Dec 09

HAUNTOGRAPHY: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

FT + The Brown Wedge////6 comments • 4,569 views

You probably want to read The Treasure of Abbot Thomas before you read this.

In M R James’s universe everyone who matters is fluent in Latin. It’s not so for the modern reader – or at least this modern reader – and there’s an interesting gap left between the Latin that he so liberally scatters throughout his stories, and the translations we read.

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas begins with some big chunks of Latin, which our antiquarian protagonist – Mr Somerton – gets straight down to translating. What he ends up with isn’t immediately clear to him, either, but he follows up the clues within and is lured into a hunt for buried treasure, departing to parts foreign, and for now out of our sight.

Some interpretation – if not translation – is also needed for the missive that opens part two of the story; Mr Somerton, away on the continent, has gotten himself into a pickle, and his manservant writes to the rector for help. The grammar, spelling and punctuation of this letter are very much at odds with the careful and precise language elsewhere in the story; it jars. (I think there’s plenty of scope for looking at how servants’ speech stands out like a sore thumb in these stories, but that’s for another time.) The rector makes quick sense of the letter, hops on the next boat out, and arrives to find his antiquarian friend enfeebled and in fear of some yet nameless horror. Recounting the events that have so rattled him are beyond him, and he begs the rector to first carry out a task – kept hidden from the reader. That accomplished, he settles down to tell his tale.

What a romp of buried treasure it is! Coded messages in stained glass windows, and ciphers to be puzzled out, lead us at last to treasure buried down a well. Mr Somerton’s curiosity, and maybe a touch of avarice, ensnares him. He cannot resist it – who could? – and follows the trail to its moonlight conclusion, where at last we’re introduced to the villain and the monster of this tale. The treasure is guarded by a some supernatural creature. It slips its tentacled arms around the neck of our poor antiquarian, just as he’s reaching for his haul, driving him nearly insane with the cthulhuesque horror of it all.

The rector and the servant are dispatched to replace the treasure in the well. It’s back where it was, hidden behind a slab of stone and covered over with mud. The demon can cease to hound Mr Somerton.  All is well.

Or is it? The very ending of the story is in Latin, and leaves us straddling one of those little gaps of comprehension. The rector mentions – just mentions – that Somerton must have missed an inscription above the treasure-hole.

It was a horrid, grotesque shape — perhaps more like a toad than anything else, and there was a label by it inscribed with the two words, “Depositum custodi.”

And here it ends. The footnote, upon which my ignorant self depends for on-the-fly interpretations, translates Depositum custodi as Keep that which is committed to thee. How ambigious is that! What’s committed? To whom? Is the treasure committed to the tentacled, slithery guardian, and will it sleep easy now they’re walled up again? Or is that creature now committed to our unfortunate Mr Somerton. It – or something – has already been rattling the doors at night, and causing unpleasant dreams. Will there be easier sleep after the story concludes, or does the haunting continue after the book’s been closed?

The placing of this phrase at the end of the tale seems incredibly open-ended to me. I’m a dweller in the world of sequels, and of hydra-like monsters who rise again for one last attack just as the heroes have relaxed and turned their backs (walking away to wipe up the blood, patch themselves up). No twenty first century demon would let itself be walled up without a confrontation. But I think I’m reading too much into such a woolly translation of just two words. I do a quick trawl of a handful of online Latin dictionaries – and quiz a friend on what they remember of their long-ago GCSE Latin – and it seems to be that a clearer translation would be ‘Guard this thing I’ve left in your keeping’. That’s far less ambiguous. The demon’s the guardian of the treasure, and the treasure’s sealed up whwere it should be. The demon can kick back, relax, and get back to doing whatever it is demons like to do in dark dank holes.

Here monsters stay dispatched or dismissed, and if you’re alive at the end of the story – not everyone is – you’ve probably lived to tell the tale (from a roaring fireside, with a comforting glass of brandy to hand, on a dark and stormy winters’ night, no doubt). Mr Somerton might prefer to leave the stained glass windows for a while, and focus on pews, or baptismal fonts, or some other aspect of ecclesiastical architecture . I doubt he’ll sleep all too well for the next few months, but it won’t be supernatural scratchings that keep him awake. This tale ends here. There’s just the slightest whisper of sequel potential. The antique books and stained glass windows still exist, and the demon is back with the treasure, ready to wind its hideous tentacles around the neck of the next hapless treasure hunter.


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Dec 2009 #

    In the BBC dramatisation, the final scene — of a still prostrate Somerton back home convalescing in a bath chair — cuts into a last shot, from the air, as a sinister figure, or is it two, crosses the lawn purposefully towards him…

    So they definitely read it that the leathery being will pursue the finder, as per yr suggestion — and indeed, as per count magnus

    I think there’s a good chance that the latin has been translated “carelessly” throughout: it’s MRJ’s kind of joke, as is the idea that Somerton has got himself in trouble because he isn’t quite as educated as he thinks he is. The interesting thing to me is that the man-servant — coded literate but only just — seems bothered largely on his master’s behalf: he saw the spector of the abbot but, while disliking it, is not in any sense afraid, is also MRJ-ish: as if terror is a kind of hysteria that arises out of too great learning, or rather, learning at once too great and not quite great enough.

  2. 2
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Dec 2009 #

    and also hurrah! a merry terr0rw0bs to all our readers

  3. 3
    marna on 22 Dec 2009 #

    Interesting!, re.the BBC adaptation.

    The man-servant’s interesting, too. He’s a bit of a closed book, I think. Towards the end of Part II the narrator says:

    Brown was present, but how much of the matter was ever really made plain to his comprehension he would never say, and I am unable to conjecture.

    Which suggests a huge aura of otherness to Brown. Servant! Not one of US. This is rather unpleasant.

  4. 4
    ledge on 22 Dec 2009 #

    I read your description of Cthulhu tentacles and thought “hmm that’s not how I recall it”, my impression is of a more traditional revenant, a horribly stale and musty one. But the text does indeed say “legs or arms or tentacles”, leaving it open to the reader’s subconscious to decide whatever is the most discomfiting. But it also says there are “several” of these limbs so that does suggest something not entirely human.

    Another interpretation of the inscription could be “keep that which is committed to thee and this treasure, boyo, is not

  5. 5
    ledge on 22 Dec 2009 #

    (so keep yer filthy hands off. OR ELSE.)

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Dec 2009 #

    In Dorothy L. Sayers’s Nine Tailors, the cursed bell is called “Batty Thomas”, from the man who had it made, one Abbot Thomas: I’ve never quite been able to unearth an actual buried reference in this fact — there is treasure hidden in the relevant church, and a not very similar code to uncover it…

    Also — even less relevantly– one of Wimsey’s uncles us called De La Gardie, which makes him a relative of Count Magnus!

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