The Goshawk
T. H. White

T. H. White

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introduction by Stephen J. Bodio

The Goshawk



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Stephen J. Bodio

Copyright © 1996 by Stephen J. Bodio

This is a book about excruciatingly bad falconry. It is the best book on falconry, its feel, its emotions, and its flavor, ever written.

Note (Hal’s): Another, written somewhat in conversation with this one, deserves inclusion here: Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk.

— end note

text checked (see note) Jun 2006

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The Goshawk

Copyright © 1951 by T. H. White
Copyright renewed 1979 by Lloyds Bank Trust Company (Channel Islands) Limited

Part One Chapter I

My intellectual friends of those days, between the wars, used to say to me: ‘Why on earth do you waste your talents feeding wild birds with dead rabbits?’ [...] ‘To arms!’ they cried. ‘Down with the Fascists, and Long Live the People!’ Thus, as we have since seen, everybody was to fly to arms, and shoot the people.

It was useless to tell them that I would rather shoot rabbits than people.

All the time there was a single commandment to be observed. Patience. There was no other weapon. In the face of all set-backs, of all stupidities, of all failures and scenes and exasperating blows across the face with his wings as he struggled, there was only one thing one could seek to do. Patience ceased to be negative, became a positive action. For it had to be active benevolence. One could torture the bird, merely by giving it a hard and bitter look.

No wonder the old austringers used to love their hawks.

Next he had to learn to step to the fist for a reward of food. (The way to every creature’s heart was through the belly. This was why women had insisted on the prerogative of being allowed to cook.)



Part of the joy was that now, for the first time in my life, I was absolutely free. Even if I only had a hundred pounds, I had no master, no property, no fetters. I could eat, sleep, rise, stay or go as I liked. I was freer than the Archbishop of Canterbury, who no doubt had his fixed times and seasons. I was as free as a hawk.



Chapter II

Gos had a hunger trace, a visible threat that sooner or later the art of imping would have to be practiced on the living bird. The effect of this blemish was to make one frightened of giving him another while his feathers were still growing. [...] And the result of this fear was that one’s first object was to fill him with food. I did not realize it for many days, but actually he was being fed far too well. The troubles which arose during the previous and the next week were due to the fact that, in ignorance of his normal cubic content, the tetchy princeling had been reduced to a condition of acute liverish repletion. I for my part was trying to teach him to fly a yard or two toward me, by holding out a piece of meat, and he for his part was certain of one thing only — that he detested the very sight of it.

Note (Hal’s):
  • hunger trace: arc of weak spots across the feathers, from malnourishment while they are developing
  • imping: replacing broken-off feather-ends by attaching new pieces, joined by a two-ended needle stuck into the quills

— end note

Gos regarded me like the sphinx. I held out the partridge.

It seemed that partridges were not attractive. [...] I could never make up my mind whether I was the master. Gos regarded me with tolerant contempt. He had no doubts about who was the slave, the ridiculous and subservient one who stood and waited.

[...] it became impossible to resent the caution of the pigeons. What a peace-loving but prudent race they were, not predatory and yet not craven. Of all the birds, I thought, they must be the best citizens, the most susceptible to the principles of the League of Nations. They were not hysterical, but able to escape danger. For panic as an urge to safety they substituted foresight, cunning and equanimity. They were admirable parents and affectionate lovers. They were hard to kill. It was as if they possessed the maximum of insight into the basic wickedness of the world, and the maximum of circumspection in opposing their own wisdom to evade it. Grey quakers incessantly caravanning in covered wagons, through deserts of savages and cannibals, they loved one another and wisely fled.
There were fifteen hundred million people in the world, and all of these, of which I was one, would not provide a year’s food for one breed of all the fishes in the sea. Of all the quilled creatures which nature in her plethora of species had reared to sing and to prey over the fields of England, and the prairies of America, and the grey, warm tundras and steppes and pampasses and forests and brakes and marshes and jungles and flat deltas and mountain chains and sun-lonely moors, Gos was one, as I was one of the other: so insignificant as to be significant, so transitory as to be eternal, so finite as to be infinite and a part of the Becoming. How should we feel fear or impatience, being so large and small? Rouse, Gos, I besought him, warble and preen yourself: sit, austringer, on God’s fist quietly as Gos on yours.
Chapter III

Sitting on the floor at ten-twenty in the evening, with a glass of neat whisky and the new wireless set, alone (it was the ultimate bliss to be alone at last) I found a man singing mournfully to some thin stringed instrument. One either side of him the thunderous Sunday orchestras of Europe rolled out their massive melodies: but he, eastern and unbelievable ancient, went on with his unillusioned chant. Where was he, this muezzin, this older civilization? I should not know, nor find him again.

