Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Malevolent Willows

I'm not exactly one of the speediest readers around, and I suspect the reason is that I'm easily distracted. I would be reading a story or a poem or an essay, and the author would write some thing that would remind me of another story that I had read or perhaps something that had happened to me. Several minutes later I would return to whatever I was reading and move along until the next distraction. To be honest, that really doesn't disturb me for I find that one of the joys of reading.

Recently I was reading Death in Willow Pattern, one of W. J. Burley's mysteries featuring the eminent scholar, criminologist, and amateur detective, Dr. Henry Pym. I had moved on to these after having read most of Burley's "Superintendent Wycliffe" stories. I started reading the Wycliffe novels after having noticed the title of the first novel in the series: Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy."

Speaking of being distracted . . . To return to my theme, the title of this novel refers to a willow. In the story is a stanza from a poem by William Thackeray, "The Willow-Tree." It occurs twice in the novel: once as the epigraph and once again after a mention of a particular willow tree.

"Know ye the willow-tree
Whose grey leaves quiver,
Whispering gloomily
To yon pale river?
Lady, at eventide
Wander not near it:
They say the branches hide
A sad lost spirit!"

W. M. Thackeray
from "The Willow-Tree"

The story behind the poem is of a young woman who sat under a willow-tree by a river and waited all night for her lover who never appeared. In the morning the willow-tree was there, but the young woman was never seen again.

Death in Willow Pattern is concerned with several missing and possibly murdered young women. And, there is an old, a very old and large willow tree on the estate of the landowner who has received poison pen letters accusing him of the same crimes that his ancestor centuries ago had committed. Several of the inhabitants of the estate express their dislike of the tree--saying that it is depressing. Others dismiss this as being influenced by the poem by Thackeray, and also by stories about those who had worked in the mine in the vicinity. The tree was haunted by their souls. Later, to reinforce this ominous air about the tree, there is a reference to the "vague spectral outline of the great willow."

This reminded me of one of my favorite short stories, "The Willows," by Algernon Blackwood. For those interested, I posted an entry about this story on Oct. 31, 2009 (Halloween Night, of course). Two men are on a boating trip down the Danube River and elect to stay the night on an island filled with willows. The narrator is disturbed, uneasy as it gets dark.

"But my emotion, so far as I could understand it, seemed to attach itself more particularly to the willow bushes, to those acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching waiting, listening. 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."

And, later the narrator tells us:

"With this general hush of the wind--though it still indulged in occasional brief gusts--the river seemed to me to grow blacker, the willows to stand more densely together. The latter, too, kept up a sort of independent movement of their own, rustling among themselves when no wind stirred, and shaking oddly from the roots upwards. When common objects in this way become charged with the suggestion of horror, they stimulate the imagination far more than things of unusual appearance; and these bushes, crowding huddled about us, assumed for me in the darkness a bizarre grotesquerie of appearance that lent to them somehow the aspect of purposeful and living creatures. Their very ordinariness, I felt, masked what was malignant and hostile to us."

Blackwood's tale has the suggestion of the willows being imbued with a malignant spirit. The thought of a malignant willow brought another work to mind--J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. In the first volume, "The Fellowship of the Ring," the four hobbits have a dangerous encounter with Old Man Willow and have to be rescued by Tom Bombadil.

"Suddenly Frodo himself felt sleep overwhelming him. His head swam. There now seemed hardly a sound in the air. The flies had stopped buzzing. Only a gentle noise on the edge of hearing, a soft fluttering as of a song half whispered, seem to stir in the boughs above. He lifted his heavy eyes and saw leaning over him a huge willow-tree, old and hoary. Enormous it looked, its sprawling branches going up like reaching arms with many long-fingered hands, its knotted and twisted trunk gaping in wide fissures that creaked faintly as the boughs moved. The leaves fluttering against the bright sky dazzled him, and he toppled over, lying where he fell upon the grass."

Each of the stories features a willow that is infused with a malignant spirit of some sort, or at least is perceived as threatening in some way. I wonder why the willow is singled out in this way. I can't think of any stories that focus on dangerous pines or oaks or maples. There probably are some, but I can't think of any now.

I'm not referring to a forest, but to a type of tree that's been selected to house evil forces in some way. Dangerous forests have probably played a role in stories for thousands of years. Several Greek myths tell of the dangers encountered by travelers or hunters in the forest. Many of King Arthur's knights had adventures there, and Hawthorne set several of his stories in the deep woods. And, of course, Tolkien himself had three forests that were more or less dangerous to the unwise, unwary, and unwelcome traveler.

Why willows? What is it about them that lends itself to playing this role in various stories?

Are there other types of trees that play similar roles to that played by the willows in the stories I've mentioned above?


  1. Note:
    Novels, Stories, and More is returning!

  2. The alder, I believe, is sinister in George MacDonald's Phantastes.

  3. Anonymous,

    I haven't read that one yet. I shall have to add it to my search list.

    According to the wikipedia entry,

    "In Celtic mythology, Bran the Blessed is associated with the alder tree 'The Alder deity is considered to be Bran the Blessed, god of the Underworld. He was also known as the god of Prophecy, Arts, War and Writing. With the size of a giant, it was impossible for Bran to fit in a house or in a boat.'"

    Is the above relevant to the story?

  4. It's long enough since I read Phantastes that I wouldn't be prepared to say whether the passage that you quote is relevant to MacDonald's strange story or not...


  5. Extollager,

    Happens to me all the time. I'm sure that I have a copy of his story somewhere, waiting to be read. I will watch out for willows when I do.