Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Otters in and out of Literature

It’s excellent news that otters are now returning to the British countryside, after being on the brink of extinction thirty years ago. The ban on organo-chlorine pesticides in the 1970s has had its desired effect, and the Environment Agency reports that today more than 1,500 rivers show signs of otter presence, with populations having reached maximum level on the river Wye and elsewhere. Only Kent, for some reason, has bucked this admirable trend.

We might expect William Morris, as a lover of rivers in general and the Thames in particular, to wholeheartedly welcome the return of otters to his native rivers. But Morris was a passionate angler as well as a lover of riparian flora and fauna; and to the angler otters are an absolute bane, since they feed on fish. Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler writes that ‘all men that keep Otter-dogs ought to have pensions of the King, to encourage them to destroy the very breed of those base Otters’; and some Thames angling clubs in the nineteenth century were offering a one pound reward for each otter killed in their waters.

So Morris might in fact have highly conflicted feelings about the return of the British otter; and it is then perhaps no surprise that the one character named Otter in his literary works should turn out to be such a curiously ambivalent figure. This Otter, the fearsome military captain of the dark Lord of Utterbol in The Well at the World’s End, cheerfully carries out the ruthless commands of his vicious master, and yet somehow despite this remains an honourable man of war and fits readily enough into the new and more benign regime at Utterbol once Bull Shockhead has taken over. So in a classic Freudian displacement, Morris’s mixed feelings about the natural creature are projected on to the literary figure who bears its name.


David Leopold said...

Not perhaps Morris' own creation, but there is also 'Otter' the brother of Regin, in the 'Völsunga Saga', who was not only 'a great fisher' but also looked and behaved like his namesake. He met his end, at the hands of Loki, having eaten a salmon 'slumbering upon the river bank'.

Tony Pinkney said...

Thanks, David - though we have also both managed to miss the minor figure Otter - 'a slim young man was this, and worse of attire than the old carle' - who pops up suddenly in Part Six chapter XII of 'The Water of the Wondrous Isles'! But the fact that the name recurs in Morris like this reinforces the general point about displaced piscatorial feelings, I think.

Kotick said...

Not to mention Otter, one of the two War-dukes of the Wolfings, in 'The House of the Wolfings' (1888). So rather a lot of literary otters in Morris after all!