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 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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1193 words.)

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Chapter Summaries