H Is for Hawk Characters

The main characters in H Is for Hawk are Helen Macdonald, Mabel, and T. H. White.

  • Helen Macdonald, the author and narrator of the memoir, is a historian and falconer who decides to train her first goshawk as a method of coping with her father’s death.
  • Mabel is Macdonald’s goshawk. Bred in Northern Ireland, Mabel is young and inquisitive, with a fierce hunting instinct as well as a surprisingly calm and playful nature.
  • T. H. White is an English author and falconer known for his books The Goshawk and The Once and Future King. Macdonald tells White’s story alongside her own.


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Last Updated on August 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is the author and narrator of the memoir H Is for Hawk . She was born and raised in England to working-class parents, and she became a historian, naturalist, and falconer as an adult. When the story begins, she is living and working in Cambridge as...

(The entire section contains 1038 words.)

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Helen Macdonald

Helen Macdonald is the author and narrator of the memoir H Is for Hawk. She was born and raised in England to working-class parents, and she became a historian, naturalist, and falconer as an adult. When the story begins, she is living and working in Cambridge as a scholar. After her father’s sudden death, Macdonald decides to raise and train a goshawk. Her story describes her journey with the hawk, Mabel, alongside her journey with grief as she comes to terms with her father’s death. Macdonald also tells the story of British author T. H. White, with whom she feels a complicated emotional connection because of his estrangement from the world and his relationship with his own goshawk, Gos.

Macdonald is thoughtful, kind, and, for most of the memoir, solitary; she cares deeply about justice, history, and the natural world. She characterizes herself as someone who is at odds with the academic culture of Cambridge, feeling that she doesn’t quite belong. Reading her memoir, however, it becomes clear that Macdonald is a true academic in many senses: she is interested in the intersections between social history and natural history, and she is deeply curious about the workings of the world. She is a daughter in mourning, an avid researcher, and a lover of wild things.


Mabel is Macdonald’s young goshawk, purchased from a breeder based in Northern Ireland. She is small for her breed and is of Czech, Finnish, and German ancestry. When Macdonald first sees Mabel, she feels an instant connection with her. Over the course of H Is for Hawk, the two form a trusting and affectionate bond. Mabel learns how to jump onto Macdonald’s fist, fly long distances attached to her jesses, and eventually to fly free and return to Macdonald’s fist. Mabel helps Macdonald cope with and understand her grief over the loss of her father.

The hawk is characterized as beautiful, intelligent, and shrewd. Macdonald frequently marvels at Mabel’s “prehistoric” appearance and piercing gaze. Mabel is a fast learner, and Macdonald is delighted to discover that she is also playful and sweet—qualities that have not historically been ascribed to goshawks. Mabel grows into her innate hunting instinct over the course of the memoir, which impresses and moves Macdonald; she marvels at the hawk’s ability to recognize potential prey, even in the form of illustrations in a book. At the end of the memoir, Macdonald takes Mabel to a friend’s aviary, where she will spend the moulting season. It is a sad parting for Macdonald, but a temporary one. In the aviary, the color of Mabel’s eyes and plumage will change completely.


Macdonald’s father, whom she calls Dad, dies prior to the memoir’s timeline but is nonetheless present as a character throughout H Is for Hawk. He was a loving and patient father, and his death was sudden and unexpected. A photographer and photojournalist, he was well known for capturing difficult shots in frightening or dangerous situations. Throughout the book, Macdonald remembers lessons she learned from her father: the meaning of patience, how to cope with fear, the value of paying attention to the natural world.

At his memorial, Macdonald tells a story about her father that communicates something of his essence: as a boy growing up after World War II, he had been an avid plane-spotter. One day, he saw a brand new model of a US Air Force plane, took a photo, wrote down the plane’s serial number before military officers confiscated his film and tore up the page in his notebook. He was devastated until he thought to rub his pencil across the next page, revealing the impression of the serial number and changing his mood to one of triumph. The story reveals her father’s curiosity, determination, and resourcefulness. Macdonald also writes that she and her father have both taken great comfort in being “watchers,” patient and keen observers of the world around them.

T. H. White

T. H. White was a British writer best known for his epic fantasy novel about King Arthur, The Once and Future King. He also wrote a book called The Goshawk, about his experiences training a hawk, that Macdonald read as a child and revisits after her father dies. The book troubles Macdonald, but she recognizes its influence on her, as well as her connection to White, whose story is woven throughout Macdonald’s own.

White grew up in India with abusive parents; he briefly lived with cousins before he was sent away to school in England. There, he became a writer, as well as a teacher at the prestigious Stowe School. His childhood and adulthood were marked by fear and uncertainty. White was homosexual and deeply troubled by it. In the 1930s, he began training a goshawk, called Gos, writing about the experience. He didn’t know the proper methods of training and caring for a hawk, and he struggled with Gos; likewise, White desperately wanted to be loved but didn’t know how to properly give or receive it. One day, Gos escaped, and White spent the next weeks searching for him in vain. White’s story is a tragic one, and Macdonald feels the distance between herself and White widen as she begins to heal from her grief.


Gos was T. H. White’s goshawk. Unlike Mabel, who was bred in captivity, Gos was captured in a German forest before he was old enough to leave the nest. Gos was strong-willed, sensitive, and fearful. He was a beautiful bird, and White, who didn’t understand how to properly train or care for a goshawk, both loved and struggled with him. One of White’s chief errors was in overfeeding Gos, which made the hawk miserable and angry. White also liked to read to Gos and play music for him, and he took the hawk on long walks day and night. This was too much stimulation, too fast, for a young goshawk. One night, White tied Gos to his perch with flimsy twine, and the hawk broke free and flew away. He remained in the surrounding forest for a few weeks but eventually disappeared, breaking White’s heart.

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