Tarka the Otter

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Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers
Tarka the Otter first edition cover.jpg
First edition; woodcut after Hester Sainsbury
AuthorHenry Williamson
SubjectEuropean otter
GenreNatural history novel
PublisherG.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date
1927 (1927)

Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers is a 1927 novel by English writer Henry Williamson, first published by G.P. Putnam's Sons with an introduction by the Hon. Sir John Fortescue. It won the Hawthornden Prize in 1928,[1] and has never been out of print since its first publication.[2]

The novel describes the life of an otter, along with a detailed observation of its habitat in the country of the River Taw and River Torridge in North Devon (the "Two Rivers"); the name "Tarka" is said by Williamson to mean "Wandering as Water" (p. 10). Although not written for children, the book soon became popular with young readers, and also influenced literary figures as diverse as Ted Hughes and Rachel Carson.

Plot summary, style[edit]

The Beam Aqueduct, the "Canal Bridge" near which Tarka was born

The book is separated into two main parts, "The First Year" and "The Last Year". It begins shortly before the birth of Tarka in an otter holt on the River Torridge, near the Rolle Canal aqueduct on the Beam estate. After a period learning to swim and hunt, and losing a sibling in a trap, he is separated from his mother and wanders around North Devon alone. His first mate is an elderly otter called Greymuzzle, who is killed during Tarka's first winter, which is unusually harsh. In his second year, he fathers a litter of cubs with his second mate, White-tip. Throughout the book Williamson juxtaposes Tarka with his main enemy, the local otter hunt, and particularly the pied hound Deadlock, "the truest marking-hound in the country of the Two Rivers" (p. 23). The book ends with a climactic nine-hour hunt of Tarka by the pack, and a confrontation between Tarka and Deadlock. Williamson's attitude to the hunt is somewhat ambivalent: while admiring them for their own regard for and knowledge of the otter, and despite being personally friendly with his local hunt, the violence and cruelty of some of his descriptions of hunting is clear.[3]

Locations featured in the book include Braunton Burrows, the clay pits at Marland, Morte Point, Hoar Oak Water and the Chains. The book begins and ends in the vicinity of Torrington.

Williamson wrote with a descriptive style which some, such as Ted Hughes, have characterised as poetic: in his memorial address for Williamson, quoted by Roger Deakin in his book Waterlog, Hughes described him as "one of the truest English poets of his generation".[4] His writing is also characterised by a lack of sentimentality about the animals it describes; Williamson is generally careful to avoid anthropomorphising them and rarely attempts to present any but their most basic or instinctual mental processes.[5]

History and reception[edit]

Williamson began writing Tarka the Otter in Skirr Cottage Georgeham Devon where he lived from 1921 to 1925

Williamson, who was born in London and had moved to Georgeham, Devon, in 1921, began making notes for Tarka about two years later: although he was usually a rather rapid writer, the book took him around four years to write thanks to the large amount of detailed research needed.[6] Williamson often claimed that he was inspired to write Tarka after rescuing and raising an otter cub, but the truth of this story is uncertain and it seems likely that the 1909 book The Life Story of an Otter, by Cornish naturalist John Coulson Tregarthen, was a more substantial influence.[7] Nevertheless, Williamson spent a great deal of time gathering information on otters' habits and behaviour.

The original edition featured illustrations by Charles Tunnicliffe. The book was extremely well-received on publication, attracting praise from Thomas Hardy and T. E. Lawrence, amongst others. Although not written for children, the book soon became popular with young readers.[8]

At the time the book was published, otters were generally regarded as vermin, but Tarka (and more specifically its later film adaptation) is credited with inspiring a transformation in public attitudes to otters.[9] The book remains well-known, and is often used to promote the area of North Devon where it is set. The Tarka Line railway line to Barnstaple, and Tarka Trail long distance footpath and cycle path, are named after the book.


Sculpture of Tarka the Otter in Bideford, next to the River Torridge. Sculpted by Rowan Fawdon.

Although Williamson's reputation as a writer was affected in the wake of his support for Oswald Mosley and many of his works are now little read, Tarka has continued to be an influential work. American writer Rachel Carson once wrote that Williamson's work had "deeply influenced" her and said that Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon would be two of three books she might take to a desert island.[10] Ted Hughes, who later became friends with an elderly Williamson, repeatedly cited reading the book as an important experience for him, while the author Roger Deakin wrote that he admired the "beauty and ice-clear accuracy" of Williamson's writing and described Tarka as a "great mythic poem".[11]

Others to whom the book was significant included the nature writers Kenneth Allsop[12] and Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who described it as "the greatest animal story ever written".[13]

The book has led to Britain's Tarka Trail and to the establishment of the Tarka Country Tourism Authority in North Devon.


In 1978 Sir David Attenborough narrated an audiobook version of the story, released as a double audio cassette.[14]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel has been adapted into a film: Tarka the Otter. In 1974, Williamson began working on a script for a film treatment of the novel, but it was not regarded as suitable to film. Having previously rejected two separate offers from Walt Disney, Williamson finally accepted an offer to make the film from English wildlife documentary film-maker David Cobham, whom he trusted.

The movie, narrated by Peter Ustinov, was released in 1979, with a screenplay by Gerald Durrell. One of Williamson's sons, Richard, and his daughter-in-law appear in the film. It was voted the 98th greatest family film in a Channel 4 poll. The soundtrack for the film was composed by David Fanshawe and performed by Tommy Reilly.

Notable editions[edit]

  • 1927, UK, G. P. Putnams Sons, 1927, Hardback
  • 1937, UK, Penguin Books, Paperback
  • 1962, UK, Revised edition, Puffin Books, Paperback
  • 1965, UK, Bodley Head, 1965, Hardback
  • 1971, UK, Puffin Books ISBN 0-14-030060-0, January 1971, Paperback (C.F. Tunnicliffe, Illustrator)
  • 1981, USA, Nelson Thornes ISBN 0-333-30602-3, March 1981, Hardcover (C.F. Tunnicliffe, Illustrator)
  • 1982, USA, Salem House Publishers ISBN 0-370-30919-7, 1982, Paperback
  • 1990, USA, Beacon Press ISBN 0-8070-8507-3, 1990, Paperback (Concord Library Series)
  • 1995, UK, Puffin Books ISBN 0-14-036621-0, June 1995, Paperback (Annabel Large, Illustrator)
  • 2009, UK, Penguin Modern Classics ISBN 0-141-19035-3, Paperback (Jeremy Gavron, Introduction)


  1. ^ Stade and Karbiener (eds). Encyclopedia of British Writers, 1800 to the Present, Volume 2, 2009, p.522
  2. ^ Gavron, J. "Introduction" to Tarka the Otter, Penguin, 2009, v (all subsequent page references refer to this edition)
  3. ^ Gavron, 2009, xi
  4. ^ Quoted in Deakin, R. Waterlog, Random House, 2009, p.84
  5. ^ Hogan, W. Animals in Young Adult Fiction, 2009, p.7
  6. ^ Gavron, 2009, vi–vii
  7. ^ Gavron, 2009, vi
  8. ^ Hunt, P. International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Routledge, p.286
  9. ^ Scheel, D. "Otters back on stream", New Scientist, 28 January 1988
  10. ^ Quaratiello, A. R. Rachel Carson: A Biography, 2009, p.29
  11. ^ Deakin, 2009, p.185
  12. ^ Andresen, M. Field of Vision: The Broadcast Life Of Kenneth Allsop, Trafford, 2005, p.11
  13. ^ "BB" (Watkins-Pitchford), The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, 1964, p.143
  14. ^ ASIN: B00130EJVC

External links[edit]