"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"

by M. R. James
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Last Updated on August 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325

It is Shakespeare's doomed Prince Hamlet who says to his more scientifically minded friend, "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (1.5.167–168). This view is echoed in M. R. James's story about a young biology teacher who learns that his view of the world is a bit too narrow. In his lines to Horatio, Hamlet means that though the supernatural cannot necessarily be proven by natural philosophy (science), this does not mean that things outside our ken might not still exist—in fact, he becomes quite certain that they do, as does Horatio.

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Professor Parkins, a Cambridge biology instructor, is unwilling to even joke about the existence of the supernatural when the story begins, and his views are so well known that he becomes the butt of light-hearted jokes from other instructors. Parkins is educated, precise, and respected. However, he soon learns—in most dramatic fashion—that his more "enlightened" sensibilities may not be as unassailable as he's always thought them to be.

When Parkins visits Burnstow, a fictional town based on Felixstowe (a popular seaside town on England's east coast), he meets Colonel Wilson, an older and folksier man who is familiar with the superstitions and fairy tales of the region. The colonel is also "pronouncedly Protestant." Ironically, it is Parkins—the educated man, the respected professor—who learns that he was quite wrong when he refused to admit the possibility of the supernatural. He only becomes truly enlightened after his very real experience with an unnatural creature which comes to him, bidden by the sound of the whistle he found within the ruins of a temple built by the Knights Templar. It is the colonel, with his supposedly antiquated religious beliefs and adherence to superstition and fairy stories, who is revealed by James to be the truly enlightened one, the one who recognizes the existence of things that he does not (and perhaps cannot) understand.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 663

Images of light and dark abound in the story: in the physical description of the seashore with its faint light, pale sand, and black groins; in the black pursuer of evening who becomes a white glint outside, then a “something light-coloured” in the dream, and finally a creature of “pale, fluttering draperies” and of “crumpled linen.”

The story is tightly constructed. Parkins’s dream on the first night welds the happenings of his walk home and the situation of the fugitive who trips to the mysterious pursuer in fluttering drapery yet to come. Thus, the reader understands (though Parkins does not) why the disarranged bed linen is sinister and realizes the danger that lurks in the room.

James’s characters tend to be minimal, to exist as vehicles for the plot, as stereotypes, as exemplars of attitudes. Usually the chief character is a leisured scholar or gentleman dilettante whose curiosity produces the events of the tale. Servants are stereotypes; so, often, are other characters. Colonel Wilson, the retired Indian army officer, full of prejudices and common sense, is an example.

Conversation in James’s story sounds stilted to the contemporary ear. It is the speech of a formal age and an educated class and employs periodic sentences, lengthy by modern standards, complex and slow-moving.

The author’s strength lies in narrative rather than in dialogue or character. Loose sentences and short sentences are often employed, and the story moves well. However, James’s most evident talent as a stylist is his ability to suggest. The fading light, “the wind bitter from the North,” the “shape of an indistinct personage,” above all, the peculiarities of movement, James describes superbly—the appearance of running, for example, while the distance between pursuer and pursued remains the same: the “little flicker of something light-coloured, moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity,” “it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms.” The descriptions create the kind of uneasiness produced by something strange, indistinct, on the periphery of vision.

The medieval background, the puzzle in Latin, the allusions to John Bunyan, to Charles Dickens, to the Bible, all enrich the story. Perhaps the most significant association is that of the whistle with the Knights Templars. One of the four great crusading orders of warrior monks (known, in full, as the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon), they were founded in 1119 and abolished in 1312 by Pope Clement V after accusations of heresy and evil practices. Confessions (extorted under torture) involved black magic, homosexuality, and perhaps human sacrifice. (Historians, however, note that the order was a banker to the papacy and creditor of Philip III of France.) Within two years, the order, in deeply suspicious circumstances, vanished from Europe, and its deserted buildings fell into ruin. The whistle therefore calls up a draped figure with “muffled arms,” which suggests a monk wearing a habit. It is a predatory spirit or a vengeful one.

The passage from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684) that Parkins remembers refers to Apollyon, the foul fiend, advancing to confront Christian. More significant is a brief reference in the last lines of the story to “the smoke of a burning ascending” as the bedclothes that had served as a body are incinerated. This is an allusion to Revelation 18, the burning of Babylon, which—like the Knights Templars—is destroyed because of wickedness, especially black magic.Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils and the hold of every foul spirit. . . . They shall see the smoke of her burning . . . for by her sorceries were all nations deceived. And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints.

However, although an awareness of these allusions strengthens the effect of the story, its impact is not dependent on them. James’s skill as a writer lies in inspiring fear. This story remains one of those not to be read when alone on a dark night.

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