H Is for Hawk

by Helen Macdonald

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Chapters 5–6 Summary

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093

Chapter 5: Holding Tight

After an arduous drive, Macdonald and her friend Christina arrive in Scotland to pick up the goshawk from the breeder. In their hotel room, Macdonald begins making jesses, the soft leather straps that will be threaded through the leather anklets on a trained hawk’s legs; jesses hold the falcon to the falconer. “Jess” is a French word, dating to the fourteenth century, and suggests the historical origins of falconry as a hobby for the ruling French class. As a child, Macdonald says, she took great pains to learn all the precise terminology that falconers use. For her, falconry terms were “magic words,” though she now understands that the complicated vocabulary used by falconers was also about social exclusion.

Thinking about a drawing she made as a child of a falcon and its jesses, Macdonald is reminded of the psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s writing about a young boy who was obsessed with string. Winnicott viewed this behavior as a manifestation of the boy’s fear of abandonment. Macdonald wonders if for her, drawing and making jesses was a similar symbolic gesture toward the fear of loss as a child. She was born prematurely and had a twin brother who didn’t survive; her parents did not tell her until years later, and it wasn’t wholly surprising. She had always felt that a part of herself was missing.

And now, she thinks, her father has died. Making the jesses begins to feel like a conjuring act to Macdonald; the hawk becomes real to her, and then she imagines her father standing before her, in his glasses, his tie askew, holding a cup of coffee. Macdonald remembers him teasing her as a child by purposefully calling her falconry equipment by the wrong names. Only now does she realize that this wasn’t teasing at all, but an act of love and respect: for him, as a photographer, referring to the tools of one’s trade with slang terms was a marker of expertise in one’s field.

Tomorrow Macdonald will pick up her hawk, who was bred in an aviary near Belfast. Goshawks are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, as female goshawks will often kill their prospective mates. White’s goshawk, Gos, wasn’t bred in captivity but was taken from the wild, from a nest in a forest in Germany. In the 1930s, there was no need for goshawk breeders. Macdonald reflects on this as she describes watching webcam videos of the nests of wild-seeming goshawks who were in fact born in captivity and then lost by falconers.

The day arrives, and Macdonald goes to the quay to meet the breeder who will give her her hawk. The breeder has two boxes with him, each containing a hawk; he is meeting another falconer after Macdonald. Inside one of the boxes is Macdonald’s hawk. The hawk’s hood has fallen off, so the man takes the bird out of her box. She is beautiful, ancient-looking, and bigger than Macdonald expected her to be; Macdonald is entranced as she watches the hawk take in her unfamiliar surroundings. As she imagines the breeder tenderly feeding the hawk in its infancy, and as she watches him carefully attend to the terrified hawk now, Macdonald feels a sudden rush of love for the breeder. Then they both realize that this is the hawk meant for the other customer. The hawk meant for Macdonald is even bigger, is wailing “like a thing in pain,” and has a “blank and crazy” look in her eyes. Macdonald panics: this other, bigger hawk is not meant to be hers. Despite it being a “monstrous...

(This entire section contains 1093 words.)

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breach of etiquette,” she asks the breeder if she might take the smaller hawk instead. He pauses but seems to sense something of Macdonald’s desperation, and he tells her yes.

Chapter 6: The Box of Stars

Driving back home, Macdonald knows training her hawk will be hard; goshawks are known to be difficult, nervous, and unpredictable. She remembers reading a seventeenth-century falconry text that advised kindness as the best approach for training goshawks, and this is how she plans to proceed.

Macdonald realizes that the rush of affection she felt toward the hawk breeder was love for her father. During the past spring, as she grieved, Macdonald watched the British television series Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy many times, semi-consciously seeking out a father figure in the character of Prideaux and a child figure for herself in the character of Jumbo. Similarly, she understands that, on the quay, she unknowingly identified herself with the hawk and the breeder with her father.

In the car, Macdonald worries that the box is far too quiet and that the hawk has died. She recalls an art installation she saw once: peering into a hole in a brown leather suitcase, she saw that the interior was full of stars, a beautiful illusion created by mirrors reflecting each other. Crouching in the backseat to look into the hawk’s box, Macdonald’s vision is blurred and starry, and then the image of the hawk inside comes together. The hawk is shivering with fear: she knows she is being watched.

In The Goshawk, White asks readers to put themselves in the position of his hawk—moved by forces beyond their own control, experiencing heat and confinement and fear on a journey to an unknown destination. As a child, White himself was shuttled between different places, never certain of his safety. Macdonald remembers seeing a picture of White as a child, an expression of terror and relief on his face after having ridden a donkey. He lived with fear his whole life: White’s parents were violent and neglectful. Eventually, they abandoned him, and he enjoyed a brief idyll living with his cousins before being sent away to school.

Macdonald imagines White in his kitchen, writing in his journal and eagerly anticipating the arrival of his hawk. White took great pride in his small cottage; he fixed it up, furnishing it to his taste, and he enjoyed having a secluded space all his own. Upstairs, the guest bedroom was lavishly decorated, but White slept in a simple camp bed downstairs.

Macdonald arrives home with her goshawk. Holding the hawk on her fist, she feels that something missing has been recovered at last. That night, she dreams of her father as a young boy, exploring a bomb site. The boy points upward, drawing her attention to a plane high in the sky. She looks down again, and her father has disappeared.


Chapters 3–4 Summary


Chapters 7–8 Summary