Algernon Blackwood, Book review., Books, Christian, Christianity, English Literature, Environment, Forests, Horror, Literary criticism, Literature, Mysticism, Nature, New Forest, Robert Pogue Harrison, S.T. Joshi, Spirits, Spiritualism, Trees, Woods
Ah, what am I reading? At first, it looks like something by D.H. Lawrence, although it was written in 1912, a decade or so before Lawrence was in his prime. Like Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this story is set against the backdrop of a forest, although its heroine will not find love under the trees. Like the cast of a Lawrence novella, the characters in this story are listless, self-absorbed, and adrift from meaningful society. Like a lot of Lawrence’s fiction, the narrative of this story observes consciousness closely, detailing its ebbs and ripples as one may carefully paint water. As with Lawrence’s prose, this narrative demonstrates a certain quirkiness, as when the “little biblical phrases” of the pious Mrs Bittacy are rather wonderfully described as “oddities that still clung to a rather fine, big soul – like horns and little useless things some animals have not yet lost in the course of evolution while they have outgrown their use.” Yet this particular story is “The Man Whom The Trees Loved” by Algernon Blackwood, a crackpot who wrote “weird tales,” and its marriage of literary realism and some very silly mysticism has yielded a work of arresting, mad eloquence, and one unique to English Literature.
In his critical study of weird fiction The Weird Tale (1990), S. T. Joshi contests the persistent classification of Blackwood as a horror writer. He finds that Blackwood is “quite frankly the most wholesome and cheerful horror writer I know of,” and that Blackwood’s fiction is “unashamedly philosophical,” if often impenetrably so. Joshi is uncertain whether “there is any such thing as a subjective state in Blackwood, in spite of his constant – almost excessive – probing of the psychologies of his characters.” Joshi consequently concludes that “whether one feels horror or awe” at the phenomena within a Blackwood tale “will depend almost entirely upon the degree to which one is in tune with cosmic consciousness.” Accordingly, the narrative of “The Man Whom…” does not endorse a single interpretation of the tale, but it instead sets several interpretive possibilities against each other, frustrating the reader’s ability to make any sense of the tale.
On one occasion, Blackwood is up to the waist in what Joshi calls “much shallow satire” at Mrs Bittacy’s “conventionality,” but he then seems to fear that he has been too harsh on Mrs Bittacy, and he qualifies his earlier carping with a lavish tribute to his heroine which commends her “single-hearted nobility of soul” and asserts that she was “greater than she knew.” On another occasion, Blackwood seemingly affirms that Mrs Bittacy is simply going potty: “Solitude… in which the mind unhindered feeds upon its own delusions, was the assignable cause of her gradual mental deterioration and collapse.” But pages later, we find him explicitly describing the tree spirits looming over the Bittacys’ bed.
Although we may be encouraged to accept the reality of these tree spirits, we may equally suspect that they are a consequence of Mrs Bittacy’s paranoia. Mrs Bittacy’s mind “bristled with the bogeys of Antichrist and Prophesy” and it seems that only she can see the tree spirits, which appear in moments of lucid, hallucinogenic unreality. Mr Bittacy’s insistence that trees have understanding and his anxiety that they will be “lonely,” recall the silly fears of a small child, and may amply testify to his degeneration into the infantile throws of dementia. This may well be a tale of two old people going mad in a forest.
Finding a path through this forest of meaning necessitates first establishing a workable definition of a tree. The artist Sanderson – who is as much a tree-psychoanalyst as a tree painter – wishes for trees to “reveal themselves” and their “naked being.” Mr Bittacy reflects upon “the “something” that trees possess that make them know I’m there when I stand close and watch.” Yet the narrative does not particularly elaborate upon these insights. Many readers may conclude that Mr Bittacy is being rather generous in the faculties which he attributes to trees. One frequently encounters statements which the empiricist will find entirely meaningless and even comic: “The wonder that lies hidden in our own souls lies also hidden, I venture to assert, in the stupidity and silence of a mere potato.” Yet as with religious faith, questions of evidence and proof are here somewhat hopeless. Blackwood chiefly produced tales of the supernatural, but “The Man Whom…” is a more unsettling and ambiguous prospect because it conveys the psychological isolation which (allegedly) results from an exclusion from greater, mystical or supernatural truths.
Tychy has previously contended that modern environmentalism is an extension of old, aristocratic paternalism rather than evidence of progressive politics. Yet “The Man Whom” rather amusingly defines the forest itself as the arboreal equivalent of a totalitarian regime. Sanderson envisions “a rather splendid Entity that manifests through all the thousand individual trees” and he describes how “there is communion among trees all the world over,” which vaguely echoes totalitarian promises of utopia. Woodlands of the world unite! Considering that this was written in 1912, however, the forest regime predates those of Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler. The forest certainly disperses its own propaganda: “No terror of the axe could haunt the peace of its vast subconscious life, no terror of devastating Man afflict it with the dread of premature death.”
