This will probably be the only bad review you’ll ever read of H is for Hawk.
Note: it’s not really a bad review, it’s a good review with a sidebar. Helen Macdonald writes breathtaking prose, her story is poignant and filled with all kinds of fascinating bits of information, and she has a likable voice. So what’s wrong with the book?
Macdonald is, among her many accomplishments, a falconer. Her autobiographical story alternates with her meditations on T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, and who was also a falconer – but a very, very bad one.
Macdonald tries to come to terms with her father’s death by attempting to train a Northern Goshawk, resulting in the the lovely descriptions and meditations found within H is for Hawk. White tries to come to terms with his sadism and repressed homosexuality by attempting to train a Northern Goshawk, resulting in the harrowing and excruciating accounts found within The Goshawk (published in 1951), which Macdonald weaves within her book.
White suffered through a bad childhood and was beaten at his British boarding school; he reacted by becoming a sadist himself, beating smaller classmates and helping to push one out a window. Do I have sympathy for haunted people with bad childhoods? Yes. Do I have sympathy for haunted people who subject animals – be they captive wildlife or household pets – to all kinds of atrocities, then are held up as tragic examples of struggling humanity? No.
When she was eight, Macdonald read The Goshawk and was horrified; when she read it again after her father’s death, she somehow managed to admire and sympathize with the author, despite his reprehensible treatment of his bird. To her credit, she vacillates between condemning and lauding him, but ends up calling his version of falconry “a metaphysical battle, like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea.” Spoiler: the hawk ends up like the fish, not the whale.
“None of (his treatment of the hawk) was conscious,” writes MacDonald. This, excuse me, is bullshit. She also writes, “White saw that the hawk was himself, a bird that was a ‘youth who had been maddened by every kind of clumsiness, privation, and persecution.’ ” If he saw it and wrote about it, then it was conscious, wasn’t it?
White, battling with his past, his present, his future, a changing England, the upcoming war, his hidden homosexuality, his sadism, and anything else that might enter his head, takes it all out on a hapless goshawk stolen from a nest by a German falconer. Goshawks – the largest and fiercest of woodland hawks – are wild, extremely difficult birds for the most talented experts to handle, let alone a man with no knowledge of falconry and no recorded empathy with any living creature.
White fits “Gos” with jesses, the leather anklets that prevent him from flying away; from there, he is supposed to use food as a lure to get him to hop on a glove. Instead of allowing him to become hungry, as the old falconry book he is reading instructs, White stuffs him so full of food the bird hates the very sight of him. When Gos doesn’t come when he’s called (hint: why would he? His lure is food) White yanks him off his perches. The terrified bird keeps leaping off his glove and trying to fly away, so he hangs him, upside down, by his feet. When the exhausted Gos finally approaches him for food, our hero becomes frightened and runs away.
Finally – finally – the broken-feathered, tormented bird flies from a railing to White’s glove. That night the victorious “falconer” goes on bender and writes in purple, heaving prose: ““I cry prosit loudly and repeatedly, quaff fiery liquids of triumph, drink damnation to my enemies, and smash the glasses on the floor.” Eye roll. Groan.
Why am I so fixated on this single part of a multi-faceted book? Because Macdonald has hundreds of critics swooning over this “brilliant, flawed man” who can’t decide whom he hates more: himself or his hawk, whom he later describes as “ … a Hittite. A worshipper of Moloch. He immolated victims, sacked cities, put virgins and children to the sword.”
For God’s sake – he was a goshawk, not the star of a D-grade gladiator movie. And he was a goshawk who didn’t turn on his handler and talon his face off, which he would have been perfectly justified in doing.
Goshawks are fiery spirits not meant for captivity. There are very good falconers in the world, ones who love their birds and treat them like their children; if a goshawk is going to end up as someone’s falconry bird, I want them to end up with people like this – people like Macdonald, who makes sure her bird is comfortable and not stressed.
Here is the problem with this otherwise beautiful book: T.H. White is a man to be scorned, not praised. He may not be Michael Vick, but he’s certainly no Helen Macdonald, either. If you’re determined to force a wild animal to become a symbol of what’s wrong with you, then treat them with care and respect – don’t abuse them, then leave them bound and hanging by the jesses of your own shredded psyche.
Banner photo by Kjartan Trana; third photo by imgbuddy.com