The antithesis of anthropomorphism: Tarka the Otter

I have written here before on anthropomorphism, following John Lewis-Stempel’s musings as to whether it is such a dread conceptual offence as it often stated. Recently I read Henry Williamson’s “Tarka the Otter” and was struck by how, in Jonathan Law’s words:

Of all the strange books that have from time to time been thrust at children, Tarka the Otter must be one of the strangest. Shocking in its violence, heavy with descriptive detail, severely anti-anthropomorphic – it’s a long way from Watership Down, let alone Disney. Any normal child would surely be bored and repulsed (the young Ted Hughes read it compulsively for two years: it “entered me and gave shape and words to my world, as no book has ever done since”).

There are very many passages worth quoting, especially to illustrate the “severe anti-anthropomorpic” qualities of the prose. Here is one:

Late at night she returned with the cubs to the wood, and whistled for the lost one. She did not know it was dead; she knew only her longing for it. Her whistles went far in the still night, as she ran with nose to the ground, stopping to whine when her grief became acute. The cock on the apple bough heard her and crew to the dog in the kennel, who barked to its master. Hearing the bark, the otter took her cubs away, and at the end of the night, when they reached the big rive, the lost cub was forgotten.

Of course, in this passage Williamson does not imagine the otter mother as without what we would call feeling, but at the level of “longing” and in a markedly transitory way.  Elsewhere, in a brutal aside, Tarka’s mother simply forgots his existence once he is independent.

This passage is even less Disney-like:

Six hours later Tarka ran up Wild Pear Beach and his thin, hard cried piereced the slop and wash of waves on the loose, worn, shaly strand. He followed the trail over the weeds to the otters’ sleeping-place under a rock, and down again to the sea. In a pool off Briery Cave he scented otter again, for at the bottom of the pool lay a wicker-pot, holding something that turned slowly as the ribbons of the thong-weed lifted and dropped in the water. The long blue feelers of the lobster were feeling through the wickerwork; it was gorged, and trying to get away from the otter cub it had been eating. The cub had found no way out of the cage it had entered at high tide, intending to eat the lobster.


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