness is provided by one of “the smaller country-houses” in Suffolk, built “in the Italian style [and] [page 102] surrounded with parks of some eighty to a hundred acres” (James 35). Castringham Hall is a “square block of white house, older inside than out” that was originally a fortress complete with a wide moat, and the two-story structure boasts a “pillared portico” in front and is surrounded by gentle meres, wide pathways, and neat landscaping and fencing: open spaces where once stood dense forests of oak and ash and yew. The picturesque landscape is a product of modern engineering, of planning and plotting, of surveying and controlling and modifying the wild, the free, and the natural, accomplished by rearranging or replacing almost everything that once stood. The mere, or lake, adjacent to the Hall is almost certainly artificial and all of the “noble trees” (35) had been hewn down long ago to give the original fortress a wide killing zone, leaving only a few grand old trees visible in the distance at the edge of the cleared fields. The tall ash tree that in 1690 stood on the western side of Castringham Hall, then, is an arboreal dinosaur spared the English broadaxe for the sake of shade, nostalgia, or perhaps whimsy, a lonely remnant of the incredible fertility that once flourished. All of that elemental fecundity has been tamed, subjugated, beaten down, or “felled,” to use the past tense of the district’s dominant family’s surname¹. Despite the obvious elegance of this ancestral home and all of its well-tended grounds, there is a palpable sterility to the place, an ominous and off-putting atmosphere which, even on warm spring days, can make a visitor feel a chill. At bottom, it is what Patrick J. Murphy calls a “phobic landscape” (177).
March vs. May
Both March and May—named after ancient deities, the former male and the latter female—are identified with their respective seasons in the northern hemisphere. March, Martius in Latin, is a masculine month, named of course for Mars, “next to Jupiter the chief Italian god,” a powerful [page 103] “war- and warrior-god” (Rose 447) who was the patron of violence, bloodshed, and strife. His color was red, and he was an aggressive divinity in every way. Every March, Romans held five different festivals in Mars’s honor, all of them martial in origin, and the month was the traditional beginning of the campaign season for the Romans, the month when the legions began to prepare for yet more conquest and expansion. As they readied for war, they would bang their shields on the ground and cry out Mars vigila! (“Mars, awake!”). Not surprisingly, his namesake month is known for its violent weather, its thunderstorms, gales, and floods that come when dark and sterile winter begins its death throes just as lifegiving spring arrives to replace it with light and hope and color.
In contrast to March, the month of May is named after Maia, an “Italian fertility, or earth, goddess” (Feder 246), a deity of the planting season, of the tilled earth, of crops and fields and orchards. As one of the seven sisters of the Pleaides—a constellation long associated with early agriculture and the changing of the seasons—Maia was always a friend to the farmers and herders. She was often associated with, and, over time, amalgamated into, Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, who was likewise a protectress of the fields and the forests and the creative life force within them. This mother earth goddess, a bringer of fruitfulness and plenty, was the very antithesis of Mars, who brought storms and violence in his namesake month along with cold, damp, gray skies and short days; her namesake month is celebrated as a time of rebirth and renewal, of spring blossoms and fertility, of welcome warmth and long days and clement weather. Notably, the two revenge killings in “The Ash-Tree” occur at night when the moon of Maia is “at the full” (James 37) and the warmth of springtime makes men sleep with their windows open. [page 104]
March in “The Ash-Tree”
After a vivid description of Cottingham Hall, “The Ash-Tree” introduces Sir Matthew Fell, in 1690 a rich and influential figure in his district, both Baronet and Deputy Sheriff; the narrator says, “In that year the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of a number of witch-trials” (James 35), and on a cold and dreary day in March, Sir Matthew testifies that he had witnessed “on three different occasions” (36)—all at night and with a full moon overhead—a local widow of moderate means, Mrs. Mothersole, as she climbed high into the huge ash tree which then stood on the western side of his home, its outstretched branches no more than a foot or two from the window of his upstairs bedroom. Sir Matthew describes Mrs. Mothersole moving nimbly from limb to limb and cutting small branches with “a peculiarly curved knife,” all the while “seem[ing] to be talking to herself” and “clad only in her shift” (36). Although Sir Matthew claims that he “had done his best to capture the woman” at each encounter, “she had always taken alarm ... and all he could see when he got down to the garden was a hare”—an elemental symbol of fertility—“go running across the park in the direction of the village” and Mrs. Mothersole’s house, implying that perhaps the widow was a shapeshifter or similar figure (36). Sir Matthew “was not especially infected with the witch-finding mania” of his time, and “[h]is evidence at the trial had not been very willingly given” (37), but he nevertheless carried out the responsibilities of his station: “he saw a duty to be done ... and he had done it” (37), although no harm or injury of any kind, save perhaps for simple trespassing and the theft of a few branches, could ever be laid at Mrs. Mothersole’s doorstep.
