The Compleat Angler opens as three sportsmen – Auceps the falconer, Venator the hunter, and Piscator the fisherman (the latter a fictionalized version of the author, Izaak Walton) – meet on the road and compare their chosen sports while traveling through the English countryside. The falconer soon parts way with the other two men, and Piscator mentors Venator in the art of fishing and appreciation of the natural world around them. By the end of the book, Venator declares, "I have only lived since I turned Angler and not before."
With publication of the first scholarly edition of The Compleat Angler in 25 years (released in April 2014 by Oxford University Press), we asked the book's editor, Professor Marjorie Swann, to share her thoughts on the enduring legacy of this work.
Why has The Compleat Angler been such a popular work across the globe?
Professor Swann: There were many fishing manuals published before Izaak Walton wrote The Compleat Angler, and indeed he draws on many of these earlier works. What sets The Compleat Angler apart from these previous how-to books is Walton’s insistence that there’s so much more to being an angler than a technical knowledge of bait and tackle. For Walton, fishing is at once an environmental, social, and spiritual experience.
The Compleat Angler models environmental engagement as an enjoyable activity. Walton’s anglers develop great knowledge and concern about the natural world, but they’re also good friends who share a pint and a delicious meal after a long day spent riverside. For Walton, being an angler is serious fun.
How can Walton’s conservation and outdoor recreation message be applied to 21st century concerns?
Professor Swann: For Walton, environmental engagement through outdoor recreation is the foundation of human happiness. Walton’s anglers are urbanites who find the meaning of life not in their economic success at work but in the bonds they forge during shared leisure-time experiences as sportsmen in the natural world. The Compleat Angler depicts the environment as something so precious and complex that we have a moral obligation to work together to understand and preserve it. Walton’s anglers thus not only develop a detailed knowledge of natural history and ecology, they also advocate for conservation and practice environmental justice.
Why should modern audiences read this book?
Professor Swann: Walton’s depiction of ordinary people banding together because they love outdoor recreation provides an inspiring model for present-day environmentalists. When Walton first published The Compleat Angler in 1653, England was in ruins after years of civil war: Walton’s beloved Anglican Church was abolished, his king was executed, and the English landscape was devastated by warfare. Walton’s anglers respond to this crisis by creating a new kind of society – the “Brotherhood of the Angle” – that has no ties either to the government or to organized religion but instead roots its identity and activities in its members’ shared appreciation for the natural world.
When we’re told by policy-makers today that environmental issues need to take a back seat to economic or political realities, Walton reminds us that bold visionaries not only can but should put the environment front and center during tough times.