Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

Peregrine Falcon, sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk, but the Peregrine is a close but smaller cousin.

Peregrine Falcon. Sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published by the New York Review of Books, copyright 1951, 215 pages, introduction by Marie Winn.

I was browsing in the local bookstore, in the birds and wildlife section, when I saw this small paperback tucked on the bottom shelf between the large well known guides.  I tend to favor the smaller books and picked it up, but almost put it back when I discovered it was about falconry, published years ago.  No self-respecting birder would condone the enslavement of hawks, let alone pay good money to read an account of the practice from 1951.  Yet something I read on the back cover or introduction gave me pause and I made the purchase, and am glad I did.

T.H. White was an young Englishman, recently retired as an English professor and starting a literary career in 1936 when he wrote this book.  He had become a Thoreau-like recluse, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage, “tired of most humans”, when he received the fledging goshawk by mail-order from Germany.  The book is his non-fiction log of the training of the bird named Gos, using two dated manuals, one written in 1619, as his only guides.  It is a battle of wills, hawk vs. human, with the final result very much in doubt.  It is also the musings of an observant and perceptive naturalist with a discussion of the art and history of falconry, and what he learned about these willful birds and himself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Northern Goshawk is the largest accipiter of North America, primarily seen in the northern forests.  Its name is derived from the Old English words gos (goose) and hafoc (hawk). It was known in ancient times as the “Bird of Apollo” and its symbol was worn by Attilia the Hun, testifying to the bird’s fierceness and power.  According to White the “hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded–it is their prerogative to regard.”  These characteristics make it one of the more difficult raptors to train for falconry, a lesson learned late by the author. The book briefly describes falconry as an ancient art and sport, primarily of the nobles, dating back to Mesopotamia 3000 years ago and reaching its peak in Medieval Europe.  In typical English fashion, a hierarchy of raptors was allowed to the falconer or austringer depending on ones class; an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine for an earl, a goshawk for a yeoman, and a kestrel for a knave.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The book has only two characters of note, the author and Gos.   Its charm stems from the detailed description of their evolving relationship during the arduous, frustrating, and laborious training of this wild bird, spanning 3 months of days, and often sleepless nights.  Who will crack first, man or bird?  The author noted that his admiration of the skills of mothers and demands of motherhood grew from the experience.

During the training the bird was restrained by jesses or leather straps around the ankles, holding him initially by a short leash to a perch or the falconer’s padded arm. The early days consisted of frequent tantrums or “batings” of the wild bird.  Batings are “the headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses in a flurry of pinions like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries.  It was the falconer’s duty to lift the hawk back to the fist with his other hand with gentleness and patience, only to have him bate again, once, twice, twenty, fifty times, all night…”.  The final breaking of the bird’s will and its acceptance of its human master required, according to the ancient lore, 72 hours of sleeplessness, enforced by the also sleepless trainer, nudging the bird awake, until the bird finally relaxes it feathers, droops it wings, drops its head, and succumbs to sleep, even in the presence of its new human master.  After this ordeal the formal training could begin.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

“Manning” the bird involved gradually introducing the bird to the outside world, including other humans, automobiles, dogs, and other birds. The author calmly stroked the bird through each of these inevitable batings caused by new worldly contacts, and verbally soothed Gos with the frequent recitation of the hymn, Lord, My Shepherd.  White would walk the countryside for miles with Gos on his arm, and even taught the bird to perch on the handle bars of the bicycle for longer trips.  The tired falconer’s patience however had it limits as evidenced by the various nick-names asssigned to Gos through the process;  Hittite, Absalom, insane assassin, Caligula, filthy bugger, and choleric beast. Gradually the leash was lengthened and Gos could test his wings, even up to several hundred feet.  The author learned the key to enticing the bird to return to the wrist was through his stomach.  Overfeeding and overuse of food as a reward was to be avoided as William Shakespeare relates in The Taming of the Shrew:

My falcon is now sharp and passing empty;

And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One finds multiple themes in this book.  One is freedom vs. enslavement;  the soaring hawk is a symbol of freedom, but when man captures it, breaks its spirit, and uses it for its own aims, nature is corrupted.  Then there’s the theme of teacher vs. pupil, or parent vs. child and the need for the instructor’s loving patience and persistence, no matter what.  I recommend this book to all who find the subject of interest; the writing is superb.  I will not give away the outcome of this adventure, other than to say life is not always as we wish it to be.  The author goes on to train multiple other birds, but in closing, sadly quotes the old proverb, “When your first wife dies, she makes such a hole in your heart that all the rest slip through”.

 Other books by T.H. White include:  The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, The Book of Merlyn, and The Queen of Air and Darkness.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

  1. Interesting story. I have read on falconry before and have always felt it must be a test and break of wills. I have a wild caught cockatoo that I have had for over 30 years (before it was illegal in NYS to have one) and training him was quite easy in comparison. They are very smart but he was trained through calm, gentle patience, but in three days was sitting on my arm. I would doubt a raptor so easily trained. The wild never leaves them.

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