At the conclusion of her trial, Mrs. Mothersole is found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, based on the testimony of Sir Matthew and a few “other parishioners” who share similar suspicions about her nocturnal activities. However, “several reputable farmers of the parish”—those who live in con-[page 105]cord with the earth and its cycles—make an effort to defend the accused against the witchcraft charges levied against her and save her life, “testify[ing] to her character” (36), her personal honor, and her many good deeds, but their efforts prove futile against Sir Matthew Fell’s eyewitness testimony—“he could not possibly have been mistaken as to what he saw” (37). Within a week, on “a damp, drizzly March morning” atop a cold and windswept “hill outside Northgate” (36), Mrs. Mothersole is hanged along “with five or six” (36)—the exact number seems unimportant to the narrator or the district records—other accused witches who have just as swiftly been tried and condemned. Mrs. Mothersole never weeps or cries out for mercy, although she does make an ambiguous and rather ominous statement from the scaffold: “all that she is reported to have said was the seemingly meaningless words: ‘There will be guests at the Hall.’ Which she repeated more than once in an undertone” (37).
May in “The Ash-Tree”
James had a gift for “calling horror by gentle steps” (Lovecraft 340) and usually amid the most calming of settings. Once temperate May comes around and full springtime has finally arrived, the witch trials of March are but a distant memory for Sir Matthew and his friends. When “the moon of May [is] at the full,” Sir Matthew’s wife has gone to visit her ailing mother and he invites the Vicar to dine with him and discuss “family and parish matters.” After a “late supper” (37), Sir Matthew, perhaps missing his wife—”loneliness makes humans easy prey for the haunting hunters” (Oryshchuk 14)—persuades the Vicar to take a moonlit stroll before starting home, and as the two men come round the corner of the house, something indistinct but living moves jerkily up and down the trunk of the ash-tree that looms before them; even though there is a full spring moon, a symbol of Maia, neither of the men can see the source of the strange movements. It cannot, according to Sir Matthew, [page 106] be a squirrel, as they would by this hour be “‘in their nests’” for the night, but whatever the odd creature is, the Vicar has a fleeting conviction that “it had more than four legs” (James 38). The next morning, Sir Matthew does not, “as was his custom” (38), rise at six a.m., nor at seven or eight o’clock, leading his now-anxious servants to enter his bedroom, where they find Sir Matthew dead in bed, his body swollen and black. He is also horribly contorted as if he had “expir’d in great Pain and Agony” (38). The Vicar and the coroner are both summoned, and their vague finding is sudden death by some unknown natural cause: “‘That there were any marks of violence did not at the moment appear,’” nor is there evidence of forced entry although, as the Vicar writes, “‘the Casement stood open, as my poor Friend would always have it in this Season’” (38).
The Vicar also makes note of the unusual circumstances that followed: when two local women are brought in to bathe and prepare the corpse for burial, they are both afflicted with great pain and swelling in their hands and arms after touching the corpse, leading the coroner to make a second and more thorough examination of the body. By use “‘of a small Magnifying Lens of Crystal,’” he discovers “‘a couple of small Punctures or Pricks,’” and it is immediately suspected “that the Squire was the victim of a recrudescence of the Popish Plot” (39). Still, no suspects are ever identified or arrested, and so Sir Matthew Fell, late Lord of Castringham Hall and all of its adjacent lands, is duly buried in hallowed ground in the cemetery next to the parish church; tellingly, at the edge of the graveyard to the north, “on that unhallowed side of the building” (40), are the graves of Mrs. Mothersole and others deemed unworthy of Christian burial: “And so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy” (40).
