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A quote from Chesterton's essay titled The Telegraph Poles:

We did not get home before it was dark. For one reason or another we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods.

What is meant here by threading?

  • A mass of trees resembling multiple threads and obstructing the view of the sky.
  • That the heroes of the narrative were threading through thick woods.
  • That the night was stealthily threading through thick woods, in order to catch the heroes unawares.
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    It means the trees being twisted with each other as a thread hiding the sky which makes darkness appear soon in the evening. – VijayaRagavan Jul 1 '14 at 7:02
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I think thread is a verb meaning "to pass through (as a thread through the eye of a needle)", here used in a more general figurative sense in the form threading to refer to their passage through the trees. We can find this meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary's definition for thread, v., sense four:

4. a. trans. To make one's way through (a narrow place, a passage presenting difficulties or obstacles, a forest, a crowd, or the like); to pass skilfully through the intricacies or difficulties of.

Phrases like "threading his way through the crowds" are relatively common, and people or paths thread their way through trees fairly often. Here are a couple examples from COCA to illustrate the forest sub-sense:

And there, just by the first trees, threading its way among them, was the trail, a wide whitish trough.

Traveling by night, hiding by day, fording streams and creeks, threading the forests, always aware of the pursuers behind them and the allies of the pursuers all around them, Tubman and her passengers moved doggedly onward, following the North Star.

However, the precise phrase the threading of thick woods is unfamiliar to me, and I had to read the passage carefully to convince myself this was the right interpretation.

Your other interpretations seem unlikely to me.

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+250

This answer has undergone a major overhaul after receiving the bounty. See footnote.1

What does it mean?

Short Answer: @snailplane is correct.

The text comes from The Telegraph Poles (1910), written by G. K. ChestertonREF (1874-1936). Chesterton was a noted and prolific early 20th century writer who had a definite command, style, and joy in using the English language.

When asking, "What does it mean?" some questions can be answered objectively, such as the meaning of an idiom. But when it comes to an odd snip of figurative language from text dating over one hundred years ago, there may be no definitive answer. On the other hand, some answers can be better supported than others.

What does it mean, "what does it mean"? Are we asking the author's intent, either conscious or subconscious? Are we asking what it means to the average reader? And who is the "average reader"? The average reader of the time period? The average reader of today? If we want to achieve some objective view on the matter, we must draw some line and ask, "What was the author's likely intention and what would his typical reader at the time think?"

Any reasoned answer must include support from (1) context, (2) standard English, and (3) literary criticism/analysis. LitCrit is typically off-topic here, but anyone that doesn't account for all three of these areas will find theirself short on some detail. And in the end, the LitCrit will support the standard English interpretation.

Evidence Supporting the Standard Definition

Any answer should at least start with the most probable standard English definition of threading to determine if it can be used sensibly:

  • to thread one's way: move carefully or skillfully in and out of obstacles.

It's important to note that this use of the word theading was much more popular during Chesterton's time. See Google Ngram. Chesterton himself used this very same standard meaning of "to thread one's way" in many of his writings. Here are some examples:

  • The man with the glass eye, if it was a glass eye, stumped stiffly away; and the eye of Father Brown (which was by no means a glass eye) followed him thoughtfully as he threaded his way through the ladders and disappeared into the street. (Chesterton, "The Point of a Pin")
  • The street they threaded was so narrow and shut in by shadows that when they came out unexpectedly into the void common and vast sky they were startled to find the evening still so light and clear. (Chesterton, "The Innocence of Father Brown: The Blue Cross")
  • As they threaded the steep side streets already powdered with silver [snow], Angus finished his story; and by the time they reached the crescent with the towering flats, he had leisure to turn his attention to the four sentinels.* (Chesterton, "The Innocence of Father Brown: The Flying Stars")
  • He really looked as if he had been twisted out of shape by the tortuous streets he had been threading. (Chesterton, "The Man Who Was Thursday")
  • Diving under the wood, he was soon threading a leafy path which, even under that summer sun, shone only with an emerald twilight, as if it... (Chesterton, "The Trees of Pride")
  • Many men of his blood and type—simple, strenuous, somewhat prosaic—had threaded their way through some dark continent to add some treasure or territory to the English name. (Chesterton, "Lord Kitchener")

Now consider the usage within The Telegraph Poles. The context of the passage immediately before and after also supports the standard English definition:2

  • BEFORE: "Let me see, I think this is our way through the wood..."

