Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263
Chapter 3: Small Worlds
Macdonald was twelve years old when she first saw falconers at work. She describes tagging along one morning with several older men who were experienced falconers as they hunted with their hawks; she remembers watching a goshawk kill a pheasant, and the visceral intensity of it. The falconers let their goshawks fly free and eventually disappear into the trees, trusting that their birds would eventually return to them.
When she first became a falconer herself, Macdonald flew falcons and never considered flying a goshawk. Falcons had long been the favored bird of the British nobility and upper classes, and all the falconry books Macdonald had read praised falcons while deriding hawks. Goshawks in particular were seen as common, bad-tempered, and aggressive, possessing none of the elegance and aristocratic bearing of the falcon. A fellow falconer once told her that the secret to training a goshawk was teaching it—and encouraging it—to “kill things as much as possible.” As a younger falconer, Macdonald felt strongly that goshawks didn’t suit her personality or her tastes. But the world has changed, and Macdonald has changed too; she wonders about the possibility of training a goshawk.
The end of July is approaching. Macdonald is beginning to feel a bit more numb to her grief, although she still feels “off,” alienated from the world and other people. After some research, she finds a goshawk breeder in Northern Ireland who has one young goshawk left: it is a small bird, a mix of Czech, Finnish, and German breeding. She decides she will drive to Scotland to fetch it, sensing that the bird has chosen her.
As the rains dissipate and heat moves in, Macdonald pays her friend Stuart a visit; he is an experienced falconer, and she wants to discuss goshawks with him. Macdonald loves Stuart and his partner, Mandy, and she feels relieved to see them at the barbecue the couple are hosting. Stuart is shocked at Macdonald’s decision to train a goshawk, telling her that his experience of flying a goshawk was a “nightmare” and offering Macdonald his own peregrine falcon instead. Macdonald seriously considers the offer for a moment, admiring the beauty of the falcon, but her mind is made up.
In the days before Macdonald goes to pick up the goshawk, she begins to revisit T. H. White’s book The Goshawk. A copy of it sits on the shelf near her desk and keeps catching her eye, but she looks away. She doesn't want to think about the book. As a child, Macdonald says, she was awkward, shy, and obsessed with birds of prey. When reciting the Lord’s Prayer at school, for a time she replaced “Our Father” with “Dear Horus.” She decided she would be a falconer when she grew up. Macdonald read all the books about falconry she and her father could find, absorbing both practical—if arcane—knowledge and the worldviews of the authors, who were almost all aristocratic British men; she remembers telling her mother all kinds of minute details about falconry. Her mother kindly feigned interest.
At age eight, Macdonald read The Goshawk and was angered by it because of White’s ignorant and misguided falconry practices. But while she disliked White and his book, she “revered” White’s goshawk, Gos.
T. H. White is best known as the author of British fantasy epic The Once and Future King, which retells the story of King Arthur. Macdonald recalls meeting a retired U2 pilot who used to read The Once and Future King during his flights. This makes her sad: it is a lonely image. Macdonald realizes...
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now that White’sThe Goshawk is more than a book about “bad falconry”; it is also the story of a lonely man engaged in a “metaphysical battle” with an animal. While she is still frustrated with White’s treatment of his hawk, his portrayal of falconry as “war,” and his depiction of hawks as “monsters,” she recognizes that some of her desire to train a goshawk may have unconsciously come from him.
Chapter 4: Mr White
In March of 1936, T. H. White was the head of English at Stowe School. He was deeply unhappy with his work and drinking to excess, and he vowed to leave the school to write full-time. His notebooks, which Macdonald has studied, are full of drawings, reflections, and accounts of his dreams. White was fascinated by analysis, in the tradition of Freud, and hoped he might “conquer” his homosexuality and sadism with the help of his analyst. He took up an unsuccessful flirtation with a local barmaid, attempting to convince himself he loved her. At Stowe, Mr. White was regarded as something of a rebel, and his students respected him; at the same time, it was clear that he didn’t fit in with the rest of the faculty.
The trajectory of White’s life was one full of fear, beginning with his terrifying childhood with volatile, warring parents in India. As an adult, White constantly pushed himself to do things that frightened him in order to conquer his fears and become brave. In 1964, he died of heart failure, and his friends worried that his diaries and other personal effects would expose his sexuality. Eventually they choose the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner to be White’s biographer, partly because she herself was gay.
White haunts Macdonald, she says, because she sees herself in his desire to escape the world—particularly now, in the wake of her father’s death. Escaping to the wild, as a concept, isn’t a new one; a retreat into nature has long appealed to people feeling at odds with the human world. (Such a journey often occurs in White’s books.) Given White’s sexual and romantic loneliness and alienation, Macdonald understands why this would be such an entrenched desire for him. While White learned how to “pass himself off” as a gentleman, he always feared that the traits and desires he took such care to hide and suppress would be revealed. He was always fastidious in his dress, and he pursued aristocratic, masculine hobbies—including falconry.
Macdonald ponders the relationship between closeted queer authors and their relationships with animals. While they could not write about their own lives for fear of exposure, these authors could write about love, intimacy, and trust in their relationships with animals and nature. White, Macdonald says, spent much of his life alone. He never married or had any long-term partners, but he always kept animals: not just hawks but dogs, owls, snakes, badgers, and hedgehogs. He viewed them not as possessions but as independent companions. His desire to train his animals to be independent stemmed from his need to be independent himself.
The character of Lancelot in The Once and Future King is a reflection of White himself, a sadist who can only refrain from hurting others out of a sense of honor. The only way to be true to one’s violent nature without harming other people, White believed, was by skillfully training a hunting animal such as a hawk. As he grew older, he began drinking more heavily and retreated further from any form of social life. Then World War II began, and White, like many others, feared that civilization had come to an end and that modernity had driven it there. White longed to return to a mythical past, to a “feral” state of nature—the state of the hawk. White’s goshawk became a stand-in for himself and for all that he was forced to repress.