Tag Archives: T.H. White

Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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Marginalia, no.281

There was a belief that the breath of young women might be helpful in prolonging life. According to Mr. Wadd, one physician actually took lodgings in a girls’ boarding-school for this purpose. ‘I am myself,’ wrote Philip Thicknesse in 1779, ‘turned of sixty, and in general, though I have lived in various climates, and suffered severely both in body and mind, yet having always partaken of the breath of young women, wherever they lay in my way, I feel none of the infirmities, which so often strike the eyes and ears in this great city of sickness, by men many years younger than myself.’

~ T.H. White, The Age of Scandal

I can’t help wondering how diet, oral hygiene, and the presence or absence of halitosis factor in here, but I don’t expect that exhaling into the faces of old men is very beneficial for the young women in question. In fact it might be detrimental. Longevity studies have shown that lifelong bachelors (without, one supposes, easy access to the breath of young women) are more likely to die young. However, women living alone (who don’t, one assumes, regularly share their breath with men) tend to live longer than married women. Clinical trials may be in order.

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Little People and Big People

If the fog was thick we might not see the ocean, but the one infallible sign that we were nearly to my grandparents’ house on the coast was the sudden, strange blanket of ice plant that grew in the sandy soil on either side of the highway. Being small I liked to imagine myself big and this sort of landscape helped. In the afternoons I was a giant running up and down the dunes through the miniature forests of ice plant. At dinner I tore up broccoli oaks from the mashed potato hills and crushed them between my molars.

We spent two nights on the central coast last weekend. At the local toyshop in San Luis Obispo my daughter picked out a Playmobile set with a little girl and boy like herself and her brother, but three inches tall. We spent an afternoon at the beach. The wind was cold and our ears began to hurt so we explored the sand dunes instead. My son and daughter, little people just moments before, ran towering over the familiar forests of my childhood.

We went to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The movie is based on the Borrowers books by Mary Norton and concerns a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a house. In one memorable scene Arrietty steps from a small borrower-sized passage into the vast cavern of the humans’ kitchen. We experience a similar change of scale, perhaps, when we enter the high airy theater where giants and giantesses act out (on the screen) their literally larger than life conflicts and romances. On the big screen even little people like Arrietty are brobdingnagian.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose about a lost colony of Lilliputians living on a dilapidated English country estate. White tells us in the first paragraph that his heroine, Maria, was “one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward. When she met cows, however, she did not like to be alone with them.” I kept expecting the phantom cow (mentioned twice more) to arrive on the scene at a crisis in the plot. It never did. Rather than a Holstein or Jersey, this one was a MacGuffin.

Like Alice we find ourselves little one moment, large the next, then little again. These transformations follow their own schedule, you can’t plan them. The professor in Mistress Masham says that “people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.” Trying to be little because you are big is just as hopeless. My son recently told me that the “Kid Community” (himself and his sister) wanted rights. What rights do you want? I asked. “We want to be treated like miniature adults,” he said. When I was eight years old I thought I was a grown-up too. Now, at thirty-eight, I feel more like a child.


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Book Porn, no.9

Lives of Saints, a miscellany of hagiographical curiosities published by John J. Crawley and Co., New York (1954), with the imprimatur of Cardinal Spellman.  Considered as an object, it’s an especially appealing book, with patterned burgundy leatherette binding, a nice choice of typeface and color illustrations throughout.  In the image above we see Stefano di Giovanni Sassetta’s The Meeting of St Anthony and St Paul (~1440).

Athanasius’s Life of Anthony was written about the year 360,  not long after the death of its subject.  A Latin translation was made by Evagrius, and it became one of the most influential books of the next half-millennium.  In it, Anthony is depicted as the Christian ascetic prototype, and his lurid torments at the hands of demons have been profitably exploited by artists for centuries (e.g. Bosch, Grunewald, Van Leyden, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Cezanne and Dali). The event depicted in Sassetta’s painting, however, derives not from Athanasius’s biography but from Jerome’s brief Life of Paul the Hermit, written a few years later.  Jerome’s book has as much to do with Anthony as with Paul, however, and thanks to Jerome’s digressions, Virgilian flourishes and love of trivia it’s even more entertaining.  In fact, I can’t resist sharing some of it here.

