(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)