Authors: T.H. White
TERENCE HANBURY WHITE (1906â1964) was born in Bombay, India, and educated at Queen's College, Cambridge. His childhood was unhappyâ“my parents loathed each other,” he later wroteâand he grew up to become a solitary person with a deep fund of strange lore and a tremendous enthusiasm for fishing, hunting, and flying (which he took up to overcome his fear of heights). White taught for some years at the Stowe School until the success in 1936 of
England Have My Bones
, a book about outdoor adventure, allowed him to quit teaching and become a full-time writer. Along with
, White was the author of twenty-six published works, including his famed sequence of Arthurian novels,
The Once and Future King
; the fantasy
Mistress Masham's Repose
(published in The New York Review of Books Children's Collection); a collection of essays on the ehighteenth century,
The Age of Scandal
; and a translation of a medieval Latin bestiary,
A Book of Beasts
. He died at sea on his way home from an American lecture tour and is buried in Piraeus, Greece.
MARIE WINN's recent book,
Red-Tails in Love: Pale Male's Story
, featured a now-famous red-tailed hawk. Her column on nature and bird-watching appeared for twelve years in
The Wall Street Journal
, and she has written on diverse subjects for
The New York Times Magazine
. Her forthcoming book,
Central Park in the Dark
, will be published in the spring of 2008.
T. H. WHITE
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
What an uncommon man was Terence Hanbury White, known to his few friends as Tim and to the rest of the world as T. H. A polymath and polyglot; a misanthrope who made exceptions for the very young, the very old, and the severely blighted; a nature lover inspired by his distinguished namesake of Selborne yet who blithely snagged salmon and shot geese, he was a superb writer though an indifferent speller, an unhappy man with a knack for making readers happy. He kept snakes, fox cubs, owls, frogs, and badgers in his sitting room at the Stowe School, an Eton-type boys' school in Buckinghamshire where he taught English from 1932 to 1936. For his impressionable students, White's Kiplingesque background provided an exotic aura: a miserable childhood in colonial Bombay, then four years at Cheltenham, a Dickensian boarding school where boys were regularly flogged by sadistic schoolmastersâWhite himself had a sadomasochistic streak, perhaps in consequence. His precocious literary accomplishmentsâtwo volumes of poetry came out while he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge and two novels shortly thereafterâgave him the undeniable glamour of a published author. “He had an open black Bentley and a red setter and among the boys enjoyed a reputation exciting, faintly discreditable and much envied,” a former student told Sylvia Townsend Warner, White's biographer. A “daemonic and brilliant man,” according to his obituary in a Stowe publication.
The red setter, Brownie, was the great love of White's life, a romance reminiscent of the one described by his contemporary J. R. Ackerley in
My Dog Tulip
. T. H. White never wrote about his own beloved dog, apart from letters to friends and one touching document written for a seven-year-old godson. In the summer of 1936, however, he began to document another extra-human infatuation that possessed him briefly but entirely. This time the object of White's passion was a bird, a fledgling goshawk. The young man intended to learn the ancient practice of falconry and a male goshawk, or tiercel, in falconer's parlance, was the bird he chose to hunt with.
is the book White wrote about his struggles “to train a person who was not human.” It is also a book about the bird's efforts to train the man.
The goshawk arrived at the Buckingham railroad station on July 31, huddled in a clothes basket covered with sacking, terrified, bedraggled, and mad as hell. “It would have eaten anybody alive,” White wrote. Three months earlier, when his well-received collection of writings about hunting, fishing, and country life,
England Have My Bones
, attracted several book club deals, White had the intoxicating idea of quitting his job at Stowe and making a go of it as a full-time writer. Teaching did not suit him, he had begun to discover, and the solitary, solipsistic life of a writer did. “I'm beginning to find there is something horrible about boys in the mass: like haddock,” he wrote to L. J. Potts, his former Cambridge tutor and a lifelong correspondent. White resigned his job at the end of the term and rented a primitive gamekeeper's cottageâit only had a well and an outhouseâdeep in the woods of the Stowe estate. It was half a mile from any road and seven miles from the nearest town, a perfect place for a would-be recluse, albeit a sybaritic one: using his book club money, White furnished it with pile carpets, curtains, and antique furniture.
was the first of two masterpieces he wrote there.
Later he described how the book came to be:
I had two books on the training of the falconidae in one of which was a sentence that suddenly struck fire from my mind. The sentence was: “She suddenly reverted to a feral state.” A longing came to my mind that I should be able to do this myself. The word “feral” has a kind of magic potency which allied itself to two other words, “ferocious” and “free.” To revert to a feral state! I took a farm-labourer's cottage and wrote to Germany for a goshawk.
