H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald
(Grove Press)
Terence Hanbury White was a writer of historical novels, a loner, and a trainer of goshawks. His other pursuits have the familiar touchpoints of many dilettantish adventurers: an early (1930's) airplane pilot, a practitioner of upper-class British gentlemen's sports (fox hunting, shooting, fishing), a school teacher and, of course, a hawk trainer. After writing a few science fiction books, and desperate for a new subject, he re-read Mallory's Morte d'Arthur and promptly turned out The Sword and the Stone, which became the first book of his series of Arthurian tales, The Once and Future King. That made his fortune and also served as the book for the musical "Camelot." Yes, he was that T. H. White.

Earlier in the 1930s, White wrote The Goshawk, a book-length, fairly discursive report of his attempt to train one. It serves as a major narrative thread in this book, H Is for Hawk. In comparison with its major story --- the story of Macdonald's own experience with goshawks --- the discussions of White, his life and his training of these exotic birds, are compelling. Because White was an abject failure as a goshawk trainer.

There is something exquisitely forlorn about someone, for whom one feels sympathy, who keeps trying very hard to do something even though it isn't working out. That may be the dominant theme to White's life, even though several of his books were very successful.

If this were an old-time movie, T. H. White would be a Buster Keaton character. Slightly out-of-kilter, always operating in milieus he doesn't comprehend, inadvertently amusing if seen from a great distance. But Keaton's train engineering, out-the-window almost-falls never hurt for long, while White seems to have been perpetually out of step with life despite concerted attempts to find some way of making a workable peace with it.

Airplanes, hunting, hawks --- all of them frightened him. In fact, he was afraid of most things. That's why he did them. He was always trying to be somebody he wasn't, because who he was wasn't enough . . . at least to his own eyes. Difficult parents, difficult childhood, difficult boarding school --- you know the story. In his journals, White wrote:

  1. Necessity of excelling in order to be loved.
  2. Failure to excel.
  3. Why did I fail to excel? (Wrong attitude to what I was doing?)

That's not an easy way to go through life, though who of us is immune?

Unlike White, the goshawk is a remarkably focussed raptor, an evolutionary success story perfectly designed for its brutal task. In a hunt, the bird lives in a slowed-down present time, much like a top-tier athlete, Macdonald writes, who sees everything and has the leisure to make the right hunting decision intuitively. It isn't troubled by mercy: it kills.

White was generally assumed to be homosexual (because his life seems to have been completely asexual, one cannot be certain). He was also thought to have had a great capacity to love . . . but given the prevailing culture in 1930s Britain, he found no way to express it. He once wrote: "Falling in love is a desolating experience, but not when it is with a countryside."

In his journals, White gives evidence of a strong undercurrent of sado-masochism. To deal with the sadistic part, he was drawn to the hawk, which killed with preternatural ease. (Macdonald finds a similar tendency in the Lancelot of The Once and Future King, where Lancelot controls his own sadism through his devotion to honor.)

For White, the hawk was a way to experience this darker side while remaining within cultural boundaries. Thus he was able to open up a metaphysical debate with God and experience a natural wildness. That contest transferred itself to Ms. Macdonald.

White tried very hard to train the hawk. At one point, he stayed up for six days, more or less straight, walking while holding the hawk (which would attempt to jump off at every opportunity). The goal was to break the hawk's fear of him. And, even though White eventually came to some sort of understanding with the animal, the hawk ultimately flew off one day without returning. This is the natural fear of all hawk trainers, and it offered White yet another failure, left him desperate to find it. He never did.

H Is for Hawk arrived in the US festooned with British literary awards. The hawk in question is, again, a goshawk, a squat form of hawk which is notoriously difficult to train (forget domestication). This is a task the author decides to take on after her father dies unexpectedly.

You either buy that as a legitimate premise for a book, or you don't. It's an old reductive dichotomy that avoids all sorts of interesting questions. Me? I am, apparently, at one with the don'ts.

H Is for Hawk, then, is the history of a minor delusional mania, an attempt to come to terms with reality through a back door. It could be funny, but this treatment is resolutely serious, even dolorous, seen from within the mania, not from the outside. It would be easier, perhaps, for readers to have sympathy for the author if she had spent more narrative time developing reasons to sympathize with her. But she didn't, and so we don't.

For Macdonald, White's quest was a version of an old heroic adventure: man v. nature; a human v. himself, etc. etc. But, much lower on the pyramid of cosmic significance, White's problem with the hawk was little more than a mundane research error. White based his training regimen on a traditional 18th century book on hawk training. He missed the definitive modern treatise on how to motivate your hawk by Gilbert Blaine. It was published in 1936, the year before White's own adventure,

The key to hawk training is simple: hunger. The hawk isn't moved by punishment, only through the positive reinforcement of food. To succeed, one must keep the bird hungry. Even Macdonald gets the issue of weight slightly wrong by underfeeding her animal so that it cannot fly well. The margin of error, it must be said, is small --- less than half of a pound either way. But White, perpetually trying to get other creatures love him, overfed his bird, who then remained unmoved by the motivational value of the reinforcing treats.

There are things that probably could be said about a metaphysical battle between man and nature when man controls the situation by carefully parceling out a less-than-full diet, but let's leave that alone.

At the end of Macdonald's discussion of White's adventure, the man is left unhappily looking for his hawk, hoping against all odds that it will return. Soon after his goshawk misadventure --- described in his biography --- White goes on to write the Arthurian works for which he is well-known, possibly respected (though probably not venerated). We don't see that success in H Is for Hawk. It would diminish White as a symbol of deeply thwarted semi-genius.

For her part, Ms. Macdonald eventually comes out of her mania, realizing she needs people, not just a hawk, for happiness. Her father's death becomes part of her biographical background . . . but not an event that cripples her. To me, a person who wasn't particularly sympathetic to her in the first place, the realization seems unconvincing. Maybe the lack of a satisfactory ending is a function of writing non-fiction, where fidelity to some actual facts can preclude a wham-bam climax. Like life itself, a person's thematic strands never tie themselves up perfectly.

On the other hand, forcing a satisfactory emotional conclusion seems perfectly consistent with the book's other forcings of meaning.

H Is for Hawk, then, is the history of a minor delusional mania, an attempt to come to terms with reality through a back door. It could have been funny, on the lines of The General if we could look at the engine as a runaway goshawk, but this book's treatment is mordantly serious, even dolorous, especially as seen from within the mania, not from the outside.

It would have been easier for this particular reader to find sympathy for Ms. Macdonald, the author, if she had spent more narrative time developing reasons to sympathize with her.

But she didn't, and so I don't.

And what kind of title is H Is for Hawk anyway?

--- Richard Daverman
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