Archive for January 18th, 2018

by Sam Juliano

So he was lofted with her grace
when she, the bird that nobles praise,
thrown gleaming from his hand (her wingbeats raised
into the heartfelt morning air)
and diving like an angel struck the hern.      -Rainer Maria Rilke

In an unusually captivating afterward, author Danna Smith relates fond memories she had as an adolescent going out to “fly” with her Dad at a countryside hamlet uniquely suited to the sport known as falconry.  Conveying the breathtaking sense of exhilaration associated with an activity dating all the way back to ancient times, but reaching a peak of popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages, Smith imparts facts connected from research that would appear to confirm that this outdoor enterprise was not the exclusive domain of the ruling classes as jackals were with the Egyptians, but rather a pursuit subject to species gradation.  Hence an emperor would have access to eagles and vultures, saker falcons for knights, goshawks for yeoman, sparrow hawks for priests and the much smaller kestrels for servants and children.  British film maker Ken Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes, which showcased some of the tenets of falconry in what in a thematic sense was a metaphor for the search for freedom.  Billy Caspar is a teenage boy living at home with his vicious, bullying CroMagnon miner brother Jud and his mother. He has no joy in his life, with both  home and school places of continued emotional pain. His teachers do not, and do not wish to, understand him, and some of the other boys bully him. One day, however, upon observing a nest in an old abandoned wall, he finds a baby kestrel, which he adopts and rears. Not being able to afford to learn how to train it, he steals a book from his local store and the bird becomes the only important thing in his life.  Smith tellingly notes that falconry today faces new and daunting obstacles when she notes the “ever-growing number of roads, power lines, and turbines leading to the dwindling of safe, wide open spaces to fly birds of prey.”

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry is clearly a transposition of Smith’s own experiences with her father to a time roughly five hundred years ago, a time of castles, rolling countrysides, thatched huts and armored knights.  It is told in poetic couplets, with the first two lines rhymed and the other two always ending with various applications to, of and around the ‘castle.’  It opens with the simplest of introductions:  This is me.  This is my father.  This is our home and the castle and commences with a scene-specific documentation of a falconry session, one marvelously amplified and enriched by facts surrounding preparation, precaution and normal negotiation of the event.  Smith gives readers the full adventure, doggedly refusing to compromise on all the fascinating details, culled not only from her contemporary episodes but by time-honored reports passed down over centuries. (more…)

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