Literary birds…

Hawk…or, most recently, raptors in writing.

H is for Hawk‘ by Helen Macdonald wins the Samuel Johnson and Costa prizes, then ‘Grief is the Thing with Feathers‘ by Max Porter, wins the Dylan Thomas International Prize. I have read the former and am about to read the latter. I enjoyed Macdonald’s book, such a bare and honest portrayal of the human and its interaction with the animal which works on so many levels.  Its structure hadn’t ought to work, as it leaps from past to present, from one strand to another, but it does and it keeps one reading, This is a book I will come back to.

The first book which I, like many others, read about raptors was ‘A Kestrel for a Knave‘ by Barry Hines, which was turned, so memorably, into Kesthe film ‘Kes’ by Ken Loach. I read it when I was about the same age as its young protagonist, Billy Casper, but living in a very different world from him, protected, sunlit and comfortable. It was a ‘class book’ at school and I remember how I and my class mates reacted to this other childhood, of misery and indifference in the grim Yorkshire pit town. In many ways it was quite beyond my experience and, I suspect, that of most of my class mates, though there ere elements, like the school, which we recognised. The book was part of that northern renaissance of ‘gritty reality’ literature that included Alan Sillitoe, Keith Waterhouse and John Braine and which eventually gave rise to the ‘it’s grim up north’ reaction.  But the books, even the more amusing ones, like ‘Billy Liar’  were all about an individual’s attempts to  alleviate their circumstances, of poverty, violence, prejudice or just growing up. Rather, in a different way, like ‘H is for Hawk‘.

I am reading another kind of ‘bird book’ at present – Phillip Glasier’s ‘Falconry and Hawking‘ – to familiarise myself with the ancient sport of hunting with birds. This features in my next book, which includes a new character, Don Iago, the King’s Royal Falconer. Hunting with falcons or hawks was a Falco_cherrug_Qatarpopular pass-time for the aristocracy of the Middle Ages, considered a suitably noble art ( as compared to hunting for food with sparrowhawks  or kestrels by the peasantry). Indeed in a famous fifteenth century book, the ‘Boke of St Albans’, we have the first English hierarchy of raptors and who should own them ( an early example of the English obsession with class ).

Emperor – the Eagle, Vulture and Merloun (see left, a hunting golden eagle); King – the Ger Falcon and tercel of the Ger Falcon; Prince – the Falcon Gentle ( and tercel ); Duke – the EagleHuntsmanFalcon of the Loch; Earl – the Falcon Peregrine; Baron – the Bustard; Knight – the Sacre and the Sacret; Esquire – the Lanere and the Lanerat; Lady – the Marlyon; Young Man – the Hobby; Yeoman – the Goshawk; Poor man – the Jercel; Priest – the Sparrowhawk; Holy Water Clerk – the Musket and Knave or Servant – the Kestrel. So, it seems, Barry Hines had come across this Boke.  N.B. A tercel is the male of the species.

King Alfonso X’s relative (his mother’s cousin) the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, wrote a vast treatise on the subject of hunting with birds, the ‘De Arte Venandi cum Avibus’ (c.1247) and, traditionally, Alfonso is supposed to have commissioned the translation of the Arab ‘Kitab al-Jawarih‘ or ‘Book of Hunting Animals‘.  But the art is much more ancient. A bas-relief of a falconer in the ruins of Khorsabad in Mesopotamia places it as far back as about 1700 BCE and we know that a form of falconry was practised in Central Asia about 400 BCE because it is referenced in the writings of Ctesias, physician to Shah FalconersArtaxerxes Mnemon. In Japan in 244 CE a trained pair of goshawks were brought to the court from China. The earliest reference in Europe is a floor mosaic of a falconry scene at Argo in Greece dating to about 500 CE.

It is fascinating stuff – I must guard against being hijacked by my research.

In the meanwhile perhaps I should explore other literary birds, there are plenty of them, from Rosemary Sutcliffe’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth‘ to Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ and, of course ‘Crow’.

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