Posted by: Kevan Manwaring | July 30, 2008

Journey of the Bard: Hawk of the East

Rocks East Woodland


Wednesday, 30th July


The fierce shriek of a hawk caught our attention. We looked up and, yes, there, through the branches of the pine trees, we caught a glimpse of a hawk – its jagged silhouette a distinctive black arrow cut out of the sky. We had just finished planted a commemorative acer tree for Tim Sebastion Woodman, Arch-druid of Wiltshire, at Rocks East Woodland – on the borders of Somerset, Wiltshire and Gloucester. I knelt by the tree, talking with Angela Long, old friend of Tim’s and first Ovate of Caer Badon. The others had already left, heading back up to the centre for a cuppa and I must admit I was keen to join them – planting a tree for a lost friend along with some of his (unground) ashes is thirsty work. Tim would’ve wanted a drink too – but of a stronger variety! Yet something made me stay a little while longer, to ‘stand and stare’ and savour the moment. There had been a flurry of activity as a small group of us applied ourselves to the task (Miranda, Rob, Steve, Angie, myself and Marylyn and Philip from the centre). It was all over rather quickly. Some words were said – I read out Tim’s song, from his Gryphon days, which we’ve quoted on the plaque, Steve read out a new poem and Angela lead the Druid’s Oath. We chanted the awen three times as well. And then time seemed to slow – pausing between each awen.


I had often seen a pair of buzzards up there, but not a hawk – if that’s what it was. I’m no twitcher, but it made a sound very similar to the one I heard when a hawk had nested in the spire of St John’s – the tallest spire in Bath, right in the city centre – to nurse a couple of its chicks. They became local celebrities, with film crews and tourists recording them. I was going to the station early one morning when I heard the shriek – an incredible primal sound, as though a pterodactyl flew above the city! I looked up to see an extraordinary sight: a body of a pigeon being cast out of the nest. Followed swiftly by the mother, who plunged down and caught it in mid-air (like some fancy stunt out of a Hollywood movie) before flying around the spire with it, terrifying any other bird in the area with her defiant cry. It seems she was trying to coax the fledgling hawks out of the nest, using the bird-carcase as bait. But they were still too timid – and I must admit it even made my spine tingle. Mother’s around their young can be the fiercest of creatures – as I experienced with my mum’s cat last week. She’s just had a litter – now a couple of months old – but still she hisses when I come into the room.


I love seeing kestrels, or windhovers, by the roadside. You can see clearly where they got their nickname from. Their control, sometimes in strong winds, is impressive. I’ve often spotted them on the flanks of hillforts on a blustery day – hovering, seemingly effortlessly, when it no doubt involves great skill and will to ‘hold your centre’ when buffeted by forces around you. This for me is one of the things the hawk represents – absolute focus. Their eyes are amazing – they rivet you to the spot.


Apparently a hawk got killed, mobbed by fifty seagulls, at a bird of prey display in Glasgow this week. Hoody birds! Glaswegian ones at that. Obviously not taking kindly to this fellow predator on their turf. They ganged up on it, when one-to-one they wouldn’t stand much chance.


One of the very first films I saw at the cinema (the second in fact) was Ken Loach’s Kes – a slice of social realism, telling the story of an estate kid who rescues and rears a kestrel.

The bird symbolising freedom, nobility and the unattainable lifestyle deprived to one of his class. Such birds traditionally were the province of Norman royalty and falconry still is a royal past-time in Arabia. Tomorrow I’m off to the Forest of Dean and I hope to have a chance to go off into the forest on some trips, perhaps to Symonds Yat – where I saw a mating pair of hawks a few years ago, along with lots of excited twitchers.


The hawk waits, watches, and plunges down to strike with no indecision. It teaches us to act with accuracy and alacrity. To be decisive. It can come across as fierce, but in fact it is just focussed. No time for dilly-dallying. For foolery. When an opportunity presents itself – grab it. Don’t make apologies, don’t justify, just act.


A merlin has been my companion for the last three years as I’ve worked upon my bardic series of novels, The Windsmith Odyssey. In my story Merlin the magician, has been trapped in the form of a small hawk, his namesake – in his legendary esplumoir, a ‘moulting cage’. We all must reside in our own esplumoir at some point in our lives, when we must wait for nature to transform us into what we need to move into the next phase of our existence. Often, this time can feel frustrating, as we wait to move on. For a new opportunity to present itself. It feels like we are stuck. That things are out of our hands. But we must use this time to incubate, then, when the window of opportunity arises – to act.  As Mr Morrison once said, ‘No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn’. The early bird, does indeed, catch the worm.


 in the tales of Arthur, it is the Pendragon’s nephew, Gawain (originally Gwalchmai) the Hawk of May, who acts when his uncle hesitates – perhaps constrained by his position. Gawain is the ardent young knight, idealistic, hot-headed, completely guileless. He is tested by both Lady Ragnall – when he is forced to marry the hag she appears to save Arthur’s honour – and by Lady Bertilak, the wife of the man who turns out to be the Green Knight in disguise, with whom he enacted the Beheading Game at midwinter. The Green Knight is very much the holly king to Gawain’s summer king (Hawk of May – Beltane was traditionally the start of summer). Gawain’s symbol is the pentagram, which he carries on his shield and is said to represent the ‘five Christian virtues’ although this could be a Christian gloss, for the five-pointed star is an ancient symbol of protection and now one associated strongly with paganism. It could also be the shape of a hawk, seen from below. Gawain acts for the good of the court. He accuses Guinevere of infidelity – only he dare speak the truth that all know but none utter. Yet, although he may seem forthright he is sent by Arthur in the Welsh version of the story of Tristan and Yseullt to persuade the errant knight back to court, and he does so – through his eloquence, during a ritual colloquy. He wins Tristan’s trust with what could be called the ‘hawk-tongue’ – the gift of eloquence. There is an obscure tale of a young boy, asleep on the mountain who dreams of a green-garlanded god. in the morning he awakes to find he has the ‘hawk-tongue’. Bards were often said to be able to speak the language of birds, and in Wales there was the belief that the eating of a white snake would give you the gift of tongues. Eurgain, Maelgwyn’s daughter was said to have ‘set the candle to the wild birds to show her lover the way to Wales’. And the red kites are there to this day – the most famous raptor of Wales. Perhaps it was one of these which chased Gwion the wren?







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