Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Algernon Blackwood was the foremost exponent of the outdoor supernatural story, although he also wrote the more claustrophobic indoor (haunted house) variety. Set in a free and untrammeled wilderness, “The Willows” luxuriates in a near-pantheistic treatment of nature; the river, the wind, and the willows are described in personifying terms and can frighten as well as charm. There is an accompanying idea, openly expressed by the narrator, that this world of nature is pure and human presence only spoils it.

However, there appears in this story a related but more radical theme: that there is an unseen world pressing close to common reality. The story turns not on nature spirits or deities so much as on another world or dimension that intersects that of the reader and is completely unrelated to the human scheme of things. In this, “The Willows” differs from most of Blackwood’s nature stories, in which the preternatural phenomena are nature spirits or demons (as in “The Wendigo” and “Glamour of the Snow”). “The Willows” is typical of Blackwood’s other stories, however, in its setting in the middle of a virgin wilderness, given Blackwood’s underlying idea that nature is separate from the human sphere and contact with civilization can only spoil it.

An interesting feature is that the beings or forces inhabiting this other reality are dangerous but not actually threatening to the human world if left alone, an idea differing from Arthur Machen (1863-1947), another English outdoor specialist, and especially the American H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), whose beings are ready to destroy the earth. Again, this idea is a reflection of Blackwood’s near-worship of nature and his dim view of human presence in it. Interestingly, the narrator feels almost like worshiping the entities he sees ascending to the sky.