Plot Summary

Two friends are midway on a canoe trip down the River Danube. Throughout the story, Blackwood personifies the surrounding environment —river, sun, wind— with powerful and ultimately threatening characteristics. Most ominous are the masses of dense, desultory, menacing willows, which “moved of their own will as though alive, and they touched, by some incalculable method, my own keen sense of the horrible.”

Shortly after landing their canoe for the evening on a sandy island in the Dunajské luhy Protected Landscape Area of Austria-Hungary,[2] the narrator reflects on the river’s potency, human qualities, and his own will:

Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, through all the countries we had passed, holding our little craft on its mighty shoulders, playing roughly with us sometimes, yet always friendly and well-meaning, till at length we had come inevitably to regard it as a Great Personage.

Blackwood also specifically characterizes the silvery, windblown willows as sinister:

And, apart quite from the elements, the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us.

At one point, the two men see a traveler in his “flat-bottomed boat”. However, the man appears to be warning them and ultimately crosses himself before hurtling forward on the river, out of sight. During the night, mysterious forces emerge from within the forest, including dark shapes which seem to trace the narrator’s consciousness, tapping sounds outside their tent, shifting gong-like noises, bizarre shadows, and the appearance that the willows have changed location. In the morning, the two realize that one of their paddles is missing, a slit in the canoe needs repair, and some of their food has disappeared. A hint of distrust arises between them. The howling wind dies down on the second day, and a humming calm ensues. During the second night, the second man, the Swede, attempts to hurl himself into the river as a “sacrifice”. However, he is saved by the narrator. The next morning, the Swede claims that the mysterious forces have found another sacrifice which may save them. They discover the corpse of a peasant lodged in roots near the shore. When they touch the body, a flurry of living presence seems to rise from it and disappear into the sky. Later, they see the body is pockmarked with funnel shapes similar to the ones viewed across the island’s coastline during their experience. These are “Their awful mark!” the Swede says. The body is swept away, resembling an “otter” they thought had seen the previous day, and the story ends.

The precise nature of the mysterious entities in “The Willows” is unclear, and they appear at times malevolent or treacherous, while at times simply mystical and almost divine: “a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly,” and a world “where great things go on unceasingly…vast purposes…that deal directly with the soul, and not indirectly with mere expressions of the soul.” These forces are often contrasted with the natural beauty of the area, itself a vigorous dynamic. Overall, the story suggests that the landscape is actually an intersection, a point of contact with a “fourth dimension” — “on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.” 1

Notes & Quotes

  • This story is written completely in the ecogothic or ecohorror mode. It is very reminiscent of The Ritual in the ways that both present a terrifying depiction of nature before collapsing into pagan mythology and violence. Also, both present men participating in extreme tourism, exploring areas supposedly untrodden by human beings. They also both cause their audience to not trust anything they read or see as fact; for example, after a man seems to ride by the island in a canoe, the narrator and the Swede slowly begin to realize that that was not really a human man in a canoe, it was something else.
  • This story also participates in a similar form of ecogothic that H.P. Lovecraft tends to participate in, one that has a strong foundation in cosmic and weird fiction. In this modal blend, the earth is described as something alien and “unearthly” (50). 2
  • Similar to Heart of Darkness and The Ritual, the narrator and the Swede experience an anxiety surrounding their possible status as invaders into a land where they are neither welcome nor where they belong: “…we were interlopers, trespassers; we were not welcome” (29). There is present a character familiar to modern horror eco-horror films: a local who warns them to not go where they plan to go: “‘There are no people, no farms, no fishermen. I warn you not to continue'” (21).The Swede later jokes about the superstitious minds of the locals: “‘These Hungarians believe in all sorts of rubbish: you remember the showman at Pressburg warning us that no one has ever landed here because it belonged to some sort of beings from outside man’s world! I suppose they believe in fairies and elementals, possibly demons too'” (26). Despite these multiple warnings, the men land on the island and almost immediately feel that the Nature or atmosphere possessed an agency that was upset at their arrival. Although they begin as the invaders of primeval or alien nature, they eventually are invaded by the island’s atmosphere or spirits. This invasion threatens to not simply kill or annihilate them, but it instead threatens to utterly change them beyond recognition.
  • …the willows connected themselves subtly with my malaise, attacking the mind insidiously somehow by reason of their vast numbers, and contriving in some way or other to represent to the imagination a new and mighty power, a power, moreover, not altogether friendly to us… Some essence emanated from them that besieged the heart… woke in me the curious and unwelcome suggestion that we had trespassed here upon the borders of an alien world, a world where we were intruders, a world where we were not wanted or invited to remain- where we ran grave risks perhaps! (23-24)The loneliness of the place had entered our very bones. (28)”I don’t think a phonograph would show any record of that. The sound doesn’t come to me by the ears at all. The vibrations reach me in another manner altogether, and seem to be within me, which is precisely how a fourth dimensional sound might be supposed to make itself heard.” (49)

  1. Plot summary from Wikipedia.
  2. Conrad does something similar in Heart of Darkness, when he describes the Congo as not only a primeval land, but also an “alien” land.

“The Willows” (1907) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.