A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Part of our Wilderness Week series.
Most people know T.H. White as the author of The Once and Future King, a series of novels based on the legend of King Arthur. References to the art of falconry appear throughout these books – a hunting expedition with a goshawk features in the opening scene of The Sword in the Stone – but few readers will know that the author’s expertise on the subject was derived from personal experience.
After graduating with a first-class degree in English from Cambridge in 1928, White taught at Stowe School for four years. Shortly after publishing his first book (a memoir titled England Have My Bones), he retired to a cottage in the countryside to devote himself to a solitary life of outdoorsy pursuits – namely falconry, hunting and fishing.
Like many people who prefer the company of animals to men, T.H. White cultivated an air of eccentricity; at Stowe School, he had kept snakes, fox cubs, owls, frogs and badgers in his sitting room and enchanted the boys with tales of his Kiplingesque childhood in colonial Bombay. White never married – an attempt at psychoanalysis to revert his homosexual leanings failed; he also nurtured longstanding sadomasochistic tendencies – and by all accounts, a red setter named Brownie was the true and only love of his life.
That is, with the exception of Gos, the male goshawk – or ‘tiercel’ – shipped from Germany to be White’s first hunting hawk. The Goshawk is based on the diary White kept during Gos’s training, charting the terrible battle of wills between man and bird. The goshawk, we are told, is the most difficult bird of prey to train. Using Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hunting (published in 1619) as his guide, White set about the long outdated process of “watching”: holding the hawk on one outstretched hand for three days and nights, until the bird developed enough trust to fall sleep on his master’s arm. Even after clearing this first hurdle, Gos proved to be a complex and challenging companion who provoked alternate reactions of fury and affection from his owner. The patience necessary to train a wild hawk – in White’s words, “to train a person who was not human” – requires almost superhuman discipline. Having followed the ups and downs of Gos’s early education, I could just about understand why the author felt justified in claiming that “after a course of falconry any man would make a good mother”.
One of the peripheral advantages of such a solitary project was the time and space it afforded White to ponder his philosophical interests. As a result, The Goshawk is peppered with meditations on the state of the world in the years immediately leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, as well as digressions on the ephemeral nature of civilization, the destruction of nature and the imminent decline of ‘the old ways’. Here is the author ruminating on the essentials necessary to lead the good life:
A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energies and love, the sun and the moon. These were enough, and contact with Gos in his ultimately undefiled separation was better than the endless mean conflict between male and female or the lust for power in adolescent battle which led men into business and Rolls-Royce motor cars and war… In the end one did not need European civilization, did not need power, did not need most of one’s fellow men, who were saturated with both of these: finally would not need oneself.
It is remarkable to think that T.H. White was horrified by the suggestion that he publish his notes on Gos. The book had languished in a drawer for fifteen years before Wren Howard of Jonathan Cape discovered the manuscript by accident; Howard insisted on publishing it, and White – initially dismissive of “the folly of thinking that anybody would want to buy a book about mere birds” – finally agreed. Out of print for many years, The Goshawk is available once more to be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in man and his environment, not to mention the powerful bonds that can be forged between species given sufficient time, humility and love.
The Goshawk; T.H. White, New York Review of Books, first published 1951, 215 pp. ISBN 978-1-59017-249-0