First, in order to draw the background of the Galerian persecutions through which Paul lived, Jerome describes the plight of several Christian martyrs, including a young man who survived terrible tortures only to be subjected, in the end, to a different kind of trial:

[He] was ordered to be taken off to a most delightful garden [and] made to lie down on a thick feather bed…  He was laid there tied down by soft garlands to prevent him escaping.  When everyone had gone away, a beautiful prostitute came up to him and began to stroke his neck with gentle caresses, and (what is improper even to relate) to touch his private parts with her hands: when his body was roused to lust as a result, this shameless conqueress lay down on top of him… He who had not yielded to tortures was being overcome by pleasure.  At last, by divine inspiration, he bit off his tongue and spat it out in her face as she kissed him.

It was extremities of this sort that the young Paul of Thebes presumably sought to avoid by removing himself deep into the desert where he would become, eventually, Paul the Hermit.  According to Jerome, he finally settled in a cave at the foot of a barren mountain which let onto several hidden chambers open to the sky.  Jerome adds the wonderful detail that in several of these rooms “were found rusty stamps and hammers, used to stamp coins.  According to Egyptian records, this place had been a secret factory for minting money at the time when Antony was having an affair with Cleopatra.”

A great deal of time passes and the world forgets about Paul in his home under the mountain.  Then Anthony, who is ninety years old now and has also been living for decades as an anchorite in the desert, begins to reflect on the trials he’s endured, and to forget his humility.  According to Jerome:

It occurred to Antony (as he himself used to relate) that there was no monk in the wilderness more perfect than himself.  But during the night when he was asleep it was revealed to him that there was someone else further into the desert interior who was far better than him and whom he ought to go and visit.

Through trackless wastes Anthony marches for several days, seeing no one (find him in the distant upper left of Sassetta’s painting).  Finally he’s surprised by a coarse-looking hippocentaur, half man and half horse.  Frightened, Anthony asks where to find the servant of God shown to him in his dream.  According to Jerome, “the creature gave some kind of barbaric grunt, grinding out the words through his bristling lips rather than pronouncing them” (see Sassetta’s upper right corner).  Despite Anthony’s fears, the centaur proves harmless and points him in the right direction before charging off across the sand.

Anthony meets an even more frightening creature next, a satyr.  This encounter didn’t make it into Sassetta’s picture, but with its horns and cloven hooves, the satyr looks positively devilish to Anthony.  It turns out, however, to be just as friendly, and much more civilized and eloquent .  It speaks perfect Latin (or Greek, or Coptic) and announces itself the elected representative of its tribe, sent to beg Anthony’s prayers on their behalf and to deliver him a handful of dates to strengthen him on his journey.  Jerome can’t help but digress:

In case anyone has scruples about believing this, it was proved to be true by what happened when Constantius was emperor, witnessed by the whole world.  For a man of this kind was brought to Alexandria alive, providing the people with a marvelous spectacle.  Later, when it was a lifeless corpse, salt was sprinkled on it to prevent the summer heat causing it to putrefy, and it was carried to Antioch for the emperor to see it.

Several days later, nearly dead of sun and thirst, Anthony follows a she-wolf into a cave in the side of a mountain.  Stumbling through dark passageways he sees a light ahead: it’s ancient Paul the Hermit (113 years old now, says Jerome) standing in a doorway and holding a lamp.  The she-wolf he lets in but Paul shuts the door on Anthony, who in desperation collapses outside and threatens to die on the spot if Paul won’t open it.  Why should he let in a wild beast and keep out a fellow man? he asks.  Before opening the door and embracing Anthony (as seen in Sassetta’s foreground), Paul answers with a joke:

In response the hero spoke a few words thus: ‘No one makes a request like this as a threat; no one attempts treachery with tears.  Are you surprised if I do not welcome you if you come here with the intention of dying?’

According to a footnote, the phrase preceding Paul’s words (“In response the hero spoke a few words thus”) is a direct quote from Book VI, line 672 (in Latin) of the Aeneid.  After consulting it, I see that what Jerome has done here is to put Paul in the place of Musaeus, the poet-prophet-priest of ancient Attica, and disciple of Orpheus.  Paul is to Christ, then, as Musaeus was to Orpheus, and he passes on to those who follow him (Anthony) the poetic-prophetic-priestly way of life contained in anchoritic asceticism.  That seems to be Jerome’s message, and I can’t help but wonder if he isn’t trying to steal some of Athanasius’s authorial thunder (and fame) by suggesting that Athanasius’s hero, Anthony, only derives the perfection of his holiness through transmission from Jerome’s own hero, Paul the Hermit.

Now, in closing, and since I’m rambling already, I want to share one more thing, a note on centaurs from the appendix to T.H. White’s Book of Beasts:

When the dweller by the Nile saw the first Bedouin on horseback, or when Pizarro on his steed dawned dreadfully on the Mexicans in the New World, the legend of the centaur came into being.  Of cavalry, we still use the word “horsemen”: and what is a horse-man but a centaur?

