THAT M.R. James chose – specifically – an ash tree as the arboreal centrepiece of one of his most famous short stories is one of the pleasures of this tale.
A fact lost to most of us, I suspect, in our own centrally-heated age (though perhaps still understood by those with wood-burning stoves) is this: ash wood burns well.
Poet Celia Congreve celebrated it in her work The Firewood Poem:
Softwoods flare up quick and fine,
Birch, fir, hazel, larch and pine.
Elm and willow you’ll regret,
Chestnut green and sycamore wet
Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long ’tis laid away.
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold.
Congreve’s cautionary verse concludes:
… Ash logs smooth and grey
Buy them green or old, sir
And buy up all that come your way
They’re worth their weight in gold sir
Logs to Burn, Logs to burn, Logs to burn,
Logs to save the coal a turn,
Here’s a word to make you wise,
When you hear the woodman’s cries.
Never heed his usual tale,
That he has good logs for sale,
But read these lines and really learn,
The proper kind of logs to burn.
It’s interesting to speculate whether James (1862-1936) and Congreve (1867-1952), a noted nurse in the First World War, ever met or knew each other.
Of the two works, James’s story was written earlier (1904) – Congreve’s poem coming, I believe (though I stand to be corrected), in 1930.
James’s selection of ash as the genus of tree for his story’s climax is of a piece with his scholarly approach to his writing. He was, of course, provost of King’s College, Cambridge.
Given his enthusiasms as an antiquary, it seems probable that he was aware of the significant place of ash in European mythology.
Norse tradition holds the ash tree sacred.
More pertinent in our context, perhaps, is the place of the ash in Germanic paganism, particularly the story that the first man was formed from such a tree.
In James’s tale, a family of the squirearchy of Eastern England, becomes cursed after the putting to death of a local woman, Mrs Mothersole, on grounds of (what I shall loosely call) her witchcraft.
Here we should note an important distinction, I suggest, between Mothersole and similar figures in other stories such as, say, Alison in John Buchan’s very effective tale ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’.
The difference is this: James’s landowner, one Sir Matthew Fell, of Castringham Hall. whose testimony sends Mothersole to the gallows, knows that her infringements, shall we call them, are harmless or minor at best. In Buchan’s tale, however, Alison is active in a compact with the Devil (that plays on the desires of a young and raffish laird).
Early in James’s story we find Mothersole, according to the testimony of Sir Matthew, gathering sprigs ‘from the ash tree near my house’, at night, dressed only in her ‘shift’.
When disturbed by him, she flees in the form of a hare that runs across his park.
So it is that, on only the second page, the important connection is made between the tree and something pagan (witchcraft, if you prefer).
One senses that these early scenes involving Sir Matthew and Mrs Mothersole – they result in her execution, of course – will also end badly for him. Indeed, for all of his anger towards her, he also seems to possess a certain foreboding.
From that time forward his estate is blighted, many beasts among his livestock dying in the fields.
When Sir Matthew’s grandson – a young squire whose head is full of fashionable ideas (‘a pestilent innovator’) – seeks, years later, to alter the layout of the local church, his extensions involve the disturbance of certain old graves.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the fellow is messing in matters best left alone.