The action takes place on the playing fields of Eton College, the college of which M.R. James was provost between 1918 and 1936. While walking across the playing fields on Midsummer evening, the story's unnamed narrator encounters a talking owl. The owl is tormented by unseen fairies which, although mischievous, are not particularly dangerous. When midnight approaches, however, the owl suddenly appears to be in fear for its life.
While walking across the playing fields of Eton College late at night on Midsummer evening, the narrator suddenly hears a hooting sound. He looks up into a tree and sees an owl. He points at the owl with his walking stick and playfully asks, "Was that you?" The owl grumpily replies that of course it was the one who hooted. The narrator's walking stick seems to remind the bird of a gun because it asks him to drop it. When the narrator expresses his great surprise at having encountered a talking owl, the owl says that it is only to be expected on Midsummer evening. The narrator wants to take the opportunity to have a conversation with the owl. The bird grudgingly agrees.
The owl has not been talking to the narrator for very long when it suddenly screams. An unseen entity has pulled out one of its tail feathers. A voice offers a mocking apology, saying that it did not mean to hurt the owl and was trying to help by removing a loose feather. The narrator asks what happened. The owl says that it would take too long to explain. The narrator seems to realize that the owl has been attacked by a fairy. He quietly quotes to himself a line from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in which fairies cast a spell to keep owls away from their sleeping queen. The owl hears him. It accuses fairies of being proud and stand-offish for not wanting owls to come near them, even though owls are acknowledged to be great singers. The narrator suggests that other birds might provide music that is more suitable for fairies' dancing. The owl finds the idea of it providing music for fairies to dance to extremely distasteful and becomes very angry. A grass rope is dropped down around the owl. Unseen laughing fairies drag the owl to a pond and throw it in the water. They then offer another mocking apology, saying that they mistook the owl for a duck.
After the owl emerges from the pond, very wet but otherwise unhurt, the chime of bells is heard. The narrator looks at his watch and sees that it is midnight. When the owl realizes what time it is, it suddenly becomes very frightened and wants to get back to its tree. The narrator has to carry the owl because it is too wet to fly. The terrified owl says to the narrator, "Go faster! They'll be coming in another minute." When the narrator asks who will be coming, the owl simply replies, "You'll see fast enough." When it gets to its tree, the owl goes inside a hole as quickly as it can without stopping to thank the narrator. The narrator nervously looks around. Although he cannot see anyone, he is in great fear for his safety. Realizing that he will not have time to get across the playing field and get inside, he hides behind a tree.
The narrator says that his story took place many years ago before the introduction of British Summer Time. The narrator says that he is now always careful to leave the playing fields before "true midnight" (one o'clock in the morning in British Summer Time). He adds that he often feels uncomfortable at social gatherings on the playing fields at night. He has the feeling that some of the people at those gatherings have strange faces, move around very quickly, suddenly approach him and stare into his face as if they are looking for someone "who may be thankful ... if they do not find him." The narrator says that some of those people who appear on the playing fields at night look as if they have come out of the water and some look as if they have come out of the ground.
- Text of M.R. James' "After Dark in the Playing Fields" on A Thin Ghost.org. The story is still under copyright in the United States.