Two weeks ago on a humdrum Monday a sparrowhawk came to our three-storey balcony, blowing our little space wide open in a burst of flight and feathers.
That’s how it is with sparrowhawks. There’s no preamble to the strike. Not the slowly-does-it buoyancy of a harrier’s quarter, nor the panic warning that accompanies a peregrine’s hunt over winter marshes. Most of my sparrowhawk sightings are barely sightings at all—an intimation of something bullet-brained, a sign of wing and greyness that registers just enough to count. They are glimpsed in their sheering horizontal strafes, sensed at the tilting up-and-over moment into hedgerow ambush. I have sometimes seen females soaring high in an eagle-fashion, and I’ve heard—seen photos—of individuals that do materialise for whole periods of time, all the hawk components suddenly but undeniably singular, complete, right there in plain sight of the kitchen sink. The most solid example I’d had till now was the filamentous ghost of wings from a momentary window zonk—the delicate traces of a botched hunt in a suburban garden. Sparrowhawk dust.
As with all predators, most raptors’ hunting attempts end in failure. Not this one. A young female perfecting her game. She is big and broad, built for open-sky spaces, unlike the males who haunt the intimacies of summer full-leaved woodlands. Our creaking reactions have already missed the arrival, whole seconds too clunky to match her. We must surmise the action: a chance sighting and too good to miss, shift and accelerate towards the next second. She lives now at the cusp, slicing the in between of everything in the strike down to seize and overtake the present, straddling the instant like the poor-bastard dove she’s shafted from the iron railing. On the balcony floor she’s astride her prey as if in some strange copulation, plucking furiously, then tearing at the good meat.
The space around was snow-silent in these minutes after the kill—a penumbra of small bird fear and human awe. We watched from just two feet away, edging closer on our stomachs right up to the window sill, making the most of this unpredicted hawk proximity. She saw us; of course she did—her whole being spins on those huge yellow eyes—but she was hungry and willing to tolerate us. Even so, we didn’t see her go. We’d turned to whisper, and right then she’d taken off with her carcass undercarriage, leaving a mess of dusky feathers to tell the tale, just in case we’d missed it.
What struck me in the days after was how many people miss out on such wonder, even when it thrusts itself right into our human centres. These chance happenings are so much on the margin for some of us—the countryside at the edges of our obsessive internalised urban lives. I called a friend that Monday, eager to share this remarkable incident on our fire-escape balcony, and knowing he was just minutes away. I couldn’t tempt him. Next time, perhaps. There is always hope that such things will take us by surprise, hurl our attention inwards to the ellipse of a hawk’s world.
I’ve been reading and writing about goshawks and their kin a lot over the last four months. As fashionable birds from the sport of falconry, they make frequent appearances in medieval literary texts, alongside eagles and falcons and other hawks. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas carries a ‘grey goshauk on [his] honde’; Maldumarec in Marie de France’s Yonec morphs into the species; and Philomena in the very popular L’Ovide moralise (a 14th-century French moralised version of the Metamorphoses) is a woman of status, skilled in the art of hunting, who knows about goshawks and moulting patterns.
Goshawks are back in fashion. They’ve made it beyond the rarefied interests of birdwatchers and austringers to fascinate a wider public. Two recent books have contributed to this accipitrine passion – Conor Mark Jameson’s Looking for the Goshawk (2013) and the phenomenally successful H is for Hawk (2014), both of which honour their debt to, and have renewed interest in, T. H. White’s classic The Goshawk. Helen Macdonald’s work has outstripped sales of all other books of its kind, and is now set to make it to the big screen. The goshawk craze looks set to continue.
