Friday, May 08, 2015

The Goshawk by T. H. White

In the 1930s, before he became famous for writing The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, T. H. White was an impoverished young writer with an interest in falconry. He read numerous classic books on the subject and supposed that he could apply what he learned from them to train a bird of his own. He acquired a goshawk and quickly discovered he was totally unprepared. He recounted the experience in his 1951 book The Goshawk.

Being a writer in search of a topic for a book at the time of his acquiring his bird, White started a journal, which he used for much of the content and structure of this book. Helen Macdonald, author of the recent memoir H is for Hawk, read it as an aspiring young falconer and was upset by it, as were many falconers of 1950s and 1960s. White was roundly criticized for being a know-nothing. Since that time literary critics have reviewed it more favorably, saying that White was courageous for being so honest about his ineptitude. They also argue that his tale contributes to the literature of adversarial relationships between humans and other animals, joining Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea.

Ideas about how humans should treat animals have changed since the middle of the 20th century. When I recently read The Goshawk, my sympathies aligned with the bird. White put it through much needless torment, which he seemed to realize as he spent night and day with the goshawk, trying to subdue its will. I wanted the bird to escape. The conflict does resolve about halfway through the book, but readers will find the aftermath just as interesting. It is a good reading choice while waiting for H is for Hawk.

White, T. H. The Goshawk. New York Review Books, 2007, 1951. 215p. ISBN 9781590172490.

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