But it was the music of a grown-up race: grown-up, middle-aged, even actually old. Our adolescent exuberance, our credent classical music and full-believing orchestras were pretentious beside his thin recitative. He knew, where we believed. [...]

How good! To belong to an older civilization: not a dominant one, but one which had reached knowledge. We should reach our own peace eventually. Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and all the rest of them: they would bring us to the preliminary ruin perhaps in our own lifetime. And then, we should be able to crawl out to knowledge. Out of the waste and murder, out of the ruin, with power eventually gone on westwards, we should emerge to sing uncredulously accompanied by one balalika or zither.

His was a lullaby which knew the fate of man.




To divest oneself of unnecessary possessions, and mainly of other people: that was the business of life.

I did not disapprove of war, but feared it much. What did it matter however? It might kill us a score of years before we should in other circumstances die. It was pointless, cruel, wasteful, and to the lonely individual terrible: but it did not matter in the least whether he survived or not. I should be killed, likely, and my civilization perhaps wiped out.

But man would not be wiped out. What did it matter then? That one dictator for his own megalomania should destroy a culture: it was a drop only beside the sum of cultures and perhaps a good thing. In the world which I had run away from I had found so much wickedness in our present development that one could have no definite feelings about its termination: and, as for myself, I was wind in any case.



The ground round the chapel stood higher than the hayfield beside; as all old churchyards did, heaped up with the common and coffinless clay of centuries that had returned to their own dust. I wondered whether there had been a graveyard at the chapel in the old days, and whether, if so, the old bones would be grateful to see a goshawk again.

I mean that this phosphoric and bony atmosphere had the aura of actually being able to breed disease, which was not in itself an unpleasant thing. It was a thing to shun, but not a thing to regard with loathing. Disease was virile, because it worked. You could feel it with fear, but not with contempt. It was only the things for which I had contempt that made me feel unpleasant.

The air of death, I smelt it vigorously. It was a challenge to life. It was a tonic.

Chapter IV It had before been a fumbling among conjectures, with only the printed word to help; but now, inside, there seemed to have begun to grow the personal flower of knowledge. Secretly and not quickly enough to be visible as motion, the roots had begun to push their filigree net through the loam of the unconscious mind. Gently and tenderly the smallest buds of intrinsic certainty had begun to nose out of the stalk, fed with the sap of life rather than theory.



I saw now that I must learn to feed him with diligent and minute observation. Suddenly I realized that this was the secret of all training. I had thought before, without understanding the thought, that the way to the heart lay through the belly. The way to government lay through the deprivation of the belly. Every great overlord had known this about my companions in the lower classes. On £90 a year those who lived in workmen’s cottages were just on that happy borderland of being sharp-set which kept us out of presumptuous courses.




But I was sure of one thing that I still loved, and that was learning. I had learned always, insatiably, looking for something which I wanted to know. [...] Meanwhile the search continued, and with it the necessity of earning a living. It was easier to combine the two: to learn and then to write about it, thus making money out of what one loved.



This solitary life was one of almost boundless misdirected energy, but even misdirection was a form of direction. For months at a time I was content with that. Then suddenly the blow fell, a kind of stroke like that which afflicted Orlando, and even misdirection failed. [...] Nothing served, nothing wanted itself to be done, nothing went forward.

It was not that he came. At a hundred yards, the first time he had ever come this distance, it was a question of ‘was coming’. It was a matter appreciable in time.

Thus, when being seemed hopeless and nothing left but to endure, often God would turn a kind face in real reward for labour and, at a dark moment, surprise with his present: so much more lovely as a surprise.

Chapter V For that matter, nearly everything concerned with falconry was illegal: our modern legislators, busily passing laws for urban criminals, had forgotten altogether, or never heard, that hawk-mastery existed. Half the things we did were forbidden by laws recently passed to curtail quite different activities: the other half were presumably still governed by laws passed before Elizabeth, which nobody had troubled to repeal. [...] In this state of confusion I thought it better to remain unacquainted with any law, while attempting to be humane as possible.



I had gone half bird myself, transferring my love and interest and livelihood into its future, giving hostages to fortune as madly as in marriage and family cares. If the hawk were to die, almost all my present me would die with it. It had treated me for two days as if I were a dangerous and brutal enemy never seen before.

I did not know then that this was a common state of affairs with goshawks, that the best of them were always haunted by moods and mania.

A woodland mouse, lonely as I was and less accustomed to man, came boldly to eat my biscuits, and was soon tugging at one side of the biscuit while I tugged at the other.



