The Willows – Algernon Blackwood

The Weird - Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (cover)Algernon Blackwood is one of the author’s with whom I was familiar although, I realise having read this, not familiar enough.

In The Willows, the narrator and his companion (‘the Swede’) are paddling up the Danube. The river of this story is alive; not just in the sense that it is the home to flora and fauna. It is an entity seemingly possessed of agency. A playful being which is capable of emotion and desires.

“From its tiny bubbling entry into the world among the pinewood gardens of Donaueschingen , until this moment when it began to play the river-game of losing itself among the deserted swamps, unobserved, unrestrained, it had seemed to us like following the grown of some living creature. Sleepy at first, but later developing violent desires as it became conscious of its deep soul, it rolled, like some huge fluid being, though 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.”

The mercurial nature of the river, the tendency of it to throw tantrums and destroy that which it has tired of seems, to the reader at least, to be clear. Though the narrator is respectful of the river it does occasionally seem that the respect is born as much of fear as awe at its power.

Though the story, to this point, has acknowledged the awesome power of nature and its ability to reshape the landscape, this destructive power is within the realms of the everyday. Our narrator and his companion find themselves, as the story progresses, trapped on an island. This takes the narrative from the banal (though the majesty of nature can only be considered commonplace and everyday in the sense that it is all around us) and into the realms of the weird.

This refuge from the rising water is slowly being destroyed by the river while they are assailed from all sides what they, in one breath, rationalise as otters, dark shapes in the water, the other a sinister figure, threatening them whilst the willows surrounding them hem them in, like an army. This view of the world is not consistent, though. Their perception shifts, seeing the willows as protectors, friendly to them. This shifting reality could be considered evidence of psychological trauma in the characters. Can we trust the narrator? Can the narrator trust that what he is experiencing is real?

Blackwood never really makes it clear to the reader what the truth of the situation is. This mystery lends it some of its power. We have only the narrator’s (unreliable, shifting, if rich) description of the world around them to keep the reader informed of the situation in which they find themselves. The world around them may be shifting and something unfamiliar, unbound by the physical laws to which the world is subject is projecting into our reality. Equally, there is a sense, at times that the narrator and the Swede are victims of their own imaginations.

The refusal to present us with a simple narrative or easy answers certainly makes this a rewarding read. At all times there is a fine sense of terror, of dread. Excellent stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

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