Tarka the Otter as an allegory of war

Anne Williamson describes how Henry Williamson's experiences in the First World War shaped his work, and in particular his novel Tarka the Otter.

There are two main themes in Henry Williamson’s writing œuvre: nature and war. His depth of feeling for nature is well known; his obsession with war less so.

Henry Williamson was haunted by war: the First World War – or the Great War as it was then known – in which he served throughout. War permeates everything he wrote; very few pages of any of his 50 or so books pass without some reference to it – either directly or indirectly: sound, sight, thought and memory catapult the reader out of present equilibrium back into the maelstrom.

Seven titles deal directly and openly with the war. The first of these was The Wet Flanders Plain (1929), which relates Williamson’s experience of returning to the battlefields on two occasions – with his bride on his honeymoon in May 1925 and a second visit in 1927 (while waiting for Tarka to be printed up) to gather material for articles to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Armistice in 1928, and which are the basic material of this volume. The second was The Patriot’s Progress, Being the Vicissitudes of Pte. John Bullock (1930), an ironic portrait of an ‘Everyman’ soldier, illustrated with starkly dramatic complementary linocuts by William Kermode: ‘ironic’ because, unlike Bunyan’s Pilgrim, John Bullock makes no progress, ending up worse than before he started.

But (despite being envisaged since 1919) his ‘real’ writing about the war did not appear until the mid-1950s when he related the experiences of his chief protagonist, Phillip Maddison (based to great extent on himself) over five volumes of his major 15-volume work A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight.[1]

Born in 1895 in Brockley (south-east London) the son of a bank clerk, Henry Williamson had won a scholarship to Colfe’s Grammar School on the strength of an essay. He was not academic, his main interest being to roam the countryside visiting local estates for which he obtained entry permits, befriending the local gamekeepers from whom he learned a great deal, and collecting birds' eggs. On leaving school (having won the major school Bramley Prize) he became a clerk in the Sun Fire Insurance Office in the City, and there he might well have remained but for the declaration of war on 4 August 1914.

He was already (since January 1914) a territorial soldier in the London Rifle Brigade when war was declared. Enlistment proper and mobilisation came immediately, with intensive training in Ashdown Forest in Sussex. Embarkation to France on 4 November 1914 saw him a private soldier on the front line in Ploegsteert (‘Plugstreet’) Wood where he participated in the famous Christmas truce, an experience which went into the deepest part of his psyche. Williamson served throughout the war: his main experience at the front line being as transport officer with 208 Machine Gun Company in the first half of 1917 until he was caught in a gas attack on 6 June.

From evidence available it would seem that while convalescing from the effects of this at a military hospital in Cornwall – not just from the physical effect but also from shell shock – it was suggested that he wrote as therapy: mention of writing stories stems from this point. (It is clear that he never really recovered from that state of trauma.)

After the war, and while still in the army, he determined to become a writer, and after a period in Fleet Street and with publication of his first book imminent, he left the (restrictive and uncongenial) family home to live in the tiny rented ‘Skirr Cottage’ in Georgeham village in north Devon where he had spent an idyllic holiday in May 1914 just before the outbreak of war.

Williamson's early writing covers two strands: the first comprises the series of four novels relating the life of Willie Maddison known as The Flax of Dream (which skips over the actual war: Williamson’s nerves were still too raw to endure such exposure). These early volumes were interspersed with three collections of short nature stories, many of which had appeared previously as articles in a variety of publications: The Lone Swallows (1922), The Peregrine’s Saga (1923), and The Old Stag (1926).

The stories in these books are vivid and detailed portraits of the natural world and the creatures (including man) and plants that inhabit it. They have a compulsive charm and integrity. However, though not necessarily immediately apparent, nearly every story in these three books is in some way or other about sudden, unexpected and unwarranted death, either by accident or deliberate design, caused by man or by other predators.

