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January 2000
 
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The Five Jars by M.R. James (1922)

When Led Zepplin first sang mysteriously about an alarming "bustle in the hedgerow," we all assumed that they were overindulging in psychedelic drugs. But in retrospect, Page, Plant, and Co. could have been tripping on something much more dangerous: M. R. James's short novel, The Five Jars. If so, they were no doubt referencing the scene where the nameless narrator, a demure, bookish gentleman of leisure (a fellow much like James himself, a noted scholar and writer of ghost stories who lived from 1862 to 1936), takes a stroll in order to ponder how he can best protect his five magical jars, delivered to him by a talking brook through the agency of a unique plant which the brook has advised the narrator to swallow whole. At the proper moment, our hero hears "a squeak and a rustle" from a hedge, and, investigating, finds the exact potent horseshoe which an invisible race of sprites known as the Right People have advised him to look for. Or perhaps we are meant to recall the passage where every bird in the neighborhood assembles in the hedges around the narrator's cottage to save him from the machinations of a supernatural tramp.

From the foregoing partial account, you can well imagine that The Five Jars is a very odd tale. The narrator, his senses expanded by the ancient unguents contained in the five phials, experiences a Rimbaudian paradigm shift in his conception of reality. Yet like E. Nesbit, James simultaneously layers in so much homey British commonsense that along with the narrator, we can exclaim, "How prosaic!" even while ingesting proleptic plants.

As with George MacDonald's various "phantastes," James's only novel taps the same archetype-rich layers of consciousness that Freud or Jung "discovered," and remains mind-boggling even unto this day.

—Paul Di Filippo

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