  • TARGET: We did not get home before it was dark. For one reason or another we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods.

  • AFTER: When my friend, after the first five minutes' march, had fallen over a log, and I, ten minutes after, had stuck nearly to the knees in mire, we began to have some suspicion of our direction... "I'm afraid we're on the wrong path. It's pitch dark."..."I thought we went the right way," I said, tentatively.

Before, Chesterton describes a tentative sense of direction. Immediately after, he clearly describes the difficult action of making one's way past obstacles through the thick woods. (That is the very definition of threading.)

The Standard Definition is the Primary Meaning

The prior section indicates that, at a minimum, the text can be interpreted as using the standard English definition. The standard English definition makes sense. The prior and following context sentences support the image of Chesterton and his friend threading through the woods. And the historical usage supports this meaning as well. Also, the standard meaning would have been easily accessible to Chesterton's audience.

Any suggestion of a different primary meaning of "threading" would have to overcome the burden of context, standard English, and historical precedent demonstrated in this section. I will maintain throughout this Answer that no other meaning overcomes this burden.

Alternative 1: Like Fabric - The Quick Passing of Time

Some point to the reference of the quickly darkening skies to suggest that the threading refers to the branches crisscrossing like the weave of a fabric, blocking out the sun, and that could be the threading of the woods.

But that notion is also handled just fine by the more "mundane" standard definition, as two men threading (traversing) through a thick forest. They are, after all, in "the woods". That alone is sufficient to block light. Nobody can trek through dense woods at dusk without nighttime falling quickly. There doesn't need to be any alternate meaning to deliver the same concept.

(This is not a critique of anyone's personal imagination. Only of the original author's likely intended meaning.)

Alternative 2: Like Fabric - Blocking the Light and Made of Night-Time Stuff

A highly figurative and imaginative suggestion is that the night itself threaded through the branches. This is too far and complex for the surrounding text to support. Any such meaning would have required much more support by Chesterton to make that a plausible reading to himself and his audience.

(Again, this is not to downplay anyone's enjoyment in imagination. I like this poetic idea! I just don't think the original author had this in mind.)

Alternative 3: Like Fabric - Blocking the Light and A Mass of Trees

Another suggestion, posited by the OP, is a mass of trees: a tangible state of trees criss-crossing. Such a meaning is more clearly seen in an example sentence, "We were in the threading of thick woods". To interpret "the threading" here as "the weave" would push the meaning of "threading" outside of its standard meaning and into metaphor. Such a meaning could be plausible in a poetic context (a forest threading itself thick) and one could fit that image into the narrative.

However, at best, such a meaning would be a secondary poetic image due to the primary meaning established by standard English convention, historical convention, and the broader context of the surrounding sentences. It was certainly not beyond Chesterton's ability to use metaphor to create a double-meaning.

Chesterton used many a merry metaphor in this story of mysterious meanderings. But Chesterton's style here is open, friendly, and direct rather than subtle and mysterious. In other words, his metaphors are not like a fairy of the night, hidden in the wood, but rather, they are more like a bat hitting you in the face. Here are a few of the metaphors that Chesterton "announces with trumpets":

  • inland seas of solitude
  • stood up all around us the pines of the wood, like the pikes of a silent mutiny
  • now I could see [the pine trees] curve and waver everywhere, like scimitars and yataghans.
  • ..and the long afternoon was already lengthening itself out into a yellow evening...
  • This brought out yet more clearly the owlish secrecy of pine-woods...
  • In the silent fight of that forest, tree fights speechless against tree, branch against branch.

A cleverly wrapped metaphor with a double meaning would be out of place in this story. Perhaps the real problem is that people today are much more clever than people of Chesterton's time. Such is the natural progression of things. We all know the tricks that Chesterton and those-who-came-after-him invented and we can see things that Chesterton couldn't.

