Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Thursday, 18 June 2020

An M R James Story for Mid-Summer - My analysis of "After Dark in the playing fields"

An M R James Story for Mid-Summer - "After Dark in the playing fields"

One tale that has many folkloric references is “After Dark in the playing fields”. Written in 1924 and published on the 28th of June for Issue 10 of College Days, an Eton ephemeral it is seen as a companion piece to James’s book “The Five Jars”.[1]
Rosemary Pardoe has termed this story a “seriously underrated piece”, and a close reading would actually support this theory.[2] It has a more sinister air underpinning the story, with its references to the world of fairyland and the fairies ways of punishing those who gain access to their world.
It starts very harmlessly with the narrator taking a night stroll through the grounds of Eton itself. However in this tale there is an exception with the narrator, as it is none other than James himself. It is one of only two tales where the Jamesian tactic of narratorial distance is not maintained, (the other being “A Vignette”) which somewhat dismisses the theories that many critics maintained, even James himself, that distance should always be maintained to install the believability factor. [3]
James’s closeness to this tale however is somehow negated as the tale at the beginning possesses a whimsical almost fairytale air which can be compared again to his full scale fairytale The Five Jars. This device works very cleverly to give an intimate air yet to distance the author from the tale he is telling because of the fairytale quality. James is enjoying his night walk, especially the stillness when his reverie is interrupted by an owl hooting extremely loudly...
The hour was late and the night was fair. I had halted not far from Sheep’s Bridge and was thinking about the stillness, only broken by the sound of the weir, when a loud tremulous hoot just above me made me jump. It is always annoying to be startled, but I have a kindness for owls. This one was evidently very near: I looked about for it. There it was, sitting plumply on a branch about twelve feet up. I pointed my stick at it and said, “Was that you?” “Drop it,” said the owl.[4]
There it is, the shock the reader feels suddenly introduces the pleasant shudder very early in this tale, at the thought of a dark silent night, which is interrupted by a supernatural agency of a talking animal. The tale is very similar to its precursor with its echoes of Edwardian whimsy, similar again to the tales of Alice in Wonderland, and The Wind in the Willows. However the tale has a darker side to it in that the owl is not the only supernatural agent at large on this night, and it is also a subjugated member of an underclass to the fairies that persecute it in this tale.
James chooses to imbue the owl with a working class accent, and with all of his characters in his stories, we can identify this type of accent, as it uses bad grammar, drops its aitches and has a very comic term of speech, similar to all of the shopkeepers, clerks and servants that people his tales:-
“Well,” said the owl ungraciously, “I don’t know, as it matters so particular tonight. I’ve had me [sic] supper as it happens, and if you ain’t [sic] too long over it-ahhh!” Suddenly it broke into a loud scream, flapped its wings furiously, bent forward and clutched its perch tightly, continuing to scream.[5]
The fairies are introduced into the tale at this point, trying to pull a tail feather from the owl. The fairies have clear voices and much better speech and diction, complete with the upper class accents that mark them out as being part of the upper echelons of James’s world. It is at this point that the differences between the owl and the fairies are illustrated, as the night is midsummer’s night’s eve and the fairies are celebrating with dancing and merriment, which is sarcastically mocked by the owl, in its conversation with James’.“I should kindly ‘ope [sic] not, said the owl, drawing itself up. “Our family’s never give in to dancing, nor never won’t neither.”[6]
The link with dancing is illustrated further by James introducing an intertextual reference to another folkloric tale, that of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had all the classic folkloric fairy myths of animal transmogrification, fairy kidnappings, and the fairy joy of dancing. Pardoe illustrated James’s fascination with fairy mythology,
James was no stranger to the faerie kingdom, having been interested in the subject from an early age. In his pre-or early teens, at Temple Grove School, he wrote “I want to know what Leprechaunes and Cluricaunes are, they are a kind of supernatural beings but that’s all I know about them”.[7]
