H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald

How do you get over enormous grief? By taking on something else that is enormous, the biggest task you can imagine. When you can tame the wildest bird, it may be possible to tame your pain and loss.
Helen MacDonald’s father died and her world fell apart. Her father had always been her friend and confidant and she cannot imagine living without his support.

Sick with grief Helen decides to tame a wild bird, a hawk. This is not as ludicrous as it sounds, Helen is an experienced falconer and had trained falcons before. Only this time she wants to work with the wildest of them all, the Goshawk.
She goes online and finds someone who has young Goshawks (bred in captivity) and on a wet day on the Scottish coast they have their transaction and Helen gets a box with a Goshawk.

Helen calls her Hawk Mabel and in the weeks that follow she is completely focused on the bird. Nothing else is important, except Mabel.
The bird must get used to Helen and must be trained to sit on a fist and to fly from there and return. Food is the only way to do this, since hawks are not social animals and praise or punishment will not work.

Helen is so consumed by taming the hawk, she loses contact with the rest of the world. She does not want to meet people and every social function (even a normal conversation) is a hurdle. Training Mabel goes with ups and downs, and each up is a reason for joy, each down, real or not, is a reason for despair.
Somewhere in all this Helen feels this is not healthy and only when she attends the memorial service for her father and sees the other people also grieving for him, she realizes that although birds are not social animals, people are. People need contact with other people to function properly.

Parallel to her story is the story of the writer T.H. White, known for his book The once and future king. This tormented man tried to conquer his demons by training a Goshawk. This all went very badly since White had no clue what he was doing and he interpreted ancient methods the wrong way. His hawk, Gos, would finally escape, leaving a lonely and bitter man behind.

For Helen, help comes faster than for T.H. White and her story has a happier ending, both for author as for bird. Helen does not only conquer her depression (because that was what she was suffering from), but she can also have a healthier relationship with Mabel.

Helen (r) and Mabel (l)
H is for Hawk is an unbelievably beautiful book. The style, the beautiful descriptions of falconry, training Mabel and stories about other birds formed a story that I could not let go. I read this book on the bus to work and sometimes I even almost missed my stop, because I was so engrossed in the book. Helen was not acting in a very healthy way when she decided to take on Mabel, but I do understand the reasoning behind it.
Next to Mabel and Helen T.H. White and Gos als capture your heart, sad and tormented as they both were. I felt for both of them and that is why I immediately ordered White’s book The Goshawk and decided to read The once and future king again soon.

You can of course have moral issues with wild animals like birds being used for the entertainment of people. I personally do not feel this way in the case of birds, I think because falconry began centuries ago and is filled with traditions and ancient lore. The historian in me really likes this and finds it fascinating.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where every wild animal was able to live peacefully in its natural habitat, but unfortunately this is not the case. I think birds are lucky there are dedicated and well-trained falconers who take good care of their birds and can pass on the ancient knowledge.

Published in 2014


  1. Falconry...how cool is that? As a birdwatcher, I think falcons are so amazing and beautiful. It would be a one-of-a-kind experience to be able to work with one. (I'm not sure I would have picked Mabel as a name though; it doesn't sound very hawkish, does it?)

    1. Hawks and falcons are indeed fascinating. and so is the book.
      The name Mabel is indeed quite oldfashioned, but apparently is comes from amibilis, meaning loveable, so that explains it. :-)

      Kind regards,

    2. Okay, that makes me like the name a lot more. Guess I should have taken Latin in high school, huh? :)

    3. Fortunately for all of us who did not have Latin in high school, Helen explains why she choose Mabel. :-) I also liked it more when I knew the reason for her choice.

      Kind regards,


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