Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson
Introduced by James Roberts, Clyro resident and prose editor of Zoomorphic
‘Twilight upon 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. A whiteness drifting above the sere reeds of the riverside, for the owl had flown from under the middle arch of the stone bridge that once carried the canal across the river.’
The opening paragraph of Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson is my favourite entry into any piece of fiction. Williamson is a poet of the land, our finest writer about wild creatures and their places. The book is densely layered on every page. Williamson knew the world of the river intimately and could trace all the surrounding landscape’s features back through history into prehistory. The name Tarka itself comes from the language of the ancient celts, roughly translated as “Water Wanderer.”
He could bring the wild world searingly to life. Only Ted Hughes and J A Baker have ever matched him in this capacity. The use of sound is the key to his poetic technique ‘ . . . sere reeds of the riverside’. You can hear the reeds whispering in this sentence.
Later in life Williamson became disillusioned with his great book, feeling that it had overshadowed the rest of his work. But he would always be deeply connected to Tarka. As Williamson lay dying in a Devon hospital the first film of Tarka was being made. He passed away at the same time as they were shooting the scene of Tarka’s death.
‘On every page of Tarka was some phrase, some event, some glimpse, that made the hair move on my head with that feeling. In the confrontations of creature and creature, of creature and object, of creature and fate – he made me feel the pathos of actuality in the natural world. It was the first time I was ever aware of it. But I now know that only the finest writers are ever able to evoke it.’ Ted Hughes