Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1688
Two forces dominate the life of Salar, “the Leaper,” as the Romans called the fish. He must eat to live, and he is at the mercy of the elements, for the sea and the river are in continual movement to reduce all life to the components of water and mud, from which the great cycle of life begins anew. Like most fish, Salar is a cannibal who both eats and is eaten. Although the novel opens with a brief summary of the salmon’s life (hatching in a moorland stream, passing down to the ocean, returning to the same moorland stream to spawn), only the return up the river, beginning in early spring and ending in late winter, is detailed in the story of Salar. The novel is in four sections: “Tideways” describes Salar’s fight to find his original river; “Spring Spate” details his ascent up to the pool where in the third part, “Summer River,” he waits for spawning; “Winter Star-Stream” describes the spawning and death of Salar.
As the novel opens, Salar is a three-foot salmon weighing twenty pounds and two ounces, five years old, and so fighting fit from his past two or more years in the Atlantic that he will not need to eat for a year and has enough energy to ascend the river five hundred and seventy times; it will take all that energy to ascend it once. This is the salmon known to fishermen and sportsmen. There are many other kinds, especially the kelt, the salmon that has spawned and is good for nothing. Other dialect terms—smolt, grilse, rawner—describe the salmon at various stages of its life cycle and show Henry Williamson’s acquaintance with the lore which centuries have built up around the salmon in its native habitat, the moors at the head of the Two Rivers. This lore is now known only to the old poachers such as Shiner, who is helping a man (the author) to write a book about the salmon but who is not known, apparently, to the Two Rivers Conservancy Board that controls the taking of salmon from the mouth and reaches of the Two Rivers. Throughout the book, there is an unresolved debate about the Board’s activities; the old salmon fishermen in the tidal waters claim it operates solely in the interests of the rich amateur fishermen of the upper reaches; part of this debate is about the “kelt,” whether it can actually renew itself in seawater or not. Williamson seems to think that the subtle chemistry of the salmon’s body can change its appearance from the muddy exterior of a salmon that has idled away the summer in mud pools to the shining body associated with the salmon.
This chemistry is part of the complexity and prodigality of nature that the whole novel celebrates. Salar’s homing instinct is a remembered pattern of balances operating in the band of cells along either side of his body, which keep adjusting to the shifting weights or pressures of the water around him and thus give him his remarkable ability to hover in quiet water and to find the best way up rough water or through the tide races. The prodigality of nature is seen in the thirteen thousand eggs the grilse, or female salmon, lays on the “redds” shallow hatching beds upstream and in the flow of milt that the cock salmon fights to spread over the eggs; a young smolt manages to fertilize only nine of a flow of two hundred and thirty eggs from a grilse. The world in which Salar lives needs this prodigality to counter the incredible odds against any of the fertilized eggs hatching, growing for two or three years as smolt, passing down the river in a spring spate past the greedy bass in the tidewaters, and surviving the years in the Atlantic before facing the return journey against the nets and lines of man.
The scene of the novel, the Two Rivers, is the same as that of TARKA THE OTTER, Williamson’s first nature novel, and the daughter of Tarka appears to chase Salar in the chapter titled “Water Death.” Other characters, such as Old Nog, the heron, reappear, but the book contains many new characters along the same lines—a name given to one bird or beast that represents all such creatures. Salar is accompanied up the river by Trutta, a seven-year-old sea trout; by Gralaks, the grilse with whom he mates; and by Shiner, a retired poacher still in love with the salmon, who follows them in the upper river, helps them over the weirs, and is the only living thing to mourn the death of Salar. Throughout the novel, a variety of enemies attack Salar but the most persistent is man. At the river mouth, he escapes the nets of the salmon fishermen only with the help of Trutta who smashes a hole for his escape. At the end of his ascent in the spring spate, he is caught by “Black Dog,” a fishing fly so named and has to tear himself off the line and spend weeks rubbing the hook out of his jaw. Salar is a battle-scarred veteran when he meets his end.
Salar’s natural enemies change according to the season and the water he is in. In “Tideways,” the chief enemies are not the bass that he fought his way through two years before—he is eleven times bigger than he was then—but the seals and lamprey. The old seal, Jarrk, both eats and plays with salmon, stealing them from the nets and laughing at attempts to shoot him, infuriating the fishermen and giving rise to the comedy of the chapter titled “Estuary Night,” when the fishermen fool the Board’s bailiff. Petromyzon, the lamprey, is no laughing matter; she eats her way into Salar’s flank, draining his strength, until a hagfish, a kind of lesser lamprey, in turn leeches on to her and eats its way into her stomach, thus releasing Salar with a large red wound on his side. Some of these enemies are small, like the male and female sea lice which cluster on Salar’s shoulders but which die in fresh water; their place is then taken by small maggots and a deadly fungus which in the end furs most of Salar’s body, and by the salmon pest or bacillus which has eaten his strength inside. Although the book is organized so that only one enemy at a time attacks Salar, they sometimes come in droves—in the early chapters, the seal is accompanied by the conger eel, porpoises, and a grampus—and when one drops away another replaces it, as the threadworms, leeches, and eel elvers swarm in to the attack after the lamprey is gone.
The second part of the novel is more marked than others by the names of sections of the river Salar travels through from the tidehead to Junction Pool to Denzil’s Pool. He escapes, after a terrible struggle, the experienced fishermen, although the kelt does not. He also eludes the poachers with the fortuitous assistance of Old Nog, who upsets Shiner’s poaching, and of Shiner himself when he gets revenge on a gang of poachers who are using his net to take the exhausted fish from their summer resting place in Denzil’s Pool. In the third part, “Summer River,” Williamson turns to describing the life cycle of the ducks, bats, river fish, and insects that make up the perpetual movement of nature; two chapters, “June Morning” and “Mayfly,” are devoted to the brief span of the libellula, or dragon fly, and the danica, or mayfly. This section of the novel ends with the death of a stag and an otter in their respective haunts. These events stress man’s place in the natural scheme as the supreme killer and therefore support the theme exemplified in Shiner: that man preys on all creatures, including his fellowman.
The fourth part, “Winter Star-Stream,” is the shortest, culminating in the mingled triumph and tragedy pervading the book. Salar, Trutta, and Gralaks have met and lost a number of salmon in the journey from the sea and while they waited during the long summer drought for the autumn rains that would raise the level of the headwaters of the river on the moors, so that the big fish could make their way to the immemorial spawning grounds. In a comic scene, Shiner helps them to escape three poachers at Steep Weir. He then follows the fish upstream. They are now accompanied, however, by Garroo, the cannibal trout who is waiting for the eggs. Strange cock salmon gather around Gralaks and fight Salar as the grilse spawns in bursts of eggs and the males lay their milt in the gravel depressions of the riverbed. The fighting of the males, the emission of milt, the slow icing-up of the river, the spreading of fungus and bacilli so exhaust Salar that Shiner can gently handle him into deep water. The rains that would carry Salar, now a kelt, down to the sea for renewal, however, do not come; the otters finally corner Trutta and kill him; when the spate comes, it washes the dead, decaying corpse of Salar down to the sea.
The writing in this novel is more accomplished than that in TARKA THE OTTER, not so much in style as in the arranging of events in a simple but dramatic chronological sequence, as when the drowned lamb floats past Salar, shortly followed by its drowned ewe. The enormous voracity of nature, patient and furious, fills the book with action corresponding to the power of Salar’s leaps from the water and up the weirs. The sense of power in Salar, however, is consistently shadowed by the presence of greater and smaller powers that wait upon him, bide their time, and accomplish their purpose. The novel is a somber reminder of the transience of power and beauty and of the inescapable round of nature in which all creatures, man included, are permitted only briefly to flourish.
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