A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Hild, Nicola Griffith’s sixth novel, is very long and very detailed. It’s also the most absorbing and addictive story I’ve read in years. I was subliminally resentful for days until I finished it, finally, at 3am on a Sunday morning. By Sunday afternoon I had started reading it all over again. Being gobbled alive by a story isn’t so uncommon, but needing to go back and be gobbled up all over again only hours later is a mark of something exceptional. Several weeks later, I began it for a third time, because I simply couldn’t get the story out of my head, and wanted to get back into Hild’s world.
I was a huge fan of Nicola Griffith’s first two novels, Ammonite and Slow River, but had unaccountably lost sight of her writing until a year ago, when I heard that this novel was on its way. Hild is complex and yet straightforward, like life. It’s historical fiction, set in the Anglo-Saxon and British seventh century. It’s feminist fiction: the lead protagonist and most impressive character is a girl, and the most powerful people in her story are her mother, her nurse and her maid, three strong women whom she cannot fool. It’s intelligent fiction, based on copious quantities of research into all aspects of Anglo-Saxon life. It’s glorious fiction because the story is an epic, telling how a fatherless girl can thrive in a brutal masculine society simply because she understands how people think, and how politics works, and because she has realised, alone of all her kin, that reading means access to information, which means power. It’s also, finally, passionate fiction: a novel of loneliness, fear, love, desire and joy in living, and surviving.
Hild is dominated by the character of Hild herself, the pre-teen seer to Edwin, overking of the Anglisc. Hild prophesies to the king by observing the birds and the weather, listening to slave information, and using her common sense and sense of pattern in the strands of power that weave themselves all over the fractured territories of Britain. She is a magnificent creation, a wholly believable person. She’s intelligent, the brightest mind of her day, which she inherited from her formidable and ruthless mother Breguswith. Without Breguswith’s skills as a politician, negotiator, manipulator and poisoner, Hild would never have been in the right place to impress the king, and become his soothsayer niece at the age of seven.
At the age of nine she goes on tour with the king as he visits his client thegns all over northern England to collect his tribute and remind them of his power. At Tynemouth she is nearly killed and uses her newly gifted seax in terror, for the first time. At the age of eleven she discovers the usefulness of coinage, and buys herself a slave. With the rest of the court she gets baptized as a political gesture, woven into the warp and weft of power in the island of Britain. She reads the politics of her world: the Irish versus the Anglisc versus the undertrodden British subject races, and watches the Roman priests crushing the influence of the Irish priests, as well as any remnants of Woden worship left in stray corners. Trade becomes important to power, and reading becomes essential to Hild’s understanding of how power is shifting.
Hild knows how power and status can slip, since she and her family are bound up with Edwin’s constantly challenged position as overking. As his seer and counsellor she is continually threatened. The older she gets, the more power she acquires for herself. The most terrifying episode in her story is her revenge raid on the outlaws who have been marauding in her own lands and murdering her people. She’s used to being called a witch, or an etin’s child. Now her new whispered name is the butcher bird, because she rode into battle – barely fifteen – at the head of her men, and ordered the corpses strung up as a warning to others.
Can a cold-faced killer girl – especially a seer who has trances and gives the king orders – know affection, have friends, be loved? Hild has Begu, her gemaecce, her best friend, and most beloved hearth-sister; Fursey, the exiled Irish priest who teaches her to read politics, and to read; and Cian, her other half, her foster-brother, sword tutor, and a fatherless warrior with a dangerous hidden inheritance. Without these people to love her, Hild will become frozen and isolated. With her friends around her, she becomes whole, but she loses people all the time. It’s an uncertain world in the seventh century: babies die of coughs, warriors don’t come back from battle, childbirth kills. So if you love, you risk heartbreaking loss.
Hild has to live, because Hild is a real person. There is no magic in this story, just common sense and sharp eyes, and a sense of occasion for when you need to be noticed. Hild is not some Song of Ice and Fire imitation, and nor is it a formulaic historical novel with a cardboard heroine who exists only to illuminate the lives of the famous. Hild will become St Hilda of Whitby, the most powerful woman of her time, whose biography was written by Bede. This novel, the first of three, tells Hild’s story from the age of three, when her father the aetheling was poisoned, to her marriage at nineteen. Discreet reminders are built into the story to remind us that this is an imagining of history based on masses of evidence. We meet Caedmon, the first English poet, when he was a young cowherd (St Hilda brought him into her monastery when he was grown) and he’s already making up religious poetry. Hild attends the funeral of the fabulously rich Raedwald, overking of the Anglisc, at what we will later call Sutton Hoo. St Oswald, later to be king and martyr of Northumbria, appears briefly as a young boy, and will no doubt come back in Book Two, or Three, because we know that Edwin will be killed by Cadwallon, and that Oswald will be killed by Penda, and that somehow Hild will slip past the slaughter and make it to her abbey in Whitby by the time she’s about 35. The early years in between have been imagined here seamlessly, wholly persuasively. The writing is personal, immediate, technically impalpable but expert. As Nicola Griffith says herself, ‘I don’t pretend to be a historian … This is a novel. I made it up.’ But she also wants her readers to think ‘This is how it could have been.’ And we do.
Nicola Griffith, Hild (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 12 November 2012, ISBN 978-0-374-28087-1, $27.00
Kate has podcasted enthusiastically about Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com
The seax image was borrowed with thanks from http://www.medievalrepro.com/Ancient.html