By then the book which was to become Tarka the Otter was well under way. Williamson had first seen an otter at the age of 12 when cycling from London to north Norfolk for a camping holiday. Stopping for a rest on a bridge (seemingly over the River Deben) he had a brief glimpse of this elusive creature. But his first real encounter occurred soon after he arrived in Georgeham. The Peregrine’s Saga contains a piece entitled ‘Zoë’ [2] which tells the story of an orphaned otter cub (whose mother has been killed by a farmer) that is rescued by Captain Horton-Wickham, a casualty of the war. Horton-Wickham enlists the help of the writer, who mentions the presence of this tame otter in an article as early as December 1921.[3]

By 1923 Williamson was planning to write a full-length book about an otter, having read The Life Story of an Otter by J.C. Tregarthen (1909) and decided he could do better. In order to gain first-hand material, he followed and joined the local Cheriton Otter Hunt, whose master was William H Rogers – the dedicatee of the published book.[4]

Tarka is an extremely intense book: intensely atmospheric, intensely lyrical, intensely harrowing. It has become increasingly obvious in recent years, as more is learned about the complicated convolutions entwining Henry Williamson’s life and writing, that the book can be seen as an allegory of war. This is not to detract from the beauty of the surface layer of this deeply observed tale about an otter and its whole surrounding habitat of fellow creatures of the river and moorland, but to delve beneath that surface into deeper and darker depths.

Tarka the Otter, with illustrations by C F Tunnicliffe

Title page and facing illustration of an otter underwater, approaching a fish, from Tarka the Otter

Title page and frontispiece from the 1932 edition of Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms Henry Williamson: © Henry Williamson Literary Estate. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. C F Tunnicliffe: © Estate of C F Tunnicliffe OBE, RA. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

The lyrical opening scene describing the river by Canal Bridge can be equated to Henry Williamson’s own early childhood: a time of safety and innocence. One of the most poignant phrases in his huge total archive are the words he wrote (at some point after the war) at the end of his boyhood ‘Nature Diary’ which ends on 30 May 1914 after his first holiday spent in Georgeham.

H.W. was a soldier 2¼ months later; in France 5¼ months later.
        And Finish, Finish, Finish the hope & illusion of youth,
                       For ever and for ever and for ever.

But even in that opening scene is a rumble of danger. The otter hunt is present though muted. There is an enemy disturbing the peace: as rumblings of war surfaced in the national press prior to the event, disturbing that ‘last summer’ (epitomised by Williamson on a happy August Bank Holiday playing tennis on the hill).[5]

The obvious analogy is that the actual hunts (there are three main ones) can be seen to equate to individual fierce war battles or attacks: with ‘out-of-line’ lulls in between when men and animals can relax, have a beer, play with a tin-can in the river, attend to grooming. So the first hunt is Williamson in Plugstreet Wood; the ‘Great Winter’ can be seen as the freezingly sodden trenches; the long last hunt illustrating the relentless never-ending round of skirmish, recce, battle. Various otters and other creatures are killed: in the war Williamson’s friend Baldwin was killed as were several of his close school mates – and comrades known and unknown. Henry Williamson had experienced all the things in battle that he ascribes to the otter hunts. The hounds work the river, with name after name called like some roll-call to arms. They are indeed as a marching army going into battle.

Tarka the Otter, with illustrations by C F Tunnicliffe

Double page from Tarka the Otter, with an illustration of an otter on a river bank with an owl in the tree above

‘The otter had been hunted that morning. Deadlock had chipped at her pate, and his teeth had grooved a mark in her fur, as she ran over a stony shallow’: From the first chapter of Tarka the Otter, 1932 edition.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms Henry Williamson: © Henry Williamson Literary Estate. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. C F Tunnicliffe: © Estate of C F Tunnicliffe OBE, RA. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

Both huntsmen and soldiers wear uniforms. At that time individual hunts had their own colours as had individual regiments; the huntsmen used brass buttons and badges with their own cipher embossed, as did regiments. The staves of the otter hunters can be seen as weapons equal to the rifles of the soldiers. To particularise: the old man (who is Williamson’s father-in-law Charles Hibbert, a hunt official) who raises his hand to point out where Tarka is hiding during a lull in the last hunt, is akin to a sniper taking aim ready for the kill.

The master of the hunt can be seen as equal to a general; and both factions had various ranks and titles for officers for various roles: for example, ‘hunt secretary’ to equal adjutant, whipper-in equating with, let’s say, lieutenant. Indeed, hunting in its formal mode arose as a perfect method of training for the cavalry. (How better to learn about ‘dead ground’ or how to head off the enemy?) So the two are, de facto, inextricably joined.