It’s not difficult to see why these birds fascinate us. We love a predator – a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, tiger-striped, fire in the eye. Goshawks might be familiar to us as captive birds for display or hunting, but we know they exist wild, too, rare creatures that made it back from extinction in this country. In British forests these huge, striking birds are masterful predators, but so rarely seen by the uninitiated that they more fully inhabit the mythic realm – the stuff of medieval elite hunting (unsurprisingly they appear in T. H. White’s best known book The Once and Future King, the source for Disney’s Sword in the Stone); the blood-and-guts poetry of Ted Hughes; or stunning footage in wildlife documentaries, at large in HD. Their name hints at their impressive bulk: from Old English goshafoc;goose-hawk. These birds are capable of taking large prey, unlike their smaller cousin, the sparrowhawk (OE spearhafoc), and there is evidence that they were used to hunt big water birds from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. All in all, I imagine Macdonald may have had less success with M is for Meadow Pipit.
I have never seen a goshawk. In the last few days of 2015 I make determined plans to change this in the coming year. Wild breeding goshawks are elusive and, quite rightfully, guarded closely. The threat of egg collectors has not yet passed. I know there are goshawks in the counties where I live and watch birds, but the most likely places are the Forest of Dean on the border of England and Wales, and Thetford Forest in Norfolk. On calm, sunny days in March, it is possible to see goshawk pairs displaying above their territories. I am re-reading Jameson’s book, translating his journeys into my own imagined quest for a bird that still exists as symbol for me, as a complex and tantalising construct that has not yet escaped my Kulturbrille, the thrilling bird in Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting‘ whose ‘manners are tearing off heads’. The poet’s ‘falsifying dream’ both dismisses human pontification and confirms it – the bird is a part of that ‘falsifying’, even in the attempt to envisage a hawk’s perspective, for whom the ‘earth’s face [is] upward for my inspection’. I revel in all of this, in White and Macdonald and the goshafoc, but what I really want is to see the thing itself, to collapse and explode myth into the barred breast and the orange eye of the flesh-and-feathers bird.
For now though, I return to medieval hawks, to a sparrowhawk in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and a goshawk in the ‘Tale of Tereus’ in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The references are insubstantial – fleeting metaphors, in fact – but carry sophisticated meanings. In both examples (and its certainly possible that Chaucer’s sparrowhawk detail influenced Gower’s goshawk), the birds take on inherited meaning from aristocratic culture, but they also allow something of the instinct and unpredictability of real hawks to intrude as well, to create perversely alluring figures of sexual desire.
In Middle English, the association between these birds and their predatory nature was linguistically pronounced – ravine referred to both greed, but also raptors; indeed, our modern word for birds of prey still carries the Latinate etymology – from rapere (to seize). The knot of words surrounding this term included raptors alongside lust, theft, abduction and aggression. Rape still carries these associations, but ravishment has more romantic significance than it once did. John Trevisa, in the Properties of Things (14th cen.), writes that: ‘The goshauk is a real foul and for þe takynge of oþir foules for pray (because it takes other birds for its prey) he[o] (she) is icplepid (called) aucipiter (accipiter) ‘a raptour and rauyschere (ravisher)’.
Both Chaucer and Gower take advantage of this apparent ferocity. In Troilus and Criseyde, the sparrowhawk is a metaphor for the first sexual union of the two lovers, and is striking because it conflates sex with both disturbing violence and sexual pleasure. The narrator rhetorically asks ‘What myghte or may the sely (wretched) larke seye / Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?’ No answer comes, but the narrator goes on implicitly to link this metaphor to the lovers’ ‘gladnesse’ (III.1196) as well as their ‘hevynesse’ (III.1197): they come ‘out of wo in[to] blisse’ (III.1221). The implication is that both human and avian sexual instincts are alike – love, lust, aggression and death are not unrelated, and not human preserves.
