illustration of a wolf standing in the forest looking toward a fallen tree that has pinned a man underneath

The Interlopers

by Saki

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym Saki, is a distinctive voice in English literature. He is often compared with O. Henry for the surprise endings of his stories, but, despite their shared taste for irony, he has none of O. Henry’s sentimentality. Saki’s stories have a tone of acid sophistication which has influenced several twentieth-century humorists, from P. G. Wodehouse to Dorothy Parker, but which has never been entirely imitated.

Saki’s crisp, urbane style of writing is peculiarly effective at highlighting the absurd. The deadly quarrel between Ulrich and Georg is deflated by the calm precision of the author’s description. As the story progresses, the two men come to share the author’s point of view and wonder why they hated each other so fiercely. However, there is still a note of criticism in the way they are portrayed, which continues to distance them from the author’s perspective. This is best represented by the dialogue Saki gives to Georg when he decides to become Ulrich’s friend:

How the whole region would stare and gabble if we rode into the market square together. No one living can remember seeing a Znaeym and a von Gradwitz talking to one another in friendship. And what peace there would be among the forester folk if we ended our feud to-night. And if we choose to make peace among our people there is none other to interfere, no interlopers from outside. . . . You would come and keep the Sylvester night beneath my roof, and I would come and feast on some high day at your castle. . . . I never thought to have wanted to do other than hate you all my life, but I think I have changed my mind about things too, this last half-hour. And you offered me your wine flask. . . . Ulrich von Gradwitz, I will be your friend.

This excerpt is from the longest piece of direct speech in the story, and it is no accident that Saki gives it to the character of lower social standing. By the time this story was written in the 1910s, it had long been a trope of English literature and culture that the British upper classes regarded both foreigners and their own countrymen lower down the social scale as overly emotional. This was already such a stereotype in 1872 that the French novelist Jules Verne made Phileas Fogg, the English hero of Around the World in Eighty Days, a model of understated stoicism. When contrasted with the coolness of the narrative voice, Georg’s sudden rush of emotion here is intended to sound embarrassing and excessive.

There is also a certain social pretension in Georg‘s placing the two families on the same level—and even putting his own name first—in the eyes of “the whole region.” Georg never forgets his sense of his own importance. He suggests that it is only their quarrel which has prevented the region in which they live from enjoying perfect peace. He also assumes that friendship with Ulrich means immediate intimacy. As soon as Ulrich offers his friendship, Georg invites himself to Ulrich’s castle and suggests that they spend one of the most important holidays of the year—Sylvester night, or New Year’s Eve—together. Although the omniscient narrator holds himself aloof from both men, the more plebeian character arguably comes across as slightly more ridiculous, as well as less magnanimous.

At this stage in the story, therefore, the two men have come to agree with the narrator’s implied view that their feud is futile and absurd, but they both remain too self-absorbed and...

(This entire section contains 934 words.)

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self-important to share his perspective completely. As they wait to be rescued, each still hopes that his men will be first on the scene so that he can make a grand gesture of magnanimity, demonstrating that he is as good as his word. They are still focused on themselves, still curiously naïve. Despite feuding over this little piece of land for their entire lives, they seem to know little about it or the dangers it contains.

When Ulrich and Georg first meet, they are both armed and angry. Saki’s narrator points out that this solitary encounter is the opportunity for which both men have been waiting:

But a man who has been brought up under the code of a restraining civilisation cannot easily nerve himself to shoot down his neighbour in cold blood and without word spoken, except for an offence against his hearth and honour.

This “restraining civilisation” which prevents Ulrich and Georg from firing at one another is contrasted a moment later with “Nature’s own violence,” which injures and imprisons the two men under a tree with a ruthlessness of which neither of them is capable. Although the two men undergo real emotional change over the course of the narrative, they remain unchanged in one crucial sense: they are too civilized to survive the onslaughts of Nature, which in Saki’s view, as in Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” is “red in tooth and claw.” Much of the narrative has focused on the vanity of small differences. The two men think they are in complete contrast to one another, when in fact their thoughts and actions are very much alike. They have obsessed about these small differences precisely because their claims to the land do not connect them to it in any meaningful way. The storm, the fallen tree, and the wolves are all symbols of the unforgiving environment which they ignore until they are finally forced to acknowledge it at the end of the story.

Style and Technique

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This brief masterpiece is an excellent representation of the principal stylistic and technical elements of Saki’s achievement. Above all, the economy of the story’s construction—the swift drafting of the background, with its elements of local color and drama; the limited cast of characters; the neat, subtle introduction and arrangement of the plot details necessary to the surprise conclusion—is typically masterful and, indeed, necessary to the success of the story because readers must not have time to doubt the realism of the situation, in either its physical or psychological aspects.

