T. H. White's The Goshawk
The Goshawk is no ordinary piece of nature writing. Some books creep down inside as you read and find a place you didn’t know was there within you, occupy that space and, in the best way, never leave. The Goshawk is that kind of book.
It makes you curious. T.H. White was 'just a writer' until he found an old book on falconry. All it took was one phrase within its pages, “the bird reverted to a feral state”, and he was captivated. He talks of being seized with a longing, of wanting to be feral himself – because of its connotations of ferocity and freedom. He talks of being set in motion. He bought a young goshawk. And with no idea of how to tame it, he set about trying to do so anyway. His journal of the following events became the now legendary book. It makes you wonder what just one of the phrases in this book could do…
The Goshawk makes you look anew at what it is to be human, what it means to try to tame a something wild, what that innate impulse implies. It asks the question: why do we need to distinguish between domesticated and wild, are we not all the same, in the end?
Perhaps one of the reasons this book continues to enchant and to inspire after over sixty years is because, more than any other modern book, it holds a mirror to the wilderness within.
Read Helen Macdonald's foreward to the new edition:
‘I have been writing a book about falconry and trying to train a goshawk,’ T.H. White wrote to his friend and former Cambridge Tutor L.J. Potts in 1936. He concluded gloomily that ‘nobody will read the book’. In this he was mistaken. Today The Goshawk is regarded as a literary classic, considered by David Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner and many others to be White’s finest work. Alternately beautiful, savage, cruel, funny, tender and tragic, this diary of a hawk’s education is the story of two desperate and confused souls operating at dreadful cross-purposes.
In 1936 White quit his job as Head of English at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire and retreated to a rented cottage on a nearby farm, where he took delivery of a young male goshawk sent to him from Germany. He loved to have animals around him – tame grass-snakes roamed his rooms at Stowe – but he had never kept a hawk before, and goshawks are not birds for novice falconers. Shy, woodland hawks of immense stealth and predatory power, they are highly strung and extremely difficult to tame. Falconry, the ancient art of hunting wild game with trained hawks, requires empathy, patience and skill. It is a complicated, exacting pursuit best learned from an expert, not from books. White owned a modern guide to falconry but decided to use seventeenth-century methods to train his hawk. He saw falconry and his life with a hawk as a retreat into the past, affording him safe refuge in his imagination from a modern world slipping into chaos and war. For him the hawk’s training was a rite of passage, a knight’s ordeal. Through his own suffering, patience and privation, his hawk would be magically tamed. In reality the experience was hard on White but much, much harder on his hawk.
The Goshawk is a fable about selfhood and the exercise of power as much as it is a book about a man and a bird. You can read it as an investigation into the nature of freedom, of education, power, war, history, class, enslavement, the English landscape and the workings of the human heart, for it is all those things and more. Some, like Siegfried Sassoon, have seen it as a book about war; others as something like a dark romance: David Garnett considered it a story ‘strangely like some of the eighteenth-century stories of seduction’. In our present age of terrible environmental destruction, it can be read most usefully as a book about humanity’s lamentable inability to see nature as anything other than a mirror of ourselves. White’s violent and loveless childhood in India, his brutal beatings at public school and his shame at his hidden sexuality – all his life he struggled with homosexual and sadistic desires – are the key to his relationship with Gos. The hawk was the self he wanted to be: feral, free, innocent, fey and cruel. He struggled to civilise it as he had struggled to civilise himself. But he also saw Gos as a small soul puzzled and bewildered by the cruelty of the world around him, something very like him as a boy. These poignant identifications and projections haunt the book, and the voice of its narrator – veering from abject confession to lyricism to the matter-of-fact pronouncements of the schoolmaster and back again – is sometimes beguiling, sometimes infuriating and always deeply exposing. When things went wrong – Gos’s training does not end happily – White abandoned the manuscript. Twelve years later his publisher found it under a cushion on White’s sofa and begged to publish it. White resisted – ‘it is like asking a grown-up to sanction the publication of his adolescent diaries’ – but finally relented, on condition that it included a postscript in which he explained how he should have trained his hawk.
The Goshawk is an idiosyncratic book. It was written in green ink in White’s careful, small hand, on spare pages in the cloth-backed notebooks that White had mined for his successful book of sporting essays, England Have My Bones. In its form – a diary rich with digression – and many of its stylistic and moral concerns, it is very much a continuation of that work. But in many other ways The Goshawk presages The Sword in the Stone, the book based on the first chapter of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur about the education of the young King Arthur that White wrote the following year and which brought him fame. For that book too is a work about education, power, and animal transformation, and the medievalism that lights the pages of The Goshawk shines most brightly in it. White went on to write The Once and Future King, his epic reworking of Arthurian legend for the twentieth century, but at the back of that great retelling, shadowed by history, is the slim, streaked, hunched and feathered figure of Gos, surely one of the greatest and most abiding non-human characters in English literature.