After Helen Macdonald’s father dies suddenly, she begins a downward spiral. The death of a loved one is something we all face and, although there are recognized stages to the experience, we each find our own way through the labyrinth of loss. Of grief and madness, she writes, “I knew I wasn’t mad mad…[but then] I started dreaming of hawks all the time…raptor, meaning ‘bird of prey.’ From the Latin raptor, meaning ‘robber,’ from rapere, meaning ‘seize.’” The dreams led to an obsession: “I dreamed of the hawk slipping through wet air to somewhere else. I wanted to follow it.” Macdonald turns to a goshawk, a raptor with a reputation for being the most challenging to train—even for the experienced falconer she is.
Macdonald names her hawk Mabel. “Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear. An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.… There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name.” She wants Mabel to be ferocious. Through Mabel, Macdonald becomes goshawk, becomes wild. The goshawk becomes a metaphor, a spiritual guide.
During the training, she turns to all she’s learned from childhood stories, to her experience as a falconer and to falconer friends, as well as to T.H. White’s The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone. Of The Goshawk, she says that “White made falconry a metaphysical battle [like] Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea….” Macdonald says of herself and White’s The Sword in the Stone:
“I was turning into a hawk.
I didn’t shrink and grow plumes like the Wart in The Sword in the Stone, who was transformed by Merlyn into a merlin as part of his magical education. I had loved the scene as a child. I had read it over and over again, thrilling at the Wart’s toes turning to talons and scratching on the floor, his primary feathers bursting in soft blue quills from the tips of his fingers. But I was turning into a hawk all the same.
Macdonald weaves White’s biography into her memoir. For more than a few pages, H is for Hawk, seems more White than Macdonald, but always relevant to her state of mind and passage through bereavement.
She also reflects on a 13th century poem called Sir Orfeo, “a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and the underworld by way of traditional Celtic songs about the otherworld, the Land of Faery. In Celtic myth that otherworld is not deep underground; it is just one step aside from our own.” She links this with the…
Ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus—for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next.
Macdonald constantly probes literature and raptor lore, seeking understanding while revealing truths she only half realizes at the time of her “not mad mad” period. For nature lovers, she takes us into fields near the edge of woods in weather that only a diehard falconer would venture. She also debates the moral issue of keeping a hawk whose purpose is death.
We witness the deterioration of her physical and mental life after her father’s death and her escape into wildness. Through memories and Macdonald’s reflections on falconry literature and practice, we come to see how she copes with loss and also how she grows and changes.
If you are a writer, important lessons can be gleaned by reading H is for Hawk. In addition to enjoying a fascinating story…
- Look closely at the all-important first paragraph, noticing how Macdonald provides a setting, the first-person narrative, the idea of a journey, and her purpose which is to see goshawks. See how relevant this is to what follows.
- Think about how she weaves her story into T.H. White’s biography, and more generally, how she uses literature and lore to enlarge the narrative, lifting it above a potentially maudlin or nostalgic ramble.
- Nature writers might want to think about how she handles issues of wild and morality, and
- Think about the role metaphor plays throughout the story.
H is for Hawk is a winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, and it was the COSTA Book of the Year 2014. It’s a good read. Enjoy.
Available through your local bookstore or online: H is for Hawk