The quiet, calm voice of the omniscient narrator seems initially to comfort the reader with a sense of control over the events that it narrates, yet as the disquieting details accumulate—the restlessness of the forest creatures, the “accident” of the tree’s falling at just the right moment, the “success” of the men’s calls for help, the alarming hysteria of Ulrich’s laughter—the lack of modulation in the tones of the narrator becomes one of the principal devices by which the suspense is developed and sustained. The end of the story reveals Saki’s powerful control in the fact that the surprise is held back until the very last word—a word that, in retrospect, explains and justifies all the details and arrangements made in the careful crafting of the story as a whole.

Historical Context

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World War I

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, rivalries between European powers began to intensify. Imperialist states were fighting over land in Asia and Africa, ethnic groups were struggling for self-control, and nations were competing to build larger and more powerful military forces. In addition, the region had developed a system of alliances in which nations would help each other out in disputes.

In 1914 a Serbian nationalist shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which proved to be the spark that set off World War I. As tensions mounted between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Germany (which was allied with Austria-Hungary) declared war on Russia (which was allied with Serbia). Germany expanded the conflict when it declared war on France and marched into Belgium to reach France, thus breaking an 1839 neutrality agreement. Great Britain declared war on Germany that same day. Other nations joined the fray, and eventually Europe was divided between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and dozens of other nations).

The western front of the war stretched along eastern France, while the eastern front saw battles deep into Russia. Fighting also took place in the location of present-day Turkey, as well as in the North Sea. In 1916 the war in the west and the war at sea had reached a stalemate. However, early in 1917, Germany decided to use unrestricted submarine warfare and also sent a secret telegram to Mexico proposing an alliance against the United States. In April 1917 the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.

In 1918 the Russians signed a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers. To many people, this signaled that the war would last years longer. Germany withdrew its troops from the eastern front and launched an attack on Allied lines in France. They came within thirty-seven miles of Paris, France’s capital; however, the thousands of American troops that were arriving every month helped hold them back. The Allies launched a counteroffensive in July 1918. At the same time, the Central Powers were crumbling. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire surrendered, and a revolution in Austria-Hungary brought the Hapsburg Empire to an end. Austria and Hungary formed separate governments and stopped fighting. The German government collapsed in November 1918. On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed ending World War I.

The War in France

The western front of the war stretched through eastern France. The Allies stopped the first German advance in September 1914. In the First Battle of the Marne, French troops launched a counterattack. After this battle, both the French and German armies prepared to hold their ground. They resorted to a strategy known as trench warfare in which each side defends its position by fighting from the protection of deep ditches. Two massive systems of trenches stretched for 400 miles along the western front. The area between opposing trenches, known as no-man’s-land, varied in width from about 200 to 1,000 yards. Each side made little progress. In the battle of the Somme, which lasted from July through November 1915, the Allies were only able to force the Germans to retreat by a few miles. Another battle at Verdun lasted for ten months. In these two battles alone, almost one million soldiers died.

By the time the Americans arrived in Europe in 1917, German troops were occupying parts of France and Belgium. American units joined the Allies along the western front and were instrumental in keeping the German forces outside of Paris. The Second Battle of the Marne, fought in the summer of 1918, marked the turning point of the war. Allied forces began to force the German retreat from France. By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, Germany occupied only a tiny portion of French land.

British Society

British society underwent significant changes in the 1910s and 1920s. The discrepancies between the lifestyles of the rich and poor were far less evident than they had been previously. Fewer people had servants, poorer people had access to the same goods as the wealthy, and the middle-class came to hold greater political power. Many homes had modern amenities, such as electricity and plumbing. By the end of the decade, class distinctions had become notably less important in determining social groupings, even marriages.

World War I also engendered important changes. Millions of women entered the workforce, finding employment in government and private offices and in factories. Such increased economic opportunities contributed to women’s emancipation, and by 1918, the Franchise Act gave all women over the age of twenty-eight the right to vote.

Themes and Meanings

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Although Saki’s design is clearly to draw as much suspense and surprise into as narrow a compass as possible, the story itself nevertheless presents abstract themes of justice in the human world and of the human relationship to the natural world.

The most obvious of these themes involves the dissection and final denial of the vendetta mentality that motivates these two figures. The early history of the conflict shows how accidental the hatred between these two men actually is. They inherit a conflict that is not rightly theirs, and it distorts their relationship not only to each other but also—as the reference to the surprise in the marketplace shows—to the community in which they live. Furthermore, the parties of huntsmen and retainers (who never actually appear in the story) represent further ramifications of injustice, wherein the dependents are also caught up in the hatred between the principals, much as the Montagues and Capulets are trapped in the conflict that leads to the death of Romeo and Juliet. The physical blow that levels both men thus paradoxically symbolizes the sudden consciousness of the distortions that the vendetta has caused: their common plight makes Ulrich and Georg recognize, apparently for the first time, how much they have in common, and thus how much more reasonable friendship would be. Having once seen the world from this new perspective, the two are quick to correct the fundamental distortion of their relationship, and the apparent ease with which hatred and distrust dissolve indicates how insubstantial their former condition was.