Hitler and Mussolini, Gos and the irreclaimable villein kestrel, seals that preyed on salmon and salmon that preyed on herrings that preyed on plankton that preyed on something else: these knew that God had given a law in which only one thing was right, the energy to live by blood, and to procreate.
Part Two

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.

The great and good Mr. Gilbert Blaine, whose book I cherished, had confessed to me in a letter that he did not love goshawks. Their crazy and suspicious temperament had alienated him from them, as it had most falconers. Perhaps for this reason, I had loved Gos. I always loved the unteachable, the untouchable, the underdog. [...] After all, it had been quite right of him to resist to the last: to recognize, long after a falcon would have given in (you could train two or three falcons in the time of one goshawk), that I was an unnatural force. Why should he, a wild princeling of Teutonic origin, submit to an enforced captivity? He had hated and distrusted me, the intransigent small robber baron. He had had guts to stand up against love so long. I hoped he would snap his jesses safely, the ungovernable barbarian, and live a very long, happy life in the wild world: unless I could catch him again as a partner whom I should never dare to treat as captive.

It was well enough to construct these traps, but it was the watching them for a day of fourteen hours that tested the base metal of the historian. Every falconer was an historian, a man who had found the hurly-burly of present-day lunacy to be less well done than the savage decency of ages long overpowered, and overpowered because they had not been wicked enough to conquer the wickedness that time had brought to accost them.

To write something which was of enduring beauty, this was the ambition of every writer: as it was the ambition of the joiner and architect and the constructor of any kind. It was not the beauty but the endurance, for endurance was beautiful. It was also all that we could do. It was a consolation, even a high and positive joy, to make something true: some table, which, sat on, when it was meant only to be eaten off, would not splinter or shatter. It was not for the constuctor that the beauty was made, but for the thing itself. He would triumph to know that some contribution had been made: some sort of consoling contribution quite timeless and without relation to his own profit. Sometimes we knew, half tipsy or listening to music, that at the heart of some world there lay a chord to which vibrating gave reality. With its reality there was music and truth and the permanence of good workmanship. To give birth to this, with whatever male travail, was not only all that man could do: it was also all that eclipsed humanity of either sex could do: it was the human contribution to the universe. Absolutely bludgeoned by jazz and mechanical achievement, the artist yearned to discover permanence, some life of happy permanence which he by fixing could create to the satisfaction of after-people who also looked. This was it, as the poets realized, to be a mother of immortal song: to say Yes when it was, and No when it was: to make enduringly true that perhaps quite small occasional table off which subsequent generations could eat, without breaking it down: to help the timeless benevolence which should be that of this lonely and little race: to join the affection which had lasted between William the Conqueror and George VI. Wheelwrights, smiths, farmers, carpenters, and mothers of large families knew this.



Indeed, one of the greatest beauties of falconry was that one was allowed to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play at Red Indians with them, whatever one’s age.
It was almost a presumption to match a tame civilization and clumsy fingers against the species: a species which had made itself the nobility of the air since man first strove to make himself the master underneath it. One master against another older one; a worthy enterprise.
Part Three The next frightening step had been to fly her to the lure with no string at all. There had even been a throb of agony when I first flew her absolutely loose at wild game, with no attachment — a throb which was shared by both of us, since Cully, making hardly any effort at the rabbit, immediately sat down on a fence two yards away and looked at her master in amazement.
Since she always saw anything that stirred, two or three seconds before I did, we were generally at cross-purposes. It was bad enough when she flew at something invisible, so that I dared not loose her, but it was worse when an unknown object took her attention just before my own slow eye happened on an eligible quarry. Then I would stand still, seething with indignant impatience, unable to see what she did or to make her see what I did, and the priceless opportunity would slip by. It was like being handcuffed to a moron, I would think bitterly, in a chain gang.

Note (Hal’s):
Most entries in this Postscript are identified by dates: they were written in February, 1951 – fifteen years after the rest of the book.

— end note


Falconry is extraordinarily tenacious. To have existed since Babylon, it must have had a regular fount of sap in it. Like ivy, it finds its way around obstacles and keeps growing.


Even in the Second World War, the art managed to find a foot-hold. It was discovered that the small birds on airfields were lethal to aircraft, if they happened to collide in the wrong places. A lark could go through a windscreen like a bullet. So the Royal Air Force set up a section of falconers of its own — such an open-minded thing to do, and so typical of that great Force — and it was the business of the Squadron-Leaders of the Falconry Squadron to train hawks and to keep little birds off airfields.


The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.



text checked (see note) Jun 2006

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