The next master of Castringham Hall and all of its vast acreage is Sir Matthew’s son, also Sir Matthew. Fortunately for everyone involved, he proves to be nothing like his namesake father. This new Baronet selects a room on the eastern side of the great hall as his bedroom, for he prefers [page 107] sunrise to sunset, a reflection of his disposition toward the world. He lives a long, contented, and stunningly undramatic life in the family mansion. He does not conduct himself as did his late father. There are no witch hunts or similar undertakings, and the son’s lengthy tenure on the great estate—four and a half decades in all—proves modest and uneventful for the most part. In fact, the only hint of menace in his entire occupancy is a type of murrain, “a curiously constant mortality among his cattle and live-stock in general, which showed a tendency to increase slightly as time went on,” dubbed by local farmers “‘the Castringham sickness’” (40), as their own animals were largely unaffected. When the second Sir Matthew Fell dies peacefully of natural causes in his eastern-facing bedroom in 1735, his only son and heir becomes the next Lord of the manor.
This grandson of the first Sir Matthew proves to be more like his grandfather than his accommodating and well-liked father. The new Master of Castringham Hall is named Sir Richard—more Richard the Third than Lion Heart—and he is an energetic and “pestilent innovator” (41) as well as a meddler and complainer. Therefore, he decides to make great changes in almost everything around him. For example, to glorify his family name, he knocks out a wall of the parish church in order to enlarge it and make room for “a great family pew” (40) that will be dedicated to the men of the Fell dynasty, himself not least of all. To make space for this addition, a section of the cemetery “on that unhallowed side of the building” (41) must be relocated and the land built over. Since only the outcast and the condemned were buried there, no one cares much about the desecrations. Mrs. Mothersole, of course, was interred in one of the unmarked plots therein, and subsequently, “[a] certain amount of interest was excited in the village when it was known that the famous witch, who was still remembered by a few, was to be exhumed” (41). Once her rude coffin, “fairly sound and unbroken,” is dug up for its unceremonious relocation, it seems strangely light, and when opened, nothing is found [page 108] inside: no bones, no dust, not even the woman’s shroud. After the initial shock of this unsettling discovery dies down, the new Baronet orders—against the advice of the locals, especially the farming community—”that her coffin should be burnt” (41): Mrs. Mothersole is again wronged by a male of the Fell dynasty, those who took over the land, cleared most of the great old-growth forests, eliminated the ancient groves, remade the land to their own liking, and turned it into a means of profit and a hallmark of power.
One spring day, after several nights of poor slumber and assorted complaints of “discomfort” in the eastern-facing bedroom which he has inherited from his well-liked father, the always testy Sir Richard Fell decides that he can no longer live in that room. He complains of how the chimney in it smokes “persistently,” and the room is “so cold that he must keep up a fire” (41) even on warm spring nights. This new Lord declares that he must have a big bedroom “with a western look-out, so that the sun could not wake him early, and it must be out of the way of the business of the house” (42) and is informed by Mrs. Chiddock, a longtime servant at the Hall, that there is but one room in the whole manor house that fulfills all of Sir Richard’s specific demands, “but no one has slept there these forty years. The air has hardly been changed since Sir Matthew died there’” (42). Ignoring her feminine counsel—“as was his wont”—Sir Richard curtly orders her and the other house servants to begin his remove: “‘Air it, Mrs. Chiddock, all to-day, and move my bed-furniture in in the afternoon’” (42). When she again tries to caution him, he scoffs at her advice: “‘No; I do not wish to listen to any more. Make no difficulties, I beg. You have your orders—go’” (43). He then proceeds with plans for a lavish spring social event in his new home and so invites several important people—”the Bishop of Kilmore, Lady Mary Hervey, Sir William Kentfield, etc.” (44)—to visit the ancestral Fell estate to admire his ongoing remodeling efforts. Because the new Baronet “had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and, having more money [page 109] than his predecessors, he determined to leave an Italian palace where he had found an English house” (41). His friends remain with him for several days of dining, card playing, riding, hunting, shooting, and other such pleasant pastimes as are afforded to the squire class.
After a long day with his guests, Sir Richard, unmarried and childless, retires to his new western-facing bedroom. The moon is full, and he opens wide his window to allow the spring breezes to enter unimpeded, save for the evergreen leaves of the ash tree which are rippling gently only a foot or two from the casement. Of course, the next morning, he is found dead exactly like his grandfather, all swollen, black, and horribly contorted in rigor, and yet again, there is no explanation except for an open window and a few tiny pricks in the discolored flesh of the victim. Murder by poison is once more suspected, and the local authorities are as perplexed by this death as were their predecessors half a century earlier. The preferred theory is that some dark-dressed assassin managed to climb in through the open window, perhaps by means of the ash tree—although it would take a skilled acrobat to do so—and achieve this dastardly murder unseen and unheard by anyone inside or outside of the house: “Italian poisoners, Popish emissaries, infected air— all of these and more guesses were hazarded” (45).
