Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014) is an extraordinary book, one that seamlessly fuses a number of themes. It is a memoir about grieving for her father, dead from a heart attack while working as a photojournalist. It is a book about raising and relating to another member of the animal kingdom, a hawk. And it also compares and contrasts her experiences to those of T. H. White, who in addition to The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone wrote The Goshawk, a searing account of how not to train a hawk.
Holding these disparate themes together is a framework derived from the quest in medieval romance. H is for Hawk concerns Helen Macdonald's quest for her rightful place in the world, a version of self-knowledge. Because she is overwhelmed by her grief from her father's unexpected death, she decides to rear and train a goshawk. Quests typically involve journeys into another world, one fraught with perils and ordeals. The hero confronts death and then returns, much changed, to the journey's point of origin.
What Macdonald does, however, is go off in the wrong direction, thereby inverting and reshaping the romance tradition. Rather than setting out on a quest for something, be it the Golden Fleece or self-knowledge, Macdonald escapes from something: To distract herself from grieving for her father, Macdonald retreats from the ordinary world of people and disciplines herself to enter the world of her goshawk, sardonically named Mabel (from amabilis) because she is anything but amiable. But the world of hawking is not only a matter of predator and prey in the here and now. No small part of its appeal is that it offers a mode of relating to a past that extends back through the Middle Ages and beyond, back into the realm of mythology and the ancient Egyptians' worship of Horus (a deity Macdonald actually prayed to as a child).
Macdonald succeeds in entering Mabel's world by becoming a non-entity, invisible, and thus ignored by her hawk. (T. H. White correctly saw this process as an ordeal, and he failed at it.) Macdonald becomes exquisitely sensitive to every nuance of Mabel's expressions, seemingly proving that she could become like Mabel, "solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life." What she didn't realize at the time was that "turning into a hawk" also involved loss, the loss of her own humanity and therefore her relationships to the human community.
Undistracted by quotidian life--she has no job, no friends, no children, no home--Macdonald is free to focus on Mabel. One outcome I found delightful: she has to discard the contemporary view that goshawks are sulky and murderous when Mabel and she engage in a game of catch with scrunched-up balls of paper. When Macdonald tosses the paper ball to Mabel, Mabel catches it with her beak and tosses it back with a flick of her head.
Hunting with Mabel, however, takes Macdonald to the very edge of being human and then past that place. That way madness lies, and indeed she comes perilously close. She could always tell a hawk from a handsaw, she comments, but sometimes she was struck by how similar they were. She is scared of people. Suffering from anxiety and depression, she drifts into states where she isn't certain who she was or what she was. Far from her worth being proved by the ordeal of her quest, she is falling apart.
It might be argued that Macdonald loses control over her material as she struggles to convey her path back to becoming human. Granted, no dramatic revelation starts her in another direction. But I would suggest that this lack of drama, this rather messy, tentative turn indicates instead that Macdonald is reshaping romance conventions. Far from a neat resolution of her ordeal, her conversion imitates life as we live it: uncertain, non-linear, proceeding by fits and starts.
Mabel also helps, albeit unknowingly, by teaching her about death. Every time Mabel kills an animal, that act pulls Macdonald back from her hawk-like mode into being human. As a human, she begins to feel accountable for these deaths. Mortality becomes real to Macdonald in ratio to her accepting responsibility for hawking with Mabel.
Another element in her conversion is attending her father's memorial service. She is intensely moved by how many people had come and how much they cared for him. She feels a sense of community at the memorial service, and that in turn leads her to a major realization: she had taken the wrong path. The wild would not, could not heal her hurt. She couldn't become a hawk; she couldn't fly though a rent in the sky, as she'd dreamed, and bring her father back. She needed instead to be in touch with people: "Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other people close."
The passing of time transmutes her grief for her father into love. She reestablishes human relationships. At the same time, she continues hunting with Mabel, but with a difference. Now, she begins to depart from accepted practice by letting Mabel fly free. The loss of control scares her, but both of them begin learning the landscape, creating maps of magical places where they had earlier found game, places "glowing with memory and meaning." And, wonderfully, their two maps coincide.
Grieving for the death of a beloved father; what it's like not to be a human; the relations between our species and another; the ordeal of becoming who you really are; and the emerging of love that passeth all understanding--all of these themes cohere in Helen Macdonald's brilliant reshaping of the medieval quest, H is for Hawk .