Marxists often describe the naturalising tendency of ideology: “a ruling ideology does not so much combat alternative ideas as thrust them beyond the very bounds of the thinkable.” Deep in the forest, Mrs Bittacy finds herself reflecting that, “This has always been as it is now… Ever since the Forest grew it has been still and secret here. It has never changed.” Mr Bittacy cites a mythological history of the forest in which the “trees had once been moving things, animal organisms of some sort, that had stood so long feeding, sleeping, dreaming, or something, in the same place, that they had lost the power to get away.” Yet Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992) takes a rather different view of the origins of the New Forest:
Entire villages were demolished and their inhabitants driven off the land when William [“the Conqueror”] decided to afforest the region that came to be known as the New Forest. Its name has since become ironic, for its remains to this day the oldest forest in England; yet it was appropriately named at the time, since much of it was not even wooded then.
True to the spirit of its founding father, the New Forest’s love for Mr Bittacy is essentially imperialistic. Sanderson warns that, “their love for you, their “awareness” of your personality and presence involves the idea of winning you… in a way, taking you over.” Mr Bittacy may be accordingly consumed, just as a tree is chopped down to provide firewood, and the tale ends with his voice blazing distantly in the forest. The forest’s encroachment upon human lives rather comically reverses traditional notions of the natural order, so that Nature is now revealed to be threatening or compromising the human environment.
The cedar on the edge of the Bittacys’ garden becomes the equivalent of a faithful domesticated dog, and it “stands there like a sentinel – protective rather.” This tree is a moderate – which apparently collaborates with humanity in keeping back the wild trees – but it seems that it is “alien… The poor thing has drifted.” The village trees, although “civilised, cared for,” long to return to the greater forest, which in “its august, deep splendour despised and pitied them.” “They were a thing of artificial gardens…” The forest society is, in this respect, somewhat illiberal, and it does not tolerate those who, so to speak, stray. Sanderson’s painting allegedly captures the “individuality of a tree,” but it seems that this is a rather a contradiction in terms – the trees generally plot against individuality! Our urge to identify the trees as aggressive and malevolent is, of course, frustrated by Blackwood’s occasional suggestions that they want love, or that they are lonely, or that they are terrorised by the winds which roar in the forest.
Although he was a lifelong bachelor, Blackwood demonstrates a surprising interest in marriage. The Bittacys’ relationship is not one of wild passions: “this elderly childless couple used an affectionate politeness long deemed old-fashioned.” Indeed, perhaps appropriately for a scenario in which a husband leaves his wife not for a mistress but for a bunch of trees, the Bittacys’ gradual estrangement is a very tender affair, involving the considerate management of heartbreak. Mr Bittacy “was so kind and gentle, doing all he could to make her sacrifice as easy as possible.”
The Bittacys’ marriage is seemingly ruptured at a level of consciousness more familiar to plants. Mr Bittacy becomes as rooted as a tree in his inability to leave the New Forest; whilst his helpless and dependant wife is left “shaking like a leaf.” Mr Bittacy first communes with the forest in his sleep; whilst Mrs Bittacy regards her religion as a protective blanket, under which she can remain huddled in a sort of mental oblivion. Mr Bittacy rather audaciously concludes that “like many women” his wife “never really thought at all, but merely reflected the images of others’ thinking which she had learned to see.” Mrs Bittacy perceives the world “instinctively,” because the “subtleties of language lay far beyond her reach.” She is fearful that Mr Bittacy may “speak freely” about the tree spirits and when she finally witnesses them close up, she screams soundlessly.
Mrs Bittacy discerns “formless, wordless” confirmations of her faith, but it may be that “in the very simpleness of her nature” she cannot attain the finer perception of truth achieved by her husband. Perhaps Mr Bittacy is part of an elite which can commune with the trees, whilst his wife lacks this insight. She endlessly polices reality to ensure that it corresponds with her Bible, although her fears are portrayed as pitiful rather than aggressive. The vegetable kingdom’s “very right to existence seemed in question” from Mrs Bittacy’s contempt, and this perhaps reflects the small-mindedness which characterised Blackwood’s own evangelical upbringing. One here recalls some lines from Pogue Harrison’s Forests about Christianity’s traditional hostility to forests for being seats of paganism, and the mercy that “Christian imperialism did not take it upon itself to burn down the forests in a frenzy of religious fervour, despite the enjoinder of certain ambiguous passages from the Old Testament.” Sanderson remarks that the trees “sometimes” express “that which is not God – dark and terrible,” and although he does not satisfactorily pursue this point, one is left with the impression that the trees are rather aloof from the Christian God and that a world devoted exclusively to the latter is somewhat incomplete.
When Mr Bittacy requests that his wife accompany him to the forest, she may glimpse a ghastly reflection of her own efforts to minister to his soul. Once her husband is in with the trees, Mrs Bittacy’s “one desire now was to protect” and she becomes a “wife turned wholly mother,” and yet this self-sacrifice is dictated by her faith. She considers her faith to be a “weapon” and self-sacrifice as “the means by which she mastered its immediate use.” Her heart is momentarily stirred by the sublime, oceanic power of the forest, but the next minute she is back to plotting against this foe and its “jealousy.” She embarks upon an expedition into the forest to try and “share” her husband’s union with the trees, and she learns to regard herself from the forest’s perspective. Yet she is consequently left “desolate in an empty world of fear.” When Mrs Bittacy finally realises that the world of greater love is, for her, “out of reach,” she is approached by her God, who is now “so sweet and comforting, and yet so hard to understand – as Resignation.” Mrs Bittacy’s exclusion from love and happiness has led to a different sort of enlightenment to that (apparently) achieved by her husband, but it is uncertain whether this resignation to suffering is an inferior or a higher wisdom.