Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198
Since Western man took to city living in large numbers and began only to holiday in his original locale, the countryside, readers have been forced to rely on a few men in every generation momentarily to recapture what they have given up for good. These devoted naturalists pass on their accumulated knowledge in books that exhibit two common and marked features: first, writing close to nature seems to clarify literary style so that animals are the subjects of some of the best English prose; and second, although conservationists at heart, these writers report fearlessly the natural struggle for existence, thereby reminding readers even more poignantly of a vanished jungle where might was right, all issues were simple, and cunning, or luck, provided the only means of staying alive. Perhaps that is the charm and the moral of the nature fabulist.
The final impression of TARKA THE OTTER is of ferocity that seems incredible at first because the action takes place in what Henry Williamson calls the Two Rivers, a quiet area of Devon that includes moors and railway bridges, fishing boats on the estuaries, and sheds for the ducks on the farm. The otter, it appears, has nothing to fear except man. His build and agility enable him to feed well on fish of all kinds, on birds, and even on frogs and rabbits. Man protects him when young in order to hunt him with packs of otter hounds for the sake of sport and of conservation; after all, he is a vicious and often senseless killer of salmon and other game. Williamson’s picture of man is therefore of a killer; his sympathies are with the otter, sympathies developed no doubt from the otter cub he tamed and then lost when it became caught in a trap and would trust him no longer. There are, however, a number of nature lovers who briefly appear in the book: the man who plays music to the seals and the girl who does not give Tarka away when she spots him in the last fatal hunt. Included in this group is the author who makes an odd brief personal appearance at the end of the first half of the book.
TARKA THE OTTER is Williamson’s first book; he followed it with other nature studies, such as SALAR THE SALMON, and later with human stories. In this work, there is a certain strain, admitted by the author later, in the pell-mell recital of events, most of which follow inconsequentially, leaving an impression of many disconnected actions. This effect is explained by the protagonist. Because Tarka has little memory, the author must point out the fact to readers when Tarka returns over old paths or to old “holts” or dens. The furious activity is also caused by the life described, where a split second separates life and death during the nights when most of the action occurs. There is a very tight relationship of cause and effect, for one slip can be fatal. Each action precipitates a sequence affecting many others, as when Tarka chases a rabbit that in its headlong flight runs into a stoat. Tarka nips the stoat on the shoulder and makes him retreat. Other stoats then surround Tarka as he eats the rabbit. He escapes the pack, and a badger finishes the rabbit. All creatures who hunt at night live under the prime condition of kill or be killed.
The book has a tremendous sense of life, produced in part by giving the beasts appropriate names and human characteristics. Greymuzzle, an old otter bitch, gives her life for Tarka when he is trapped: an old otter dog dies when it is frozen into the ice; a cub perishes in the terrible winter weather. There are comic characters like Old Nog, the heron, awesome killers like Bubu, the Arctic owl, and despicable beasts like the stoats who hunt in packs. Their cries are rendered faithfully, and these, together with their names and actions, give the story life and character. The reader follows Old Nog and Deadlock, the massive otter hound, from first to last in the book and from time to time meet up with Stickersee, the weasel, or Fang-over-lip, the fox. The story, however, chiefly deals with the adventures of Tarka through his two years of life: Tarka is born, grows to maturity in six months, mates twice, and is hunted several times; he lives through one terrible winter and dies at the approach of the next.
The novel is divided into two parts entitled “The First Year” and “The Last Year.” After Tarka’s birth, he is cared for by his mother, especially when the hounds come nosing around, but at last, he learns to take care of himself. The principal lesson he learns is loneliness, for otters, except when mating or in cub, seem to hunt alone. The first year ends with his mating with Greymuzzle and their trip down to a sea cave. Their adventures include a fight with the monster conger eel.
In the second part, Tarka is alone again; he travels up the Two Rivers to the moors. There he hunts until he meets Whitetip, a bitch he last saw as a cub. Once he leaves the moors for the lower reaches of the river, he and Whitetip are often hunted by hounds; he narrowly escapes three times; but in the last hunt, Tarquol, his son by Whitetip, is killed. In the end, Tarka himself is hemmed in a pool by stickles, or rows of tipped stakes. When he finally tires, he returns as all dying otters do to the land from which he came and is caught by Deadlock, the leader of a pack of otter hounds. Together they disappear in a flurry of foam. Deadlock’s body rises to the surface, but only a stream of bubbles marks the place where Tarka went down.
Although the book always centers on Tarka, as his adventures proceed one has the feeling that he may be simply a vehicle for an ecological study of the region of the Two Rivers. The author knows the geography there better than the reader who sees it only at otter-height. There is a profusion of place names which tends to be confusing; a similar loss of direction comes from following Tarka to meal after meal. Eventually, one wonders what Tarka’s adventures would add up to if Deadlock had not killed him. What is the purpose of the otter? He seems to be simply a killer of domestic animals, game, and rodents; therefore, he must be an important part of the balance of nature. In judging the book, one settles for the nature study. There is, after all, a tremendous sense of reality evoked as Tarka moves by night across the fields and down the rivers, under a charabanc, past a startled fisherman. All the various details of the book add to this realism: the use of dialect terms for animals, the names for the various beasts, the remarkable sense of smell. All add up to a sense of ferocious life, of living in every sinew and whisker. That is the nature fabulist’s intention and achievement.
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