Noise is an all important aspect of Williamson’s writing. Here, the noises of a hunt, the call of the horn, the baying of the hounds giving tongue, the shouts of the hunt officials, the general rush of running feet and excited chatter of followers, all have their counterpart in the noises and confusion of battle.

An allegory, however, implies a deliberate process by its author. There is no tangible evidence that Henry Williamson set out to depict Tarka as an allegory of war. It was perhaps more a subconscious process of therapeutic discharge and healing. However, in A Fox Under My Cloak he very clearly reverses the analogy: Phillip Maddison (whose experiences are based on Williamson’s own) is considered ‘above himself’ when training at Newmarket, and is taught a humiliating lesson by his fellow officers led by Lieutenant Baldersby – a keen Huntsman who chases Maddison using hunting terms; Maddison is grabbed for ‘the kill’ but escapes the ‘worry’.[6] This echoes a very similar scene in Tarka, and would seem to be a very obvious clue laid down by Williamson to show that his allegorical design in Tarka was deliberate.

      [The master] was saying that it had been a great day, only lacking in a kill ...

At that moment Tarka is seen and chased, particularly by the terrier Bite’m, who seized Tarka by the rudder in a melee of a ‘worry’ of hounds, all biting and snarling. A huntsman hauls Bite’m into the air still attached to Tarka’s rudder. Tarka twists himself up and bites the huntsman’s hand, and he is dropped:

      to squirm between legs and away down the glidder.

But not out of danger as the pack follow:

       The pack bore him down to the tide, where the worry broke up ... Tarka was gone.[7]

Most interestingly the recent opera based on Tarka the Otter has a character based on Henry Williamson himself as a traumatised WWI soldier actually writing this book as he observes the various scenes taking place. The libretto follows the storyline of the book but brings to the fore its hidden symbolism of war.[8]

Surely when Henry Williamson first experienced the activity of otter-hunting he must in his own mind have immediately equated it to his recent traumatic experiences of the Great War. Without doubt, he could not have written Tarka with such intensity if he had not endured the experience of attack and counter-attack in battle.


[1] Part of vol. 4, How Dear is Life (1954); vol. 5, A Fox Under My Cloak (1955); Vol. 6, The Golden Virgin (1957); vol. 7, Love and the Loveless (1958); and most of vol. 8, A Test to Destruction (1960).

[2] First published in an American magazine (Pearson’s, March 1923) as ‘The Man Who Did Not Hunt’.

[3] Short series of articles concerning ‘Scarecrow Cottage’ (Skirr Cottage, Georgeham) in the Sunday Express, Dec. 1921–Jan. 1922.

[4] Williamson also used several historical facts from Rogers’ book Records of the Cheriton Otter Hounds (Taunton, 1925).

[5] See How Dear is Life, chapter 9, ‘Something in the Air’.

[6] A Fox Under My Cloak (Macdonald, 1955), chapter 12, ‘Life is a Spree’.

[7] Tarka the Otter (Putnam’s, 1927), chapter 12, section marked ‘Spady Gut’.

[8] Tarka the Otter, an opera. Music by Stephen McNeff, Libretto Richard Williams: first performed at the Two Moors Festival 2006.

Full details of Henry Williamson’s life and war service can be found in:

Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson, Tarka and the Last Romantic (Sutton, 1995)
Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War (Sutton, 1998)

For further information about his writing see the Henry Williamson Society website where among several buttons (including ‘Sales’) Journal articles can be found under ‘Research’, and a descriptive bibliography under ‘A Life’s Work’.


Banner credit: Getty Images/ Hulton Archive

  • Anne Williamson
  • Anne Williamson has managed the Henry Williamson Literary Estate since the author's death in 1977. She has published a biography Henry Williamson: Tarka and the Last Romantic, and a further volume Henry Williamson and the First World War, and numerous articles in the Henry Williamson Society Journal. She is currently working on 'A Life's Work', a descriptive bibliography detailing the content and background of everything Henry Williamson wrote (over 60 books) which can be found on the Henry Williamson Society website.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.