H Is for Hawk Themes

The main themes in H Is for Hawk are history and the passage of time; grief, loss, and fear; and wildness and the natural world.

  • History and the Passage of Time: Macdonald explores the history of falconry and the landscape, and her narrative alternates between the contemporary era and the 1930s.
  • Grief, Loss, and Fear: For Macdonald, falconry offers an escape from and a remedy for her grief over her father’s death and her fear of loss.
  • Wildness and the Natural World: The book explores the meaning of wildness and the ways in which human ideas are projected onto the natural world.


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Last Updated on August 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193

History and the Passage of Time

Humans have a hard time understanding scale, Macdonald says: the span of our entire history is relatively brief, a blip in geologic time. Time as a theme functions in several different ways in H Is for Hawk . Macdonald is a historian, and she...

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History and the Passage of Time

Humans have a hard time understanding scale, Macdonald says: the span of our entire history is relatively brief, a blip in geologic time. Time as a theme functions in several different ways in H Is for Hawk. Macdonald is a historian, and she is interested in the history of falconry, as well as the natural history of hawks and English landscapes; she observes the ways these things change continuously over time. In addition, her story runs parallel to T. H. White’s through a kind of narrative time-travel, collapsing time through shared experiences, fears, and desires. Macdonald is also concerned with the project of historical time itself: how societies rewrite histories, imagine other timelines, and interrupt time’s linear progression.

The history of falconry in England is related to other kinds of history: colonial history, natural history, industrial history. Macdonald emphasizes that all of these historical projects are interconnected and that to understand training a goshawk, one must also understand the historical role of the British Empire and the creation of class stratification. Over time, these historical processes are collapsed and naturalized, and we can only recognize the hawk as a regal, elegant creature without understanding why. Macdonald’s book seeks to interrogate the production of certain historical narratives and what time does to collective memory.

By telling T. H. White’s story as well as her own, Macdonald reveals that human responses and anxieties are in some ways consistent over time. Both White and Macdonald both experience exhilaration and doubt in raising their goshawks; both fear rejection and loss, and want desperately to escape the pain inherent in the human world. The narrative jumps back and forth between the 1930s and the present day, utilizing the passage of time to thematically link White’s experiences to Macdonald’s. White, Macdonald writes, wanted to go back in time and rewrite the future by training hawks. He hoped that in doing so, he could nurture his child self as represented by the hawk. The choices we make in our present, the book suggests, reflect the desires and disappointments of our past.

Grief, Loss, and Fear

Macdonald’s story is as much about grief as it is falconry, and the book follows the author’s journey through grief alongside her journey with Mabel. In many ways, Macdonald’s grief manifests as fear: fear of the unknown and, more specifically, fear of loss. T. H. White spent his entire life grappling with fear, loss, and the desire to overcome these things, and the narrative of his emotional journey is interwoven with Macdonald’s. Macdonald is sympathetic to White’s suffering in part because she sees it in herself. White loses Gos, and Macdonald loses her father. Even though they know it is impossible, both White and Macdonald still want to recover their loved ones from “the forest where lost things go.” In order to overcome their fear, they must learn how to let go altogether.

In Macdonald’s life there is a recurring motif of protection against potential loss: the jesses that hold a hawk to its trainer; the photography of her father, which seeks to capture and preserve moments in time; even the traces of her father’s notes in his plane-watching notebook in the story Macdonald tells at his memorial. Ultimately, Macdonald comes to realize that all of the gestures humans make toward “holding tight” are futile; all we can do is learn to trust. She begins to learn this, and to heal from her grief, by flying Mabel. Macdonald is terrified of losing her hawk, but Mabel nearly always comes back to her, and letting Mabel fly free is necessary for both of them to grow. When Macdonald finds a copy of a key her father made for her before he died, she recognizes that her grief, her fear of loss, is founded in love for her father. After fear fades, only love remains.

White was a fearful child, and much of his adolescence and adulthood was spent trying to conquer his various fears. He learned to fly a plane because they frightened him; he became a falconer because he saw hawks as “death machines.” He lived much of his life in fear in part because he was a closeted gay man, horrified by his own desires and seeking to overcome them. His desire to be loved was at war with his fear of being known. After Gos escaped, White contended with grief of his own. The goshawk represented to White all the loss and lack he had experienced in his life: the intimate relationships he was never able to experience, the lack of nurturing he received from his parents, and the absence of self-love that left him with a lifelong yearning for approval and acceptance.

Wildness and the Natural World

H Is for Hawk is full of descriptions of the natural world: dark woodlands; spare chalk landscapes; windswept fields. The theme of wildness is present throughout the book, but it is complicated by Macdonald’s historical analysis of humans’ relationship to the natural world. For something to be truly “wild” means that it is untouched by human civilization, undomesticated and untamed. This is increasingly rare in our globalized world, says Macdonald, and humans do not bring an objective eye to the natural world; we bring our own preconceived notions about what constitutes “wildness” to our observations. The animals, plants, and elements that compose the wild are valuable precisely because they have so little—or nothing—to do with people.

The goshawks in the book, Mabel and Gos, represent contrasting human ideas about “wildness” and nature. Gos, T. H. White’s German goshawk, is presented by White as an enemy to be conquered. He is a violent, ruthless creature who will not be tamed, nor will he submit to White’s love; above all he is a hunter, designed to kill. White sees Gos as a challenge to be met, much as British colonizers might have approached a foreign country during the age of imperialism. Macdonald writes that White simply did not understand Gos—he didn’t care for the hawk correctly, so the hawk resented him and refused his attempts at training. Ultimately, Gos breaks loose from his jesses and escapes back into the wild, but having been raised in captivity, he will not survive on his own in the forest for long.

Mabel, on the other hand, is described by Macdonald as shrewd, playful, and sensitive. She and her hawk are bonded, and they trust one another. Mabel has an innate sense of the hunt, and she is just as “dangerous” as Gos, but because of her different relationship with Macdonald, her “wild” qualities manifest differently. While she is trained, she is not domesticated, and this distinction is important: Mabel can belong to the world of nature, of wild things, and still be a companion to Macdonald. “The wild can be human work,” Macdonald writes. It is impossible to separate “natural” landscapes from human histories. We bring our humanity to the wild places that we observe, no matter how hard we might try to leave it behind.

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