Later that morning, the “pale and silent” guests of the late Sir Richard Fell observe a large “white tom-cat,” the antithesis of the witch’s black familiar, perched in the high fork of the ash tree that stands next to the western side of Castringham Hall. This curious male is spellbound by something he sees deep in a rotted hollow in the fork of the thick trunk. As he leans forward, the bark gives way, and he tumbles headfirst into the abyss. From out of that dark maw, his awful cries of agony horrify the observers: “Lady Mary Hervey fainted outright, and the housekeeper stopped her ears and fled till she fell on the terrace” (45). A male servant is sent to fetch an oil lantern and a tall ladder. When he returns, he is sent up the tree, but as he lowers the [page 110] lantern into the black cavity, what he sees illuminated makes him cry out “in a dreadful voice” (46) and tumble backwards, fortunately caught by the men standing below to steady the ladder. He attempts to tell what he has seen in the hollow of the ancient ash, but he faints dead away just like Lady Mary. Meanwhile, the dropped lantern has shattered inside the massive trunk, spreading oil and flame.
The onlookers arm themselves and circle the tree at a distance, “for, clearly, whatever might be using the tree as its lair would be forced out by the fire” (46). From out of the cavity come bubbling up, all of them on fire, the longpromised “‘guests at the Hall’” (37) “enormous spider[s], veinous and seared,” “the size of a man’s head” (46) and when unburned, “covered with greyish hair” (46). “All that day,” the narrator says, “the ash burned, and until it fell to pieces the men stood about it, and from time to time killed the brutes as they darted out” (46). Once the ash-tree is completely consumed by the flames, “they cautiously closed in and examined the roots of the tree” (46), finding there a burned out and blackened cavity that reaches deep into the earth, a few smoldering corpses of giant spiders, and, more disturbingly, leaning against the earth off to one side, “‘the anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones, having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a period of fifty years’” (46). This is an image—”something unspeakable, indefinable” (Tearle 141)—that seems designed to haunt the memories, as well as the nightmares, of those who dared to gaze upon—or even only read about—the female figure in the pit, where at her feet, devoted to their very last breath, sprawl the smothered bodies of a few more giant spiders, guardians of their mistress in life and in death.
Ghost stories, argues Brad Leithauser, are almost always, be it subtly or otherwise, “bound up with notions of justice” (15). At the conclusion of “The Ash-Tree,” a tale of some “depth and complexity” (Briggs 129), May again van-[page 111]quishes March. Although it takes nearly half a century, the Fell dynasty meets its end under “the full of the moon” (James 36), having paid for their lack of “due reverence” (Jones xvii) toward nature and its servant-protector, Mrs. Mothersole. The quiet widow who kept to herself and did no real “mischief” (James 36) may well have been a witch, but she was only turned vengeful by a Baronet who represented a system that helped to send more than one woman to the gallows. In the end, she eliminates not just the nobleman who wronged her; with the death of his childless grandson, the entire Fell dynasty ends up just as dead and blackened as the old ash-tree that served to channel her avengers.
1. James, always the scholar, liked to add meaning, frequently obscure, to his character names. According to the OED, “fell” is, in addition to the usage noted here, an archaic synonym for “cruel,” “deceitful,” “savage,” “villainous,” “cunning,” “ruthless,” and “destructive.”
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Terry W. Thompson has taught at universities in the United States, Asia, and the Middle East. He has published academic articles on more than thirty British and American authors, among them Mary Shelley, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood, F. Marion Crawford, and Daphne du Maurier. Thompson’s work has appeared in journals including South Carolina Review, Southern Humanities Review, Literature and Belief, Midwest Quarterly, Hudson River Valley Review, and Interdisciplinary Literary Studies. He has articles in press on Washington Irving, H. G. Wells, and Oliver Onions.
MLA citation (print):
Thompson, Terry W. "Maia Agonistes: The War of the Months in M. R. James’s “The Ash-Tree." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 2, 2022, pp. 101-112.