The Goshawk by T.H. White, a once and future classic?

After reading ‘H is for hawk’ by Helen MacDonald I felt compelled to read T.H. White’s ‘The Goshawk’ as he is the reference point for much of MacDonald’s narrative. My greatest familiarity with White’s work is through his Arthurian stories, ‘The Once and Future King’, the first of which, ‘The Sword in the Stone’ was made into a cartoon by Disney. His influence as a writer in the post war era is through the adaptation of these stories into the musical  ‘Camelot’, a favourite of JFK and a subsequent nickname for the period of his Presidency. Though perhaps not so popular today, White’s stories were my introduction to the world of Arthur and I loved the passages where the young Arthur is transformed into different animals, including a hawk. The shape of these passages can be seen in White’s real life in ‘The Goshawk’.

Leaving his post as a school master, White goes to live in a cottage, returning to a simpler life, and reading old hand books about falconry. He becomes obsessed with the idea of training a hawk, linking himself with the feral state of a wild bird. The book opens with a description of the goshawk when it is delivered to White’s house and it soon becomes clear he is mesmerised with the idea of wildness, rather like someone who is in love with the idea of being a lover.

He was born to fly, sloping sideways, free among the verdure of that Teutonic upland, to murder with his fierce feet and to consume with that curved Persian beak, who now hopped up and down in the clothes basket with a kind of imperious precocity.

White records his efforts to train his goshawk, Gos, in a day book. Unbeknown to him, the handbook he is following has been superseded  by more effective methods, but White clings to the connection training the hawk offers him to a medieval past.

Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.

White adores his hawk but fails to train him. His book reveals his petulance when things go wrong, his joy when Gos flys to his fist and the struggle for self control that is taking place in the man through his relationship with the hawk. It is a story of his adoration of the hawk, his comedic errors in training Gos and his struggle for self mastery. Ultimately recognising that through the eyes of animals we see ourselves and the world differently, cue an idea for a book about the future King Arthur.

White is a wonderful writer and I believe his story of attempting to train a Goshawk in 1930s England will be read for years to come.


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