Vulpes Libris

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.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White

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 Using Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hunting (published in 1619) as his guide, White set about the long outdated process of “watching”: holding the hawk on one outstretched hand for three days and nights, until the bird developed enough trust to fall sleep on his master’s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

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

7 comments on “The Goshawk, by T.H. White

  1. rosyb
    April 26, 2008

    Very interesting this – particularly in the context in which you set it. I am left wondering if the book is interesting out of this context or not. (Although the descriptions of how to tame a wild bird do sound quite riveting in an unusual way.)

    I have had so many people rave on at me about “The Once and Future King” and have tried it a few times and never managed to get into it. I’m obviously missing an important gene or something.

  2. Moira
    April 27, 2008

    I read The Goshawk many years ago – in my late teens, I believe – and it made quite an impression on me but I don’t think I was old enough to grasp its complexities.

    I think it’s time I revisited it.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking review, Trilby.

  3. Lisa
    April 27, 2008

    Beautifully written review, Trilby. Gos the goshawk sounds like a character indeed. Interesting contrast between the country cottage lifestyle and this:

    “meditations on the state of the world in the years immediately leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War”

    Sounds fascinating.

    “The patience necessary to train a wild hawk – in White’s words, “to train a person who was not human…”

    Great way of putting it. And I thought training a puppy was hard work…

  4. Jackie
    April 28, 2008

    Terrific review, Trilby! The moody cover set the stage and you continued in the atmospheric vein, making it sound fascinating, not just as a bird book, but also as a metaphor. I’ve read White’s Arthurian books and liked them and the excerpts you’ve included looks just as good. This is a definite for my “must read” list.

  5. Ariadne
    April 29, 2008

    This sounds brilliant. I love T H White, the Once & Future King is a flawed masterpiece, which is the best kind of masterpiece, in my opinion.

  6. geoff
    December 12, 2013

    “Waking” not watching!

  7. Pingback: H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald | Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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