Although Pardoe noted that James’s version of fairyland was “Distinctly different” from that of Shakespeare, there are many allusions in this tale that are classically similar to the folkloric underpinnings of earlier English tales, especially the “Ballad of Tam Lin”.[8] This ballad appeared first in print in 1549 in the book “The complaint of Scotland” but its origin is lost in the mists of time. It concerns a mortal woman Janet who finds she is pregnant by Tam Lin after picking a rose on her father’s estate which the fairies view as their land. It has many typical fairy traditions of time being different in their land, animals that talk and the fact that the fairy nature is combative and amoral, especially in their dealings with mortals.[9]
James’s fairies are more typical of the fairies present in these older folk tales, and the fairies in this tale would seem to support this, the owl does not like them, seeing them as something to be avoided even feared. Its fear of the fairies is justified when they try to hang it in the middle of its conversation with James:-
Hardly had the owl given its last emphatic nod when four small slim forms dropped from a bough above, and in a twinkling some sort of grass rope was thrown around the body of the unhappy bird, and it was borne off through the air, loudly protesting, in the direction of Fellows Pond. Splashes and gurgles and shrieks of unfeeling laughter were heard as I hurried up. Something darted away over my head, and as I stood peering over the bank of the pond, which was all in commotion, a very angry and dishevelled owl scrambled heavily up the bank, and stopping near my feet shook itself and flapped and hissed for several minutes without saying anything I should care to repeat.[10]
James is illustrating in this story that fairies are not the benevolent beings that can sometimes be found in story books, instead in the English tradition they are changeable beings who guard the borders to their lands very jealously. They are evidently punishing the owl for giving away a very closely guarded secret that in their world animals can choose to communicate with mortals.
Another folkloric motif found in this story is the effect that Midsummer night can have on any mortal foolish enough to be found walking at the hour of twelve midnight, in that they can develop the second sight, or the gift to be able to see past the veil of this mortal plane. The person who develops this gift or curse after encountering fairies can be seen by them ever after and vice versa, which James uses as the sinister finish to this story.
All this took place some years ago, before summer time came in. I do sometimes go into the Playing Fields at night still, but I come in before true midnight. And I find I do not like a crowd after dark-for example-at the Fourth of June fireworks. You see-no, you do not, but I see-such curious faces: and the people to whom they belong flit about so oddly, often at your elbow when you least expect it, and looking close into your face, as if they were searching for someone-who may be thankful, I think, if they do not find him.[11]
This passage is designed to ring a very sinister tone with the reader. In fact this idea of the fairies kidnapping people who encounter them can be found in many of the Grimm and Anderson tales. James translated Anderson’s tales in 1930, and these folkloric ideas can be found in many of his ghost stories, the folkloric underpinnings of James’s tales have as illustrated earlier been identified in Jacqueline Simpson’s articles. [12] However James’s intrusion into this hidden world has repercussions for him as this story shows, he can now see things that he would rather not.

[1] Rosemary Pardoe, “Introduction to The Five Jars”,  in M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.529
     M.R. James, Five Jars, (London: Book Jungle, 2008)

[2] Rosemary Pardoe, “Introduction to The Five Jars”,  in M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.529

[3] M.R. James, “Introduction for Ghosts and Marvels, in M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.487

[4] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.337

[5] Ibid, p.337

[6] Ibid. 338

[7]M. R. James, “After Dark in the Playing Fields (fn), in M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.382

[8] Ibid, p.382


[10] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.338

[11] Ibid, p.339

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Tina Rath
 Tina Rath says:

This is one of my favourite stories. I love the owl with his (heavily sarcastic) "little ladies and gentlemen" and strong sense of self preservation - and the defnite touch of folk horror. James is emphasising the strong connection that fairies have with the dead - the terrifying Middle English fairyland of Sir Orfeo, peopled by the beautiful courtly fairies and humans 'that seemed dead and were not'. I think the creatures that the James-narrator sees sometimes in crowds after dark are not the fairies but their close companions, the dead, who have come 'out of the water, or the earth - they look like that'. And they may well be murder victims looking for their killers...
Robert Lloyd Parry tells this story most effectively. I recommend his spoken version very highly.

posted 18th June 2020

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