Tarka the otter

Tarka the otter, Henry Williamson, 1927

“He was called Tarka, which eas the name given to otters many years ago by men dwelling in hut circles on the moor.  It means little water wanderer, or, wandering as water.”

This is one of the books I’ve been reading this month and I love it.  I read it as a child but rereading it has been a beautiful experience.  I have a physical paperback copy which means I have to read it slowly, no more than a chapter at a time, because of my hand pain. And this is extending the deliciousness of the language and the writing.
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Williamson did not write Tarka as a children’s book but it became popular with children and hence it is marketed that way today. I know some people are put off and don’t read children’s books, or only do it with adult covers but this really is a book for all of us.

It is a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful and brutal.  Williamson makes an excellent use of language and it contains a number of regional specific words which enhance the imagery.

“Iggiwick, the vuz-peg – his coat was like furze and his face like a pig’s”

We have words like ragrowster, aerymouse (a bat), dimity (twilight), yinny-yikker (noisily aggressive) and yikkering.  These tug at my heart in a way that alternatives might not.

We hear the animals calling in wonderfully onomatopoeia:

Hu-ee-ic…. Skirr-rr… cur-lee-eek… aa-aa…

This is not an anthropomorphic tale, it is an otter’s eye view of the landscape and the characters within it.  And yet, we feel we know the animals that weave in and out of Tarka’s life.  Part of this is the marvellous names that the creatures are given.  There is Old Nog, the white owl, and Halcyon the kingfisher.  There is Deadlock, the otter hound and the old dog otter Marland Jimmy.  There are degrees of anthropomorphism but it is not heavy handed and the animals don’t speak.  Because of this, it is imbued with a strong sense of reality and is a great example of writing from the senses.

Williamson wrote a nature journal from his childhood so it is perhaps no surprise that Tarka is so real.  He also sought out hunting experts for advice and to ensure accuracy and rewrote the manuscript 17 times.

“Twilight over meadow and water, the eve-star shining above the hill, and old nog the heron crying kra-a-ark! as his slow dark wings carried him down to the estuary.”

As well as conveying a strong connection with nature, Tarka also reveals to the reader Williamson’s close relationship with the landscape.  He moved to Devon in 1921 and his intimacy with this place comes through in his writing.  For context, otters were hunted as vermin at this time and their population wouldn’t decline until the 1950s.  This means that the text is not one about the danger to the otter population and is not intended to influence this practice.  But he did have a strong influence, inspiring writers such as Rachel Carson, Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin and Kenneth Allsop.

This book is a treasure and if you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it for a long time, please do!

8 thoughts on “Tarka the otter”

  1. This has been on my list to read for a while – and I will read it; it won’t be one of those that simply sits on the list for years! Your review makes me all the more eager. I’m currently reading Black Beauty – another tale written initially for adults but now known and sold as a children’s classic. Both books feature animals at their core but beyond that are totally different I suspect.

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