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.)
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.
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."