Saturday, 2 April 2011

A jolly and murderous life

Henry Williamson wrote 'Tarka The Otter' in the 1920s, living hermit-like in a remote Devon cottage among semi-wild dogs, cats, buzzards, gulls, magpies, and a rescued otter cub. His experiences in the First World War affected him deeply and permanently, and it is thought that he turned to nature in response. Tarka The Otter is known as a children's classic, but what the book group also saw in it this week was the expression of an adult's anguished experience, and an attempt to make sense of a world of killing. There is so much necessary, innocent killing in the book; every time Tarka is hungry he kills. Then he plays or sleeps till he is hungry again. Then kills again; sometimes for fun. Eventually he is killed. Full stop.

Somehow this doesn't make it a bleak book. Every page is packed with the huge gusto of living. For example, how's this for the cycle of life -

'The sickly trout, which had been dying for days with the lamprey fastened to it, floated down the stream; it had been a cannibal trout and had eaten more than fifty times its own weight of smaller trout. Tar from the road, after rain, had poisoned it. A rat ate the body the next day, and Old Nog [the heron] speared and swallowed the rat three nights later. The rat had lived a jolly and murderous life, and died before it could feel fear'.

Where's the goody? Where's the baddy? Who gets their comeuppance/who comes out best? You get the feeling that Henry Williamson earned very hardly the right to present his truths.

Tarka is finally killed by huntsmen after an eight hour chase. During these hours, in the few times when he is not running/swimming for his life, Tarka drifts and plays among the wild dog-rose petals on the water, and basks in the sun. It is like the Tao story (from memory) of the man hanging from a fragile branch over a crumbling precipice edge, tigers below ready to grab him, who is enjoying the scent of a wild flower growing near his head.


Gordon Ferguson said...

It is my experience that the the best and most profound stuff I have read has often been pigeon holed as 'children's books'. It is a sign of the sickness of our culture, that we value techonolgy and so-called rationality over insight and wisdom. "Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein." (Luke 18:17) The rest is hubris.

Laura Kerr said...

Thankyou, RMc, for this wonderful summary of the book and our meeting. I was at the meeting too, and it really was a thoroughly interesting exploration of a book that none of us would probably otherwise have read. I didn't especially like it as I read it - I make no secret of the fact that I would rather read books about people than animals, but I did find it extraordinary and thought-provoking. The English countryside then was so RICH in wild-life - I imagine many of the species mentioned have disappeared or are threatened now with extinction.