Had Chesterton developed that particular idea more explicitly, we would all see it as clear evidence of subtle mastery rather than a peculiar potential meaning. Any secondary meaning here is, at most, a serendipitous addition to the text. Beyond that, it is neither explored nor developed. For example, Chesterton could have (but didn't) write something like this:

  • Looking up, we could see small puzzle pieces of blue, white, and pink setting-sun sky formed through the mesh of branches and vines and leaves that were tortuously threading themselves through the forest, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, was exactly what my friend and I were going to be doing for the rest of the night. (CoolHandLouis)

Also, we can point to Chesterton's penchant for alliteration (seas of solitude, madness in that musical monotony) to come up with "the threading of thick woods" as marginally better than "our threading of thick woods". And that alliteration could have been justification-enough for Chesterton to write that -- at the expense of dropping the agency of "who was doing the threading". Since the idiom of "threading" was more popular in his day, Chesterton knew that the alliterative play would be easily accessible to his audience. (Their response may have been delight at the cute alliteration rather than befuddlementDEF about the meaning or a probing for deeper meaning.)

Conclusion

Due to the nature of language and the mind, one can find various meanings in text. Is it there? Well, yes-if-you-want-it-to-be. And please don't get me wrong: I like the alternate interpretations. But just how schizophrenic does one want to be in a conviction that Chesterton intended such a meaning? At best, a secondary metaphorical meaning is marginally above the level of finding patterns in noise. Ironically, like his thick woods, Chesterton's wording here can make his language thicker in two ways: "more rich with meaning" and "more obscure".

In the final analysis, Chesterton went on a hike with his friend through the woods. They stumbled over logs and plodded through muck, threading through the thick forest to find the next and the next telegraph post (both the object of their derision and source of their salvation), leading them home upon the morning's dawn.


Footnotes

1. Note After Being Awarded Bounty. I take answering questions here seriously. While I was researching and reading G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), I got bitten by a writing bug which forced me to re-style this answer garishly with older idioms, hyperbole, rhetoric, and all sort of purple prose. It was loads of fun and I cackled with the joy of a mad writer let loose. But it also drew excessive attention to itself (on purpose) and, IMO, reduced the value of the answer relative to stackexchange. Remember that we hate fun here..

When I recovered from said illness, I diligently got to work on re-styling this back to A Good Answer by removing all hyperbole. The older version, which received the bounty, can be found here. This new version is everything the older version was, plus less, which is more in this case. It's actually organized better with all the same info and without the snarky trappings.

Please forgive me. I won't do it again. Unless I get bitten again.    : - )

2. The following is the broader context/excerpt needed to answer this question.

"Let me see, I think this is our way through the wood. Come, let us both curse the telegraph post for entirely different reasons and get home before it is dark."

We did not get home before it was dark. For one reason or another we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods. When my friend, after the first five minutes' march, had fallen over a log, and I, ten minutes after, had stuck nearly to the knees in mire, we began to have some suspicion of our direction. At last my friend said, in a low, husky voice:

"I'm afraid we're on the wrong path. It's pitch dark."

"I thought we went the right way," I said, tentatively.

"Well," he said; and then, after a long pause, "I can't see any telegraph poles. I've been looking for them."

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    I have made a major revision update to this answer. I do hope you enjoy this post, which was made to be accurate but also in the spirit of fun. (And my gratitude to @snailplane, to whom I give thanks for the editing assistance which I have preserved forward into this new version :-) – CoolHandLouis Jul 6 '14 at 14:43
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    Please note another major revision to this answer, with the removal of hyperbole. It flows much better and stands on its own as better representative of a stackexchange "good answer". :) – CoolHandLouis Jul 7 '14 at 21:41
  • I realized that the Russian language has the word (хитро)сплетение which is derived from to weave and could be expressed roughly as entanglement or threading (often "..of branches" in literature) in the sense close to fabric. On the other hand, I can't off the top of my head recall a weave- or thread-derived counterpart verb meaning to thread through some surroundings. That could've prompted me to pursue my 1st sense in the English text also. It is interesting that my perception was supported by an Indian person. Could Hindi have a word similar to хитросплетение, I wonder.. – CowperKettle Jul 8 '14 at 14:23
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It means the trees being twisted with each other as a thread hiding the sky which makes darkness appear soon in the evening.

