Henry Williamson’s influential novel, Tarka the Otter: His Joyful Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers, was first published in 1927. It was hailed as both a popular success and a literary masterpiece, and has never been out of print. Shown here is the 1932 edition that is the first to include illustrations by Charles F Tunnicliffe.

Set along the Rivers Taw and Torridge in north Devon, the novel follows the birth, life and inevitable death of Tarka in vivid and lyrical prose that reflects Williamson’s intimate study of the natural world. Written from the perspective of the otter, Williamson’s narrative is empathetic but unsentimental. Tarka roams and crosses the landscape, encountering other animals, finding mates and surviving in an environment that is at times brutal. This is also fundamentally a tale of the hunted animal: moments of peace are interrupted by the sound of the otter hunt, culminating in a 40 page account of the final chase and battle between Tarka and the hound, Deadlock. Williamson drew from experience: before writing the novel he was involved in the rescue and care of an orphaned otter cub, while during the writing process he joined the local otter hunt and observed the animals’ behaviour, particularly their play, at a zoo.

The novel is known for its naturalistic representation of animal sounds, such as the otters’ ‘hu-ee-ic!’. Equally celebrated is Williamson’s meticulous detailing of the landscape and the elements, perhaps most notably in chapter nine, ‘The Great Winter’. Tunnicliffe’s work was similarly dedicated to realism. The artist and author worked closely together, and Tunnicliffe drew directly from many real settings.

In recent years Tarka has been interpreted as an allegory of war. The hunts have been compared to the experience of attack and counter-attack on the battlefield. Williamson served in World War One from November 1914. While convalescing from a gas attack and shell shock in 1917 he was encouraged to write as a form of therapy.

Tarka the Otter and Ted Hughes

Tarka the Otter left a great impression on Ted Hughes when he first read it as a young boy. Delivering Williamson’s funeral address in 1977, Hughes recalled, ‘I was about eleven years old when I found [Tarka the Otter], and for the next year I read little else … It entered into me and gave shape and words to my world’. He continued, ‘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’. In later life Williamson and Hughes, living in Devon, developed a literary friendship.