Thursday, October 4, 2018

The goshawk, by T. H. White

This slender book was written in 1936.  White, who had been teaching at Stowe School, a boys’ school in England, had enough monetary success with his first book, England have my bones, to quit and dedicate himself to writing.  From early childhood, he had been fascinated with animals,  Retreating to a rustic gamekeeper’s cottage miles from the nearest village, he casts about for a subject and decides to write about training a goshawk, the wildest of birds falconers use for hunting.  In fact, the goshawk itself had been hunted to extinction in England so his hawk must be imported from Germany.  It arrives terrified, furious, and more than a bit mad.  Having no previous experience, White relies on a 1619 book called Treatise of Hawks and Hawking.  As a result, he does almost everything wrong.  The struggle between White and Gos, the hawk, is epic, inhuman, exhausting, and heartbreaking.  The old book teaches that one must keep the hawk on the glove with both falconer and bird awake for at least three days and nights to begin the “manning” process.  Things don’t get any easier after this (in fact he repeats this process again). After writing The goshawk, he set it aside and wrote the first book, The sword in the stone, of his famous The once and future king in the cottage.  T. H. White had a miserable childhood – a pawn between two parents who hated each other, then sent away from his birthplace in India to a British boys’ school with sadistic teachers.  He grew up to be eccentric, homosexual, sadomasochistic, and a misanthrope.  The goshawk is a fascinating character study of both hawk and author.  It wasn’t published until 1951, when friend discovered it at White’s house and urged him to do so.  It is probable that White himself recognized the very revealing and personal nature of his creation and had decided not to share it with the world.  An inspiration for Helen Macdonald’s wonderful H is for hawk, The goshawk is a fascinating read itself.  213 pp.

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