VijayaRagavan

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    I've turned this comment into an answer so it can be voted on properly. – snailplane Jul 2 '14 at 0:41
  • It's probably silly for you to upvote your own answer :-) – snailplane Jul 3 '14 at 10:30
  • Well, these upvotes add to your reputation and not mine... – VijayaRagavan Jul 4 '14 at 6:38
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    @VijayaRagavan I marked it as Community Wiki, so no one gets reputation from it. – snailplane Jul 5 '14 at 16:30
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...we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods.

The author focuses on the passage of time, and the surprising speed with which darkness comes upon them. They were trying to move through the woods to make it back before dark, but failed, due to the winding, weaving, indirect path they had to take between thick trees.

In that sense, I would suggest that "threading" refers to the motion of the people themselves trying to "thread the needle," or find the small, difficult openings through which they could pass.

EDIT: I should've read snailplane's response more closely - it's very similar, so I'll add...

The construction "in the threading of" is like saying "in the act of threading."

You could also interpret it to be a noun - "a threading" - but to my knowledge this word doesn't exist.

This would also present a rather contradictory image - a thin, flexible, fragile string, as a description for thick, wooden, sturdy forest that stands in the way. Perhaps a deliberately ironic choice, but doubtful.

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The second one, as per the context, and close to Longmans #4:

thread your way through/into something etc --to move through a place by carefully going around things that are blocking your way: She came towards me, threading her way through the crowd.

Substitute another word for threading, and it becomes clear. Try trudging, for example.

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G K Chesterton was referring to "threading [our way] through thick woods". It's a lovely, poetic turn of phrase.

I wouldn't presume I could use those words myself in a phrase without saying I was quoting Chesterton.

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In my opinion, it definitely has to be the first option,

A mass of trees resembling multiple threads and obstructing the view of the sky.

I say so because the author has used "in the threading of thick woods". Moreover, if you go by the context, the author is trying to say that because of the obstruction caused by the mass of trees, they couldn't get a clear view of the sky, and hence couldn't make out what time of day it was, for it was dark throughout. In simpler words, they didn't realize when the sun had set and when it had gotten dark outside. Only when they reached home did they realize that it was night already, which was unexpected to them. Hence

suddenness of night

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Even in the full context of the essay, the sentence is underdefined and several interpretations are possible. However, the one I like most is actually a variation of your third answer: it's night that threads through the trees.

Your first answer, while creative, would be an entirely novel use of the word, so I expect it is not the right reading. More likely, something is threading through the trees. The question is, what? Or grammatically, what does the prepositional phrase "in the threading" modify?

we had underestimated the swiftness of twilight and the suddenness of night, especially in the threading of thick woods.

"In the threading of thick woods" could be modifying "underestimated". (I do not think it can be considered as modifying "we"). This would mean the two subjects underestimated the approach of twilight while in the circumstance of moving through the trees. That's plausible, but there's a snag: "especially." I find that odd, or unnatural, if they are talking about themselves moving through trees. It suggests there is something about passing through the thick trees that particularly affected their judgment.

The other option is for "in the threading of thick woods" to be modifying some combination of twilight/night (or swiftness/suddenness, which amounts to the same thing). "Especially" makes more sense if it is describing one of these two phenomena. The meaning is, twilight falls swiftly, especially when the light has to pass through dense trees.

This reading is particularly strong because of what happens as night falls in a forest: shafts of light become visible, and then fade, as sunbeams must find a way to fit through the dense collection of trees. Thus twilight falls especially swiftly under those circumstances. (This is distinct from your answer #3 because it doesn't anthropomorphize; night isn't trying to sneak up on them, it's just that the light has to filter through the branches). And that makes sense: the writer would be emphasizing that the circumstances particularly affect the swiftness of nightfall, rather than particularly affecting his perception.

Again, both readings are possible. But if it were intended to describe the writer's estimation, it would have been more natural to leave "especially" out. Instead this serves to emphasize the unexpected or unusual swiftness of nightfall under these particular conditions.

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  • Would love to hear the reason for the down-vote. I thought it was carefully thought out. – Tiercelet Jul 6 '14 at 15:47

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