In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, the well-known tale of Philomela is re-told to focus on Tereus, the king who rapes and mutilates his sister-in-law. Gower describes this act ‘As if a goshawk hadde sesed (seized) / A brid, which dorste noght for fere / Remue (does not move for fear): and thus this tirant there / Beraft hire (bereft her)’ (V.5642-7). Similar to Chaucer’s sparrowhawk, the goshawk becomes a complex and paradoxical image of shared sexual kind between beings – ravine (lust) and ravine (raptor) are intimately linked – so that the goshawk is invested with enabling and natural qualities through which Tereus performs worrisome and yet excusable acts (morality and natural law are frustratingly uncertain in the Confessio). The mutilation of Philomela’s tongue also anticipates the dismemberment of other human bodies later on in the tale, particularly that of Itys, Tereus’s son, whose is served up for his father to eat. Bodies, we are reminded, are flesh, eaten and eating.
Most tellingly, Gower’s goshawk image presages real avian transformations at the end of the tale which are not punitive, not indications of depraved bestiality, but empowering changes which reveal and define character most fully through bird-human bodies. In this light, the Tereus-goshawk must be considered more than simple metaphor. The raptor and the ravisher, bird and human, desirous knight and seizing bird, conjoin in Gower’s tale. Medieval goshawks are symbolic, heraldic, projections of cultural elite values, but these writers do not forget the natural either. There is something of the bird I will seek next year, that reminds us of common impulses, the shared viscera and carnality dispersed and experienced across species: the ‘herte on fyre’ in lust (Confessio, V.5622) and ‘takynge of oþir foules for pray’ (Trevisa) are of a kind.
Today’s my birthday and I was lucky enough to have a morning’s falconry experience bought for me by my lovely girlfriend at the Hawking Centre in Doddington, Kent. Just the most stupendous thing, to be up that close, handling and flying magnificent birds of prey – Asian brown wood owl; barn owl; Harris’s hawk; African hooded vulture.
It’s probably not a surprise that the day got me thinking about raptors that crop up in my research. Birds of prey were perhaps the most significant and prized of all birds in the medieval period (well, for the relative few who had wealth and leisure anyway); they were kept and maintained for the hugely popular pastime of hunting/hawking. They also came to accrue great cultural, heraldic import as well though, because of their associations with the nobility. By the 15th century, there was a clear and strict hierarchy of bird status to human status, as outlined in The Boke of St Albans, ranging from the eagle for an emperor, down to the kestrel for a knave (hence the title of Barry Hine’s popular novel about a young, troubled working-class lad in a mining community who rears a kestrel).
In my PhD work on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, I write about how Chaucer invokes the embedded associations between raptors and the elite classes to great comic effect. The poem, in my reading, is partly a takedown of the medieval symbolism attributed to birds of prey, both in literature and in life. What happens in the Parliament is that the birds, having already been placed above their station in that they achieve equivalent human social statuses, push things a step further – they are so thoroughly imbued with their humanised sense of grandeur that they speak and act as if they actually are the human nobles upon whose arms they have been trained to sit. The thing is, they keep on behaving like birds, despite their pretentions. So Chaucer is able to create great humour by having the birds oblivously do things that keep puncturing their humanised delusions. For instance, in the typical, rhetorical catalogue of birds that begins the debate, the birds of prey seem to find it difficult to resist biological fundamentals. In the passage below, there are numerous references to instinctive killings and violence:
the ‘goshauk, … doth pyne
To bryddis for his outrageous rauyne;
The gentyl facoun, that with his feet distraynyth
The kyngis hand; the hardy sperhauk eke,
The quaylis foo; the merlioun that paynyth
Hymself ful ofte the larke for to seke.
the goshawk, … does harm (pain)
to birds [to satisfy] his excessive appetite;
The genteel falcon, who strains with his feet
[upon] the king’s hand; the hardy sparrowhawk too,
the quail’s foe; the merlin that pains
himself very often to seek the lark.
Even the falcon, who is not depicted in pursuit of prey, is still a falconer’s bird and his talons ‘distraynyth’. As the bird’s talons grasp the king’s hand, there is the impression that its natural habits are barely concealed by its taming: the bird’s ultimate ‘kynde’ (instinct) is to hunt and kill for itself, far less any aristocratic role it has been assigned.