Reading this, I thought at first that White had got his Aztecs and Incas mixed up, or else his Pizzaros and Corteses.  I find, however, that Cortes’s full name was, in fact, Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, so perhaps it was intentional.  At any rate, I do like “dawned dreadfully,” and the explanation for the origin of centaurs sounds plausible.  It doesn’t explain satyrs, of course, but if the ancient world regularly treated them the way Jerome says the Alexandrians did, it’s no wonder they avoid us nowadays.


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For the Birds

Elizabeth Haidle, proprietor of Minutiae Labs (and friend of yours truly), has published a fourth volume of her splendid miniature zine, Comicosmos.  Past volumes have explored Shaker philosophy and revisited Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  The newest provides an introduction to – and Haidle’s own illustrations for – T.H. White’s Book of Beasts – which is White’s curiously entertaining translation of a 12th century Latin bestiary.  Comicosmos No.4 pays special homage to the cryptozoological species treated in the bestiary: the dragon, manticore, griffin, etc.

White himself, however, seems to have had a special interest in birds.  One of his other books, The Goshawk (lovingly reprinted by NYRB for the US market), recounts his drunken, sleep-deprived attempts to train a sour-tempered, possibly insane goshawk.  I recommend it to everyone.

As a child I had a difficult relationship with birds.  I was fascinated by pelicans, owls and crows; I feared vultures, but was in love with the mourning doves that cooed among the ivy of my grandparents’ backyard.  One day a songbird landed on my head (attracted, I thought, by the bright blonde hair I had as a kid) and for years afterward I insisted on wearing a baseball cap out of doors.

Some of my favorite entries in White’s Book of Beasts are those for birds.  Consider, for example, the following description of the parrot, in which White lets himself play rather loose, I think, with the original text:

It is only from India that one can get a Psitiacus or Parrot, which is a green bird with a red collar and a long tongue. The tongue is broader than in other birds and it makes distinct sounds with it.  If you did not see it you would think it was a real man talking.  It greets people of its own accord saying “What-cheer?” and “Toodle-oo!”  It learns other words by teaching.  Hence the story of the man who paid a compliment to Caesar by giving him a parrot which had been taught to say: “I, a parrot, am willing to learn the names of others from you.  This I learnt by myself to say – Hail Caesar!”

Perhaps, if there’s anything to the ancient practice of augury, the bird might have seconded the advice of the anonymous soothsayer and warned Caesar to stay indoors on the Ides of March.

In the corner of California where I live -the San Francisco Bay Area- there are several groups of feral parrots of the genus Amazona.  They make an odd sight dashing about the skies in rowdy, green and red flocks of ten or twenty.  The Red-crowned Parrot (amazona viridigenalis) is an especially voluble creature.  According to Sibley, it gives “loud weeoo and dak dak dak calls.”  I’ve yet to hear one mimic the conversation of passersby.

In White’s extensive notes to the text of his Bestiary, which are at least as much fun as the translation itself, he quotes from the 1698 diary of Abraham de le Pryme who tells of a parrot which

by its long hanging in a cage in Billingsgate Street (where all the worst language in the city is most commonly spoke), had learned to curse and swear, and to use all the most bawdy expressions imaginable.  But, to reform it, they sent it to a coffy-house in another street, where, before half-a-year was at an end, it had forgot all its old wicked expressions and was so full of coffy-house language that it could say nothing but, “Bring a dish of coffy”; “Where’s the news”, and such like.

White also tells of an African grey by the name of Charlotte, kept for many years by King George V, grandfather to the present monarch.  He’d obtained the bird while a midshipman on shore-leave in Port Said.  From her perch over the king’s shoulder, Charlotte was said to have seen all the secrets of empire pass in paper over the royal desk.  She often exlaimed “What about it!” and when the king was ill reverted to sailor lingo to demand again and again, “Where’s the Captain?”

Strange that Caesar and George V should both have had parrots.  Is there something about the bird that might specially endear it to the powerful?  Perhaps persons fond of hearing themselves speak, as the powerful tend to be, are also gratified to hear their words repeated to them by fawning dependents.  As it happens, President McKinley, too, kept a parrot – which he named Washington Post.  I don’t know what, if anything, Washington Post was in the habit of saying to the president.  But one wonders if perhaps the bird might have advised him to avoid the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo that year, or warned him in a whisper: “Beware the anarchist’s bullet.”

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