White is more candid in the first chapter of the book itself: “I had to write a book of some sort, for I only had a hundred pounds in the world and my keeper's cottage cost me five shillings a week. It seemed best to write about what I was interested in.” A less romantic version than the first, but it supports Dr. Johnson's pronouncement that the want of money “is the only motive to writing that I know of.”
Falconry is a supremely difficult sport and White yearned for challenges. Among his other chosen pursuits in addition to a steady production of books were fly-fishing, duck hunting, fast driving, airplane piloting, calligraphy, translating medieval texts from Latin, bouts of marathon drinking, bouts of abstinence, and, briefly, psychoanalysis, the last undertaken in a misguided effort to reverse his homosexuality. It was the heartbreaking conviction of the time that the “talking cure” could transform a gay man into a happy heterosexual husband and father; White briefly craved both roles. Though the immediate goal was doomed to failure, he enjoyed the intellectual challenge of analysis; his thinking and writing were colored by insights gained during his sessions on the couch.
Falconry, the struggle of man against wild bird, seemed a natural outlet for White's strong aggressive instincts, the ones he utilized in his pursuit of blood sports. And for someone afflicted with deep self-loathingâa likely consequence of a childhood spent at the mercy of a weak-willed, alcoholic father and a willful, self-centered, alternately seductive and rejecting motherâhere was an opportunity to ally himself with a creature even more unpleasant, uncontrolled, and aggressive than he was. By taming it he may have hoped to subdue his own wild, antisocial impulses. And yet White's longing for ferocity and freedom had brought him to falconry in the first place. He recognized the contradictions inherent in his desire to be “free as a hawk” while keeping a wild hawk tethered to a perch, obliged to perform on demand. His ambivalence about these warring impulses is manifest throughout
He called the bird Gos, though he resorted to other names as well: Caligula, insane assassin, accursed overlord, filthy bugger, and choleric beast among them. The bird drove him to distraction. For unlike most falconry beginners who start with a bird that is relatively easy to train, a red-tailed hawk, for example, White had taken on the hardest, most intransigent, most ornery of all birds of prey. Goshawks have always been highly regarded in falconry because of their superlative hunting skills. But every falconer knows they are devilishly hard to train. From the start of his adventure with Gos, White understood that he had taken on the most difficult task of his difficulty-craving lifeâone, indeed, that might prove
White compounded his difficulties by using an outdated textbook as his vade mecum,
Bert's Treatise of Hawks and Hunting
. Printed in 1619,
required that the training process start with a lengthy period of “watching”âthat is, holding the newly acquired hawk on outstretched hand day and night, without a moment's relief for either man or hawk, until the bird finally falls asleep on its human perch. Only then, when trust is established, can real training begin. White's watching stint with Gos required three uninterrupted days and nights, an ordeal he describes with breath-taking immediacy in
. At the time he didn't know that modern falconers had developed a streamlined training method that would have made the task much easier. But of course the story would have been less compelling. Almost certainly White's book would have had a different ending.
The power of
lies in the struggle for control and self-control that is ever present in the text, with the struggle for self-mastery the more poignant one. White knew that he had to be gentle and reassuring during his training sessions with Gos, for a hawk cannot be forced to submit to his master's will. The captive bird, through an odd form of transference, must come to believe that the falconer is his savior. “In a way it is the psychiatrist's art,” White wrote, making the comparison between falconry and psychotherapy explicit. Yet time and again the inevitable battle of wills between man and bird made the man lose his cool. The bird, of course, was almost never cool. He was likely to express his fury by going into a “bate,” an old falconry term describing, as White puts it, “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.” After the thousandth bate, White writes, it was agonizing to be calm and patient, to speak to the hawk kindly:
[T]o reassure with tranquility when one yearned to beat him downâwith a mad surge of blood to the temples to pound, pash,
dismember, wring, wrench, pluck, cast about in all directions, batter, bash, tug and stamp on, utterly to punish, and obliterate, have done with, and finally finish this dolt, cow, maniac, unutterable, unsupportable Gos.
Bear in mind that White is having this verbal temper tantrum as he's balancing a notebook on his right knee and jotting down what's going on, while holding the hawk upright on his left fist with the arm bent into an L-shape, aching under the weight of the bird. The mounting fury and yet the affection that emanates from his stream of invective rings a bell to anyone who has experienced the pleasure and pain of raising a difficult but beloved two-year-old. It is an uncanny part of the writer's skill that the diatribe he is uttering sounds like an unmistakable love song.