H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 23–24 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1059

Chapter 23: Memorial

Macdonald takes the train into London for her father’s memorial. At the church, she is anxious at first, but standing in front of the hundreds of guests, she thinks about all the people who knew and loved her father. This comforts her, and she gives her eulogy.

As a little boy in the 1950s, Macdonald tells the room, her father loved watching planes, and one day he spotted a new model of American Air Force plane—the plane-spotter’s “Holy Grail.” He took a photo and wrote down the model number but was then dragged to a guardshouse by a soldier. A sergeant destroyed the film in his camera and tore the page with the model number out of his notebook, and the boy wept. “You didn’t see anything,” they told him. “Forget you were here.” Her father was devastated, but then he had an idea: he shaded the next page of his notebook with his pencil. There on the page was the trace of the model number he had written down, and he rode his bicycle home “in triumph.”

The rest of the service is beautiful and moving, and afterward, countless people approach Macdonald to praise her father and her eulogy. Later in the Press Club, everyone drinks heavily and tells stories about Macdonald’s father; as she leaves, she feels that her family “had expanded by about two hundred people, and everything was going to be fine.” Macdonald realizes that she made a mistake when she decided to isolate herself—that it is relationships with other people, not escaping to the wild, that offers true healing from grief.

She realizes, too, why Mabel has been so aggressive lately: the hawk is hungry. This realization brings self-loathing followed by relief, and the next evening Macdonald sits outside with Mabel, feeding her an entire pigeon. As she watches Mabel eat, Macdonald has another realization: that like White, and despite her longing to disappear, she can never truly become the hawk—she can only be the falconer.

White’s book was the only one of the many animal books Macdonald read as a child in which the animal didn’t die. At the end of The Goshawk, Gos is simply lost, and without the finality of his death, there is always a glimmer of hope that the hawk might return. Macdonald recognizes that some part of her had wanted to slip into the “dark forest to which all things lost must go” to bring back White’s lost hawk and her own lost father, whose death had been so sudden that it hadn’t seemed quite real. In her recurring dreams of the goshawk vanishing into thin air, Macdonald now sees her own desire to vanish with the hawk into the other world where her father might be waiting.

Chapter 24: Drugs

Even after the revelations she experienced after the memorial service, Macdonald continues to feel deeply sad and alone. She spends her evenings playing with Mabel, searching for a sense of domesticity and connection. Unlike falconers who have families and full lives to balance out the “wildness” they explore with their hawks, Macdonald has nothing but the hawk. Frightened of how numb and inhuman she has begun to feel, Macdonald decides to see a doctor.

At the doctor’s office, Macdonald describes her symptoms, and the doctor listens carefully. He tells Macdonald that they can help her, and she starts to cry. The doctor prescribes her SSRIs, and Macdonald takes them even though she fears they will affect her thinking or stop her being able to fly the hawk. But she takes...

(This entire section contains 1059 words.)

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the drugs anyway and continues flying Mabel.

Macdonald remembers reading a thirteenth-century poem called Sir Orfeo when she was a student, a Celtic retelling of the Orpheus myth. In the poem, King Orfeo spends a decade living alone in the forest after his wife’s kidnapping by the Faery King; he is only able to cross into the Land of Faery and rescue her after remembering his love of falconry. Hawks and falcons serve as messengers between one world and the next in many ancient cultures, and many stories—such as the poem Vita Merlini, “the Life of Merlin”—involve a character’s grief-stricken retreat into the wild. As she considers the relationship between grief and retreating into nature, Macdonald imagines T. H. White’s writing of The Sword in the Stone beginning not with his rereading of Le Morte D’Arthur, but with the arrival of Gos.

The Sword in the Stone was a “glorious dream of wish fulfillment for White.” In it, the young Wart—who will eventually be known as King Arthur—undergoes a series of transformations into different animals as part of his education by the wizard Merlyn. Most memorable for Macdonald is the Wart’s transformation into a merlin, when the boy learns to be brave by being forced to stand next to the mad hawk Colonel Cully, who both finds the Wart terrifying and wants to kill him. In this scene, Macdonald sees White’s suppressed desires to inflict harm on boys like those he taught at Stowe, desires which tormented him and which he believed were caused by the abuse he had suffered as a child. The frightening ordeals and rites of initiation he had endured, and then participated in, at boarding school continued to influence White as well, leaving him with a lifelong need to prove his bravery and worth.

When Macdonald was a child, The Sword in the Stone caused her greater anxiety around death than did other books for children. Children can’t die in their own stories, but animals can, and the Wart spent much of the book in animal form, which created the possibility that he might not survive his quests. For the young MacDonald, endlessly rereading the Wart’s frightening ordeal as a hawk became an ordeal of her own.

White’s own troubled relationship with punishment, bravery, and education were never truly resolved; he sought freedom from Stowe school but ended up living on its grounds. The idea of freedom as the natural end point in a process of trials was a potent one for him. As a schoolmaster and a falconer, “deep down he knew he was always training his charges for a time when they would be free.”


Chapters 21–22 Summary


Chapters 25–26 Summary