A Warning to the Curious is a ghost story by British writer M. R. James, included in his book ‘A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories’ which was first published in 1925. The story is written in first person by the narrator who has seen the events and it tells the story of Paxton, an antiquarian and archaeologist who has come for a holiday and unknowingly stumbles across one of the three lost crowns of Anglia, which are known to protect the country borders from invasion. Upon digging the crown and taking it, Paxton gets followed by the guardian of the crown.
A Warning to the Curious | Summary
The story starts with the author asking the reader to imagine Scaburgh and then he gives an elaborate and detailed description of the beauty of the town with its marshes, long sea-front and a street, a spacious church, the railway and the windmills etc. are shown. The narrator says that he has known Scaburgh as a child and therefore, he loves the place dearly and has many stories from the place. One of the stories is of a man who the narrator was obliged to and he became his confidant.
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The story begins on 19th of April, The narrator and his friend were almost the only people in the hotel. After dinner, when they were sitting in their sitting room, an anaemic man, with light hair and light eyes asked to join them. He was sitting with the narrator and his friend, Henry Long; the boy was in a state of nerves so the narrator tried to talk to him. After some talk, the boy started sharing his woes again- he told them that he didn’t know any people in this place. He asked them for their advice as he started telling them a story.
When he went to see the church, he took a photograph and the old man who was tidying up the churchyard let him inside the church. Inside the porch, was a coat of arms which was the one with the three crowns and he thought that it was the old arms of the kingdom of East Anglia. The three crowns were buried to keep the Germans from landing; if it hadn’t been for the holy crowns being buried, the Germans would have invaded the place many a time. A reactor comes in just then and the man asks him to make Paxton believe in the legendary story. The reactor takes him to a walk and tells him the story. The three crowns were buried in three different places of which only the third one still remains buried. In 1687, a crown said to be the crown of Redwald was dug up and it was melted before it could be drawn or properly described. The second one lies under the sea and beyond them, lay the third.
The reactor then tells Paxton that he knew William Ager, the last of the Ager family who are said to be the guardians of the crown. After writing many letters to him, he had no response and he believes that the last crown has no guardian now.
Parton, while bicycling, saw a grave with the name of William Ager. He then went to a curiosity shop and found a prayer book, which had entries of Agers. He showed the same to the narrator. The shopman told him that William Ager died in a lodge cottage. He went to the cottage and asked about him and he was told that he went to the hillock at night. He came back at night and made a tunnel and he found the hidden crown. The narrator and his friend got surprised. When Parton says that he wants to put the crown back, both of them are confused as to why he wants to return such an invaluable object. They reassured that they would help him with the technicalities. They asked him to confirm if he really had the crown. Paxton reassured them that he did have the crown in his room and could show them.
The narrator and his friend went to Paxton’s room where he produced something wrapped up in a bundle of clean pocket handkerchief. He unties the crown; it was silver and set with some gems, mostly antique intaglios and cameos and the crown was plain with rough workmanship. Paxton seemed very nervous about it and asked them to check if the coast is clear before going back to their room. In their room, Paxton admitted that he hasn’t been alone since he has touched the crown.
Paxton started telling them about how he was feeling something suspicious. When he was first prospecting, he saw always saw him from the corner of his eye. He started seeing him everywhere. He always found the prayer book open to the page where there were names with his razor in between. When he was scraping the tunnel, he felt someone scraping his back. When he began to meet people, they looked behind him very strangely. Paxton was sure that he had a presence following him and he started to cry. The narrator and his friend decided to help Paxton in putting the crown back to its place. They set off to the place and on reaching the place, the narrator felt as if someone was watching him. Paxton started breathing like a hunted beast and started digging a place in the ground. He asked for the crown and they handed it to him. Just as fast, he started shovelling the soil back with his hands that were bleeding. They came back as fast as they could, to the hotel. The boots told them that he saw someone running after them. The narrator and his friend tried to cheer Paxton up.
The next day, all three of them felt very different on a beautiful April morning. When they returned for lunch, Paxton wasn’t there and the waiter said that he had heard the narrator calling for him. They tried to find him and Long said that he saw Paxton running and waving his stitch, some feet away. They both came to a tower and climbed to the top and they heard a breathless sound from below and saw Paxton. The tracks showed that he had died after running along the side of the battery. They both sent the caretaker to ask for help. They both decided to keep the legend of the crown to themselves and the narrator said that he didn’t go to Seaburgh after that incident.
A Warning to the Curious | Analysis and Themes
In the story ‘A Warning to the Curious’ by M. R. James, the major themes displayed are curiosity, hopelessness, fear, anxiety, companionship and greed. The story is narrated in first person by an unnamed narrator; the reader gets a sense of curiosity and anticipation about the upcoming events. Paxton’s downfall appears to be his curiosity that he had regarding the buried crown. If he had not acted on his curiosity and hadn’t gone after the crown, it was possible that he had not died. As to whether Paxton can be believed is a question to be pondered upon. Some readers may agree with the narrator that Paxton was killed by William Ager. However, the question arises that Ager is already dead so, how did he kill Paxton? In this case, the reader realises that they are reading a ghost story. The reality of Paxton’s death remains a mystery that has no way of unravelling itself. The hopelessness Paxton feels is also a main point to consider. Often, human beings want to achieve things that are impossible and they do every possible thing to achieve them. However, this incident is a representation of how sometimes; getting those things is not an ideal case. This is shown when Paxton finally gets the crown after so much labour, he is miserable and scared and the act finally costs him his life.
The reader also questions whether they can believe the narrator and if he is reliable. The instance where the narrator is not present with Paxton seems like a missing piece of puzzle where the reader feels that they are not being told the whole story. The fact that Paxton has decided to move to Sweden is not explained and touched upon after that. The narrator only tells the reader the information he knows and has seen with his eyes which is not very reliable. The reader is also wary of whatever the narrator tells him and whether he can believe it or not. Since the narrator is not omniscient. It is likely that there was a real man who killed Paxton rather than the ‘ghost’ of William Ager. The man might know about the crown and want to take it from him because of his high value. It is also a major observation that out of the three people who saw the crown, only one (the narrator) is alive; this makes the reader suspicious as he only has his version of the story.
The reason why Paxton dug up the crown is also suspicious as, ultimately, he returns the crown to is original place, the reader is not sure about what drove him to take it. He had no intention of taking it to the public and getting recognition for his discovery. For Paxton, life would have been easier had he left the artefact on its own and decided not to dig it up. The narrator and his friend Long feel a kind of camaraderie and therefore, decide to help him put the crown back. As to Paxton’s death, the narrator makes no mention of it and leaves the reader wondering about what exactly happened. The story could be called as open ended because the mysteries are not solved till the end and the reader is left wondering.
About the Author- M. R. James
Montague Rhodes James (1 August 1862) was an English author, medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge. He was also the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. He is remembered mainly for his ghost stories. His protagonists and plots tend to reflect his own antiquarian interests.