The appearance of the wolves, the unexpected “interlopers” of the story’s title, points out the fundamental irony of the tale as a whole and thus touches on the second great theme that the story presents. From this perspective, the story may be said to belong to the school of literary naturalism, in which fundamental natural processes are shown working themselves out in the human world, regardless of human designs or wishes. The essential mistake that Ulrich and Georg make is their assumption that this narrow stretch of almost worthless woodland is somehow theirs to possess in any real sense. They, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, have assumed that legal rights, established in human courts and supported by human institutions, actually establish true dominion over the world of nature.

The fable-like elements of this story show how mistaken such an assumption is. At virtually every turn, the plans of the human characters are thwarted or altered by the different design of the natural world: The best opportunity for settling their vendetta, when no interlopers are present, is cut off by the wind and the falling tree; after their reconciliation, their plans for the future are erased by the advent of the unexpected interlopers. Finally, the wolves themselves symbolize the utter indifference of nature to “important” human disputes and resolutions. The surprise conclusion thus reveals and summarizes this primary theme of literary naturalism with sharply dramatic and terrifying indirection, suggesting in its irony that nature may not be indifferent so much as malicious toward the proud designs of humankind.

Literary Style

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Point of View

‘‘The Interlopers’’ is written from the third-person omniscient point of view, meaning the narrator sees and knows all. This point of view allows the narrator to present the history of the disputed land, explain how the similar personalities of Georg and Ulrich have brought the feud to a murderous brink, and explain the moral codes that govern the enemies. Each man’s perception of the events that have taken place are presented. Access to the thoughts and feelings of both men alerts the reader that the two are actually more alike than different, which further unites the men in their futile feud and even more futile impending death.


The dialogue in “The Interlopers” is important because it is the means by which the men express their willingness to step away from their feud. Ulrich, speaking first of the desire to “bury the old quarrel,” uses a brief speech to explain why he wants to be done with the past. Georg, in response, explains why he agrees with Ulrich’s idea. The dialogue is also important because it shows a basic connection between these two men, who have shared so much but have never seen eye-to-eye.


The ending of the story is not the real ending; rather, it is the implication of what the end will be. Ulrich first sees what is approaching them, and, when Georg asks what he sees, the answer of “Wolves!” closes the story. With this word, along with Ulrich’s “idiotic chattering laugh of a man unstrung with hideous fear,” the reader clearly understands the terrible death in store for the two men. It is not necessary for Saki to write this ending; its gruesome implication is horrible enough.


Saki personifies elements of the natural world. Nature becomes a violent beast that strikes out at the men for interloping on her territory. She physically knocks them down, felling a tree to attack them. In this portrayal, nature comes to resemble the men. The wind and the trees are also represented as living creatures. The “wind breathes,” and “the trees can’t even stand upright.”

Compare and Contrast

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1910s: After World War I ends, forty-two countries, not including the United States, join the League of Nations, an organization officially established in 1920 with the intent to help maintain peace throughout the world.

Today: As of 2001, 189 countries around the world are member states of the United Nations. The UN was formed in 1945, ultimately replacing the League of Nations, with the dual mission of maintaining international peace and security and deterring aggressors.

1910s: By the middle of the decade, countries around the world are involved in World War I.

Today: Numerous regional conflicts are taking place in many locations around the world, such as the ongoing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The United Nations and countries around the world, particularly the United States, have been involved over the years in peace-brokering attempts.

1910s: On the eve of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian empire comprises a large mass of territory in Central Europe. The empire’s loss in the war results in the breakup of the empire into the independent republics of Austria and Hungary. The empire also loses much of the territory it controlled with the creation of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Today: With the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the resulting demise of communism throughout Eastern and Central Europe, countries and new international boundaries have been created. The former Czechoslovakia has been divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The former Yugoslavia has been divided into six nations: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Forbes, Alexander Malcolm, “Saki,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 162: British Short-Fiction Writers, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 240–50.

Frost, Adam, “A Hundred Years of Saki,” in Contemporary Review, December 1999, Vol. 275, p. 302.

Review of The Toys of Peace, in New York Times Book Review, July 6, 1919, p. 358.

Review of The Toys of Peace, in Spectator, March 22, 1919, p. 380.

Further Reading

Langguth, A. J., Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, Simon & Schuster, 1981.Langguth’s biography includes six previously unpublished Saki short stories.

Williamson, Samuel R., Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.Through examination of Hapsburg decisions made from 1912 through 1914, Williamson argues that Austria-Hungary, not Germany, initiated the military steps that brought about World War I.




Critical Essays