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Books

O Tempores! O Mores!

10.27.13 | Comment?

I read lots of old books. Lots of old books, ranging from the 1970s back to the 30s and beyond. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to make sense of these, despite the occasional reference which, though clear at the time, is lost on a modern reader, and despite differences in the authors’ environment and my own. I won’t go into how long it took me to comprehend the Inns of Court, for example.

But some stories, stories that even today are considered classics, were written for such a specific audience, and with assumptions about the knowledge that the audience would possess, that some of their finer points are just about indecipherable today.

The specific story that prompted me to write is an excellent ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, written around 1900 by the English writer M. R. James. James was a scholar and teacher at both King’s College, Cambridge, and at Eton, and his stories were initially written to be read aloud to his colleagues and students at those schools. As such, they assume that the listener (or reader) will be familiar with Latin, with English literature, with history and geography, and with the Bible.

I’m about to detail the plot of “Oh Whistle”, so if you haven’t read it, go now and do so.

The story concerns a youngish professor at Cambridge by the name of Parkins, a man of little humor and only a bit more imagination, who disdains those who believe in ghosts, ghouls, or other such supernatural manifestations. During the Christmas break he’s made plans to go to Burnstow on the coast of East Anglia to work on his golf game. Upon hearing of this, a fellow professor asks if he could look at the remains of a Templar preceptory there. This Parkins readily agrees to.

He discovers the old ruins quite easily, and while poking around, makes another discovery: a brass whistle, inscribed in Latin, apparently hundreds of years old. The first line of the inscription reads “Fur Flabis Flebis”. The second reads “Quis Est Iste Qui Venit” (“Who is this that comes?”), a reference to the Book of Isaiah.

Parkins proceeds to blow this whistle, and after many odd and unpleasant happenings, is at length assaulted by a supernatural being that forms a corporeal body from the bedclothes of the second bed in his room at the inn.

But while the story presents a translation of the second portion of the Latin, the first is a mystery even to Parkins himself. Presumably this was of great amusement to the James’ listeners, as it means (approximately) “You will blow this, thief, and you will weep.”

That seems like a rather important thing to know if you want to understand the story. In addition, the title is from a poem by Robert Burns that details an illicit romance – surely intended ironically in this case, and another nuance easily missed. By me, at least.

As I said, most writers are not so willfully obscure as James is, and I’m really not sure if understanding the story completely was worth the effort it took. Since I first read it 20 years ago, I suppose it is nice to finally know what the Hell was going on! James wrote many other excellent stories, the best know of which is “Casting The Runes”, which pretty much everyone will understand, and since his work is in the public domain, it’s widely available for free.

I do recommend the excellent collection Casting The Runes And Other Ghost Stories, which is not free but includes an excellent introduction and many footnotes by Michael Cox.

(The title of this post, naturally, translates as, “Oh, the times! Oh, the ways!”)

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