(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1688 words.)