Dangerous Willows: Tolkien and Blackwood

· 10/24/2017 · Michael Schmitt

The eeriness of this lonely island, set among a million willows, swept by a hurricane, and surrounded by hurrying deep waters, touched us both, I fancy. Untrodden by man, almost unknown to man, it lay there beneath the moon, remote from human influence, on the frontier of another world, an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows...

This passage is from Algernon Blackwood's classic weird tale 'The Willows,' in which two travelers are beset upon (possibly) by a hostile nature -- either of this world or from the nebulous Elsewhere.

Blackwood's writings would inspire and influence countless authors -- H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Henry Miller, and Clark Ashton Smith to name a few -- including one fellow Englishman who was a 15-year-old student when "The Willows" was published: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien would later cite Blackwood as the source for his iconic phrase "the Crack of Doom." More than that though, Blackwood's themes of a malevolent nature -- "the treachery of natural things in an animate world" as Jared Lobdell writes in The World of the Rings -- are found throughout Tolkien's writings. There's the murderous Old Man Willow and his "cunning mazes" in the Old Forest, Mount Caradhras, Mirkwood, Fangorn and the Ents... the list goes on.

"Blackwood's evocation of landscape, as with Tolkien's, is unusually convincing," writes Michael D. C. Drout in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Compare Blackwood's passage above with this from The Fellowship of the Ring:

A dark river of brown water, bordered with ancient willows, blocked with fallen willows, and flecked with thousands of faded willow-leaves...

Beyond homicidal trees, there's Blackwood's Wendigo. A horror from the deep untouched woods, it's "the Call of the Wild personified," as one character describes it, which calls to travelers with a voice that "resembles all the minor sounds of the Bush--wind, falling water, cries of the animals."

Drout points out that the Wendigo, "with its dreadful aerial entity and wailing cries from above that cause panic in hearers" may have "contributed to one of the most important sources of terror to be found in Lord of the Rings: the airborne Nazgûl."

Here's Blackwood, describing a character having heard the Wendigo's (or its victim's) terrible cry:

Scarcely knowing what he did, presently found himself running wildly to and fro, searching, calling, tripping over roots and boulders, and flinging himself in a frenzy of undirected pursuit after the Caller. Behind the screen of memory and emotion with which experience veils events, he plunged, distracted and half-deranged, picking up false lights like a ship at sea, terror in his eyes and heart and soul. For the Panic of the Wilderness had called to him in that far voice.

And then Tolkien's Nazgûl:

The Nazgûl came again... their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.

And as the Wendigo captures, corrupts, and mimics its victims to the horror of their companions, so too do the Nazgûl ensnare others and turn them into wraiths like themselves.

Tom Shippey writes one of Tolkien's achievements was opening "a new continent of imaginative space for many millions of readers, and hundreds of writers – though he himself would have said that it was an old continent which he was merely rediscovering." It's delightful to discover that a fellow English writer, Algernon Blackwood, may have had a small part in building Tolkien's rediscovered continent.

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