Adam Frost points out in a retrospective essay on Saki’s career appearing in Contemporary Review, that the author’s first published story, “Dogged,” ends in a “reversal [that] is typical of Saki”; in that story, the “owner becomes pet and vice versa.” Saki would repeat such use of a surprise ending throughout his career as a short story writer, perhaps most famously so in The Open Window. While that story’s ending brought about a comic effect, in “The Interlopers,” which Saki wrote at the end of his career, this pattern is now employed with a more vicious twist: the human hunters become the hunted. This motif is repeated in two different ways. Georg Znaym and Ulrich von Gradwitz are turned into game as each hunts the other, his lifelong enemy. More crucially, however, the men, pinioned under a fallen tree, are about to become the helpless quarry of a pack of wolves. A critic for the New York Times points out that “The Interlopers” differs from the other stories in The Toys of Peace—as it does, in fact, from the bulk of Saki’s short story oeuvre—in its grimness.
Saki places these two men in a setting that underscores their menacing intent. The forest in which the story takes place is primeval and infused with the ominous characteristics of an entity rife for the hunt itself. On this night particularly, there is “movement and unrest among the creatures that were wont to sleep through the dark hours.” The woods are dark and cold, and they contain a “disturbing element.” Ulrich peers through the “wild tangle of undergrowth” and listens through the “whistling and skirling of the wind and the restless beating of the branches.” Ulrich’s own actions further intensify this atmosphere, for he has placed “watchers .. . in ambush on the crest of the hill.”
Saki immediately sets the atmosphere of the hunt with the story’s opening sentence. The reader is introduced to Ulrich, who stands “watching and listening, as though for some beast of the wood to come within the range of his vision, and later, of his rifle.” The narrative quickly reveals, however, that Ulrich is not hunting a beast but rather, he “patrolled the dark forest in quest of a human enemy.” That enemy is Georg Znaeym. Georg and Ulrich were born enemies, having inherited from their grandfathers a bitter feud over the very piece of land where Ulrich now stands. Instead of dissipating the feud over the years,”the personal ill-will of the two men” had made it grow; “as boys they had thirsted for one another’s blood, [and] as men each prayed that misfortune might fall on the other.” Now, each has independently determined to bring about the other’s death. To accomplish this goal, each has set out in the forest—knowing that is where his enemy lurks—with a “rifle in his hand . . . hate in his heart and murder uppermost in his mind.” In these matching desires, Ulrich and Georg have transformed the other into prey. Thus, each man is at the same time the hunter and the hunted.
Despite actively placing themselves in these roles, the men are aware of the perversity of the situation. When they finally come face to face with each other and with the opportunity “to give full play to the passions of a lifetime,” neither can bring himself”to shoot down his neighbour in cold blood and without word spoken.” Both men are unable to give themselves up to the wildness of nature. They still respect”the code of a restraining civilization,” thus they recognize that murdering another human— in actuality, hunting him down—is unforgivable “except for an offence against his hearth and honour.” Ulrich and Georg’s mutual indecision renders them unable to take action. They understand that fulfilling their desires would place them in opposition with the rules of society.
Nature, however, is able to act swiftly. A lightning strike makes a beech tree fall down upon them, pinioning them under its branches. The falling of the tree thus places both men in to the role of the helpless. They are cast into the role of “captive plight” of game in a trap. Like the animals they might hunt, no respite is available to them until their men come to release them. Their speech, as well as Saki’s narrative, reflects their understanding of this situation. Georg, “savagely,” sees Ulrich as “snared” in the forest. Ulrich, for his part, declares that when his men free him, he will kill Georg and tell others that this enemy “met… death poaching on my lands.” The concept of the hunt—as well as the victory it represents—continually shapes the perceptions of the men, even at a time they no longer are in the position to be hunting any man or any beast.
Surprisingly, while lying trapped under the tree, the two men come to a historic decision: they vow to put their quarrel behind them and instead make peace. In so doing, they harness the better part of their human nature. Their settlement stands in marked contrast to all of their past enmity and hatred, which required that they suppress their humanity and instead act upon their baser animal nature. The men’s language demonstrates their acknowledgment that they are entering this new phase. Ulrich refers to their past behavior as the behavior of a “devil” rather than the behavior of a hunter; he also suggests that they now take on the role of “friend.” Georg speaks of coming to visit Ulrich on his land and “never fir[ing] a shot … save when you invited me as a guest.” Ulrich and Georg determine to embrace their human ability to reason and to forgive.
The men are eager to get free of their plight, and both are also eager “that his men might be the first to arrive, so that he might be the first to show honourable attention to the enemy that had become a friend.” By adding this detail to the narrative, Saki shows that, despite their interest in making peace and giving up the hunt, the men still desire to have victory over the other. Thus, they have not completely given up any notion of competition, they have simply channeled it into a more acceptable, less harmful form.
To expedite their release, the men decide to call out for their foresters, and they raise their voices in unison “in a prolonged hunting call.” As their luck would have it, instead of beckoning their foresters their calls alert a pack of wolves, which begins to advance toward the captive men. The wolves follow Ulrich’s path “down the hillside.” By mimicking the earlier movement of Ulrich as well as the movement of the foresters, the wolves manifest the similarity between man and beast; as the men were earlier hunting each other, now the wolves are hunting the men.
Alexander Malcolm Forbes writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “[I]n an approximation to parable that is rare for Munro, “The Interlopers” becomes one of his most idealistic and paradoxically pessimistic stories.” Indeed, the story imparts multiple lessons about the benefits of peace as well as the folly of humankind placing itself above the laws of nature. The story implicitly explains why such a cruel fate befalls these enemies: they have dared to intrude, or interlope, on the domains of the forest. In the ongoing feud over possession of this strip of land, both the Gradwitz and Znaeym families have attempted to assert authority where they have no right to do so. Only contrived legal mechanisms gave the von Gradwitz family the forest. In hunting the land and asserting it belongs to them, the men tried to tame the area, but their claim on the land derives only from the authority of civilized society, not from any real sense of belonging or unity. However, the forest is truly primeval; it is a place of survival of the fittest. When the men return to the forest with the deliberate goal of hunting down and killing their enemy, Ulrich and Georg forsake the protection afforded each by the codes of civilization. Their actions also help return the forest to its rightful occupants: beasts on the hunt. They are unable to fulfill this role, but the wolf pack is able to do so.
Before the two men make their peace, Georg announces, “We fight this quarrel out to the death, you and I and our foresters, with no cursed interlopers to come between us.” In this declaration, to which Ulrich accedes, Georg demonstrates one crucial error: he believes the interlopers are the representatives of the legal institutions that have come between him and the land. In reality, the interlopers are he and Ulrich, who have attempted to usurp this wild territory. At the end of the story, the wolves assert the primacy of beast over human within the land they can claim as their own. Their impending destruction of Georg and Ulrich show that the animals who hunt in the forest, not the men who hunt there, are in control.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Saki, Published by Gale, 2002.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “The Interlopers,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.