The Goshawk: Love the hawk, hated the author

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Goshawk by T.H. White nonfiction book reviewsThe Goshawk by T.H. White

When I found out that T.H. White, the author of The Once and Future King, had written The Goshawk, a book about training a hawk, I jumped at the chance to read it. I love stories about birds of prey (probably fostered by a childhood obsession with My Side of the Mountain) and have often fantasized about becoming an amateur falconer.

Based on The Goshawk, these fantasies are not likely to come true. T.H. White describes the process for training a hawk in stark detail and it does not sound appealing or practical for my current lifestyle, which involves sleep and sanity and a minimum of animal abuse. Apparently you have to keep the bird awake and hungry for two or three days straight until it passes out from exhaustion, resting on your arm; only then will it learn to trust you. To do this, the falconer must also stay awake for two or three days straight, a task of which I feel utterly incapable and which, to me, sounds like its own circle of hell. [Actually, White says in one of his addendums to the book that this is an older way of training birds and has been replaced by easier, more humane methods.]

The Goshawk was, however, very interesting. I felt like it was a window on an older world, a bucolic existence where neighbors bring in the harvest together and a walk down to the village pub might yield helpful advice on household projects, agriculture, or the training of wild animals. White’s writing includes many descriptions of the English countryside and his walks through it. He also waxes eloquent on the divide between man and beast, between wild and domestic. His hawk, Gos, is a creature of fierce beauty and independence.

The reason I give The Goshawk such a low rating is that I hated the authorial voice. White wrote like your typical entitled, condescending Englishman with all of the attendant baggage that comes with that identity, such as the relentless need to reference Shakespeare. Of course he was writing from a time before political correctness so I don’t fault him as much for his tiny jabs at the Welsh or the French or whoever else it was popular to sneer at if you were properly English in the mid-twentieth century (read: everyone else). But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed being submerged in that voice. It made me feel like I was covered in tweed and pipe smoke and faux-humble smugness. One particularly egregious bit occurred when he was out on a fox hunt (a fox hunt!!) and observed some ladeez who Just. Couldn’t. Handle. Blood. His attempt to imagine what these delicate flowers are thinking as they confront the gory death of wild animals was supremely patronizing.

If, however, you aren’t hyper-sensitive to attitudes like that (and that’s okay; I’m the first to recognize that academia’s ultra-PC culture has ruined some things for me forever), you might enjoy this book a lot more than I did.

The Goshawk was originally published in 1951 and has just been released in audio format (June 16, 2015) by Blackstone Audio with Englishman Simon Vance as narrator. Vance’s reading was smooth, expressive, and cultured, with traces of dry humor in the appropriate places. It was an enjoyable listen.


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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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4 comments

  1. I’m reading H is For Hawk right now. That writer’s feelings towards White and his treatment of his hawk match yours. Apparently, when the book came up it got some sharp language from English falconers. (One reviewer said something like, “This is an excellent book on how not to train a goshawk.”)

    I think White own inner turmoils, his struggle with his sexual orientation in a world that would have completely rejected him for it; his own sensitivity in a world that wanted men to be stoic and dryly witty, must come through in this book in some way… like maybe he identified with those fragile “ladeez” who swooned at the sight of blood more than he wanted to admit.

    • Good point, Marion. I’m sure you’re right. From what I’ve heard about H is for Hawk, Macdonald delves into some of those issues as well; I need to read it. It’s hard to give someone credit for also being oppressed, for also struggling, when they make themselves so unappealing towards other strugglers. But it’s worth a try, I suppose. ;)

      • Yeah, self-hatred is never pretty. What popped into my head were the women who were so quick to join the oppressors in THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

        • Mmmm, Atwood … *lapses into several moments of pleasurable contemplation*

          I really think that, for a combination of depth and range (of both subject matter and genre) you just can’t beat her. Damn, girl. Get it.

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