Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hild - Nicola Griffith

It's been a while since I read any historical fiction so when I read about Hild by Nicola Griffith it jumped to the top of my reading list right away. I haven't read anything by Griffith before but I understand she has written in several genres and often includes feminists themes and gender issues in her work. Hild certainly contains both. What drew me to the novel was mostly the period it is set in though. Seventh century England doesn't show up that often in fiction. Griffith took on quite a challenge when she started on this book. Griffith points out in the acknowledgements that the life of the main character in particular is very poorly documented. She has had to make up large sections of her life. A lot could probably be said about the historical accuracy of the novel but the way Griffith went about bringing this character to life makes for fascinating reading. It's been quite a while since I read a book I enjoyed this much.

Hild is a fictional account of the lift of Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century saint who, according to the Venerable Bede, besides being a holy woman, exerted great influence on the complex politics of the British isles at the time. Griffith doesn't mention in the acknowledgements how many volumes she expect to need but it is quite obvious from the book that there is more to come. Hild takes us from her childhood to approximately 630, when she would have been about sixteen. She is present at the court of Edwin of Northumbria, one of the most powerful kings on the island at the time. Hild witnesses the conversion of the court to Christianity, plays a pivotal role in some of Edwin's important decisions and lays the foundation for what is to become a convent.

Hild lived though a time of change on the British isles. The period is known to historians as the Heptarchy, the rule of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in south, east and central England, which would eventually be united into the kingdom of England in the 10th century. This name doesn't do justice to the complex situation on the island at their time. Their may have been seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but in practice there were a lot more political entities. Kings, earldomans and overkings ceaselessly made war on each other and vied for control over what would now be considered small pieces of land. Mix in the presence of numerous Celtic people and you have a political, linguistic and military patchwork far more complex than seven kingdoms. The history of all these entities is poorly documented but it provided Griffith with enough material to write a story full of intrigue and political and military manoeuvres.

All that is known about the life of Hild is what Bede has to say on her in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It is one of the few surviving written sources on the periode. Bede was born a few years before the death of Hild in 680, and didn't write her history down until 731. He is unlikely to have met her in person but he could have met people who did know her. That doesn't make Bede particularly trustworthy though. His Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is as a piece of propaganda as it is a history. He mentions her when it suits his purpose and omits large sections of her life. The image that emerges from the text is that she had been a formidable woman though. Griffith has made a translation of the relevant parts of Bede's work available on her website. It's barely enough to fill five pages. The reader will finds a few names of people who touch upon her life it that the Griffith worked into the novel.

In essence, the novel is a Bildungsroman. Griffith portrays Hild as a special young woman, but also one in a difficult position. As daughter of a deceased prince, she is growing up at the court of King Edwin. Hild is regarded as something of a seer. The author doesn't make it into some kind of supernatural talent, she is just a little better at reading the signs than everybody else. It's quite remarkable when you think about it, this young woman will be revered as a saint after her death but in her youth, religion, even the dominant Anglo-Saxon paganism, doesn't influence her thinking too much. All the omens and other superstitions she wraps her predictions in, are just for show. Het gift earns her respect from some and suspicion from many.Hild steps outside the role society deems proper for her and as a result she is viewed as a witch by many. Hild has trouble dealing with the suspicion and has a hard time finding her place in the world.

Her mother is largely absent in the story. I'm not sure how I would describe their relationship but she is definitely distant. Occasionally she is present to give advice or tell Hild she made a serious mistake but for the most part, she is busy securing her own position in the world. The death of her husband has impressed on her the importance of always having a place to seek shelter in a world where one swing of the sword can change the political landscape of a kingdom radically. Successful as he might be, the current king will not be around forever.

King Edwin may privately agree with the people who look at Hild with suspicion, as a king he doesn't have the luxury of setting aside useful tools. To an extend he allows Hild her eccentricities as long as they serve his purpose. The politics he is involved in are ruthless. A wrong move or lost battle will cost him his kingdom and his life. Very few kings died of old age back then, in fact, they were lucky to reach forty. The moment he loses the respect of his subjects or the fear of his enemies he's done for. Girffith does a good job showing this. The ceaseless moving around his kingdom may in part be to prevent his court from using all the resources of a particular area, it also serves to reinforce his authority. And he'll need all he can get, throughout the novel you can feel the conflict with Penda of Mercia building. Griffith builds the tension between all these factions very well and uses the very limited communication that was possible at the time to full effect. 

Edwin is a true power politician, the new religion the priest Paulinus (of York, a historical figure) is trying to spread in his kingdom is just another tool to him. His court takes it up because he wants them to but nowhere in the novel you get the feeling that it really takes root. Historically there would be a backlash against it after his death. Hild is baptised along with the rest of the court (one of the few things we know for certain about her). She even shows some interest in this new religion but it remains superficial. What she is interested in is the power of the written word. Learning how to write, how to communicate with people in distant places is far more important to her that the message of the Christ. The struggle going on between Celtic Christianity, the pagan beliefs and Rome's missionaries, a matter that is clearly present in the background, doesn't hold her interest for long. It made me wonder what will happen to change that. Presumably Aidan of Lindisfarne will have something to do with it in the next novel.

Her interaction with the king, important of the story as they may be, are only brief. Most of her time is spent among the other women of the court. It may, to our ears, sound like a life of luxury but the face is that in those days, almost everybody was needed to produce enough food and other basic supplies for survival. Even the seer doesn't escape her share of work and she becomes intimately familiar with the misery of those less fortunate than she is. Griffith also pays a lot of attention to giving birth. At court, providing an heir is important but the risks of giving birth are enormous. A pregnancy, especially that of a queen, that isn't progressing well can be a nerve wracking experience for the entire court. Griffith makes sure the reader knows the dangers these women faced. How they deal with it and the manner in which they use what control they have over their bodies and sexuality is an important theme in the novel, gradually growing in importance as Hild start to develop herself.

I could go on a while longer about the complexities of the story and the richness of it's characters, what it comes down to is that Hild is a fascinating piece of literature. I must admit it took me a couple of dozen pages to get into the story but after that, the vivid descriptions of life in seventh century England captivated me. With all the references to historical events and people, as well as a lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon names, words and titles it is quite a demanding novel. It is also one of the most rewarding reads I've come across this year. I can't wait for the continuation of Hild's story. When that book is published it will no doubt jump right to the top of my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Hild
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 546
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-374-28087-1
First published: 2013


  1. I've read praise for this book across the board, from critics to ordinary readers. Must be good...

    1. I liked it anyway, what more do you need in the way of endorsement? ;)

  2. I'm reading it right now, and I'm finding it a rather challenging but worthwhile read. It's challenging mostly due to the number of players involved in power struggles and my general lack of knowledge of 7th century Britain (which I hope to rectify now that this book peaked my interest).

    1. I don't think anybody knows a lot about 7th century Britain. There is a lot of king somethingororther was probably born in the year such and so and fought this or that battle in either this year or that. From source X it can be inferred that he was related to Y but source Z doesn't mention it. So few written sources are available that we know very little for sure. In Hild Griffith creates characters that are only know to us because of one mentioning in Bede. That she is able to bring them to life so convincingly is one of the things that makes this novel so good in my opinion.