Friday, March 07, 2014

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Based on the life of St. Hilda, founding abbess of the Monastery at Whitby, Hild is the story of a young girl in 7th-century, post-Roman Britain, when the isle was divided into warring kingdoms. Most of what little is known about Hilda, comes from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English, written in 731. This spare history leaves yawning gaps in Hild's life, which is where novelist Nicola Griffith comes in and boldly imagines her life -- a princess in Anglo-Saxon England, a counselor to kings, an early Christian convert, and finally, an abbess who became a saint in the Catholic Church. Here is some of what we know about the historical woman, born in 614: her father Hereric, a would-be king, was poisoned while in exile; she, her sister Hereswith, and mother Breguswith went to join the court of King Edwin of Northumbria (her uncle) when she was still a child, and in 627, the king and all his court, including Hild, were baptized on Easter day in 627. These are the bare facts on which Griffith builds the rest of her story.

I didn't plan it this way, but I can't think of a better book to champion during Women's History Month. Griffith's work is historical fiction at its finest, illuminating a slice of Anglo-Saxon history that begins and ends for most of us with Beowulf and the heroic culture of the mead hall. Kings, thegns, and mythical beasts aside, women usually occupy the shadows, but in Hild, the towering figure at the center of the tale is a girl on her journey to adulthood as king's seer, fearsome warrior-princess, and political intriguer in a complex web of dynastic and religious power shifts. Griffith has been compared to Hilary Mantel, and for good reason. Her meticulous research, intricate plotting, and beautiful characterizations are definitely on the level of Mantel's best work in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. As imagined by Griffith, a 13-year-old Hild could go toe-to-toe with Thomas Cromwell any day.

In the novel, Hild grows into a role prophesied by her canny mother Breguswith, to be "the light of the world," a seer, a reader of omens, and counselor to King Edwin of Northumbria. In this world, counsel generally pertains to helping the king consolidate his power and puzzling out who is planning to invade, assassinate, make war, or conspire against him. Breguswith has created a path for her daughter, but it is one with incredibly high stakes. A seer who gives the king bad advice is liable, as Edwin threatens Hild at one point, to have her body thrown in the river with "tongue and toes tied in a bag around her neck."

Even as a child, Hild's position is precarious, shadowed by death, bound by secrets, and dependent on a suspicious and short-tempered patron. Because she is king's seer, the young Hild sometimes accompanies the war parties, which puts her in the unusual position of having to learn to defend herself. She is barred from carrying a sword like a warrior, but she learns how to handle the deadly seax, a dagger-like blade worn in her belt. Later, she learns to fight with a staff as well. She's no Disney princess. Violence is frequent and merciless.

The purely fictional characters that Griffith creates to people Hild's life are Cian, a childhood playmate and son of her mother's gemaecce (a formal friendship between women, sort of a lady-in-waiting, but more intimately paired); Hild's own gemaecce, Begu, and her "bodywoman" (slave), Gwladus. One of the best scenes in the novel, and most pivotal, is how Hild comes to acquire Gwaldus. Another important figure is the captured Irish priest Fursey, who teaches Hild to read Latin and introduces her to Christianity.

Hild is an empowering heroine of great physical strength and intelligence, but the secondary pleasures of this novel are manifold, such as the progress of Cian from romping boy with a wooden sword to fierce warrior in Edwin's army and the richly detailed descriptions of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Griffith learned everything she could about jewels, armor, weaving, pagan religion, herbal medicine, and the life of the mead hall to render a world that seems as real to us as our own. It may not be what actually happened, but it is what should have happened --such is the assurance of the writer.

The excerpt below is from the aftermath of one of the more brutal chapters in which Hild has led a band of warriors to clear out marauