But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird. These efforts might have some value because they were continuously faced with those difficulties which the mind has to circumvent, because falconry was an historic though dying sport, because the faculties exercised were those which throve among trees rather than houses, and because the whole thing was inexpressibly difficult.
This is T.H. White’s own appraisal of his book The Goshawk, and it’s an apt one — aside from the last phrase. White actually does a damn fine job of expressing how very difficult a task he has undertaken, a task that is exhausting, demoralizing, exhilarating, and at last heartbreaking.
The author of The Once and Future King, White was a deeply conflicted man who craved difficult tasks, and now he was “trying to conquer a territory over which the contemporaries of Chaucer had rambled free” with nothing more than a 17th-century falconry guide and his own solitary, changeable soul as resources. The training regimen is brutal: first up, keeping the goshawk Gos (and himself) awake for at least three days in order to weaken the bird’s resistance and accustom it to his fist as perch. The book is really a litany of odd hours — some mornings 4 a.m. is when White gets up, some mornings it’s when he goes to bed. And the hours in between are full of endless watches and wanderings: looking for prey, hunting food to hand-feed Gos, searching for Gos when he strays, getting Gos used to other people or just to White himself on long walks.
From the start, the relationship is troubled. White has little idea what he’s doing and Gos knows it. They injure each other, usually unintentionally, with jess and claw. At the solitary cottage that serves as White’s retreat from the world, they each become the other’s only companion, and the vicissitudes of their romance are extravagant: “A homicidal maniac: but now he was enjoying to be stroked. We were again in love.”
There’s some comedy in this, of course, and White sees it. No thoughtful man could enter into such a savage relationship with an animal and not see it:
It was six weeks since I had averted my eyes from the hag-ridden pupils of this lunatic, half a week since he had come on a creance quite perfectly a hundred yards. I had lived with this hawk, its slave, butcher, nursemaid and flunkey. What clothes it wore were made by me, what house it had was swept out and kept sweet by me, what food it ate was killed and eviscerated and hacked into pieces and served by me, what excursions it made were taken on my fist. For six weeks I had thought about it long into the night and risen early to execute my thoughts. I had never raised my voice to it, nor hurt it, nor subjected it to the extreme torture which it deserved.
It’s this dark comic vein that gives the book its melancholy joy.
The Goshawk was published in 1951 but composed in 1939 from notes written at the time of the events two years earlier — notes written by candlelight, in a barn, on a notebook balanced on one knee with Gos perched on the other fist. As described by Marie Winn in her excellent introduction, White had to be pushed into publishing the book; he was embarrassed by his youthful incompetence, and as a more experienced austringer in later life he was painfully aware, he wrote, “just how bad the falconry in that book is, if I recollect it. It is like asking a grown-up to sanction the publication of his adolescent diaries…”
What is an austringer, you ask? As White says, “A keeper of long-winged hawks used to be called a falconer, of short winged hawks an austringer.” The book is full of fascinating falconry jargon: bate (“a word that had been used since falcons were first flown in England, since England was first a country therefore”), jesses, mews, eyas, mute. Mute is especially fine, being the noun and verb for birdshit. White describes the barn floor, “streaked outwards round the perch with white squirts of mutes, so that it looked like a sundial.”
Anyone who’s read The Once and Future King knows that White can write like a bandit. On the birds he trained in later life: “Each one of these assassins had his or her own character: they were as individual and different from each other as eight separate anarchists.” On the weather: “Last night the clouds had been curdled high over heaven, and now they had come down to earth. The mist was stratus at ground level and the moon hid her haunted face in diminished power.” And on himself: “One had to find out what things were not necessary, what things one really needed. A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energy and love, the sun and the moon.”
White’s marvelous creative energy captivates the reader as always, but it is his love for the “unfortunate, dark, and immoral” Gos that makes The Goshawk, in the end, such a heartbreaker.
- If you mispronounce goshawk as gaw-shock it sounds like a creature from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books instead of a bird — bang, you got a totally different book right there. Changes the whole undertaking.
- I love the Penguin Modern Classics covers designed by Hans Schmoller with the Joanna typeface (before that devil Facetti switched the series to Helvetica in the late 60s to match the rest of Penguin’s lineup). I had no idea The Goshawk had been part of the Modern Classics series until doing an image search for the cover — may have to get a copy of this one at some point.
pre-Facetti – lovely
post-Facetti – not as lovely
- I grumbled about the NYRB Classics cover for Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, but they really redeemed themselves with this one (see above). It has butterscotch-and-pumpkin text on a gorgeous grayish-green matte background that perfectly matches the cover painting by Bruno Liljefors. Just a pleasure to hold in your hand and stare at.
- The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin displays some fascinating pages from White’s original journal of his time with Gos (along with the truly jarring original cover) — pictures of Gos, feathers taped to the page like a lover’s mementos.
- White obtained Gos from a falconer in Germany. Last February, when we were still living in Munich, I looked out at our garden one day to see a goshawk munching on a blackbird [Edit: Apparently this is more likely to be a sparrowhawk]. We got to watch him go at it for at least an hour — one of my best bird experiences ever (click to enlarge):