Monday, 11 August 2008

Mr Paxton's Fate

Oddly enough, this never occurred to me before. In MR James' 'A Warning to the Curious', the hapless antiquarian Paxton is killed by the vengeful ghost of William Ager. Ager, we know, was the last in a long line of guardians of the Saxon Crown buried at 'Seaburgh', i.e. Aldeburgh. The crown was the last of three buried on the coast of East Anglia to ward off invasions. (Not much good against the Norman Conquest, though, was it? Still a sore point up North.) 

Anyway, the story pivots on the idea that Paxton is doomed regardless of what he does. He puts the crown back with the help of the narrator and his friend, but is still killed. However, I wonder if that's quite right. It's an obvious reading, but there are some questions.

Firstly, there's the issue of the other crowns. One was lost to coastal erosions. Paxton explains that it lies in a Saxon palace now under the sea. (Odd, isn't it, how magic stops working underwater?) More important, though, is the fate of the second crown. James knew his history, of course, and a Saxon crown was unearthed there.

"Camden states that an ancient Saxon crown was dug up here, weighing about 60 ounces, but was sold and melted down." 
                 From The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)

Selling and melting it down seems a considerably more mercenary motive than Paxton's intellectual quest for an historic artefact. Yet there's no suggestion that anyone connected with destroying - desecrating - the second crown was harmed in any way. All right, one obvious conclusion is that Paxton's fate was down to the facts that a. he took the last crown, therefore England's last supernatural defence and b. William Ager was a spook, not a regular chap. Very unreasonable, ghosts.

But isn't there another possibility? Why does James' narrator state that, when Paxton's body is found, 'His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits.' Why the mouth? Is it to emphasise the fact that Paxton's real sin was not to take the crown, though that was bad enough, but to disclose its existence to others? If he hadn't told before he put it back, would he have been spared? 

It seems unlikely, to be honest. The tone of the story seems to be against it, as it is one of MRJ's bleaker tales. But then, to make Paxton's very human desire for company the cause of his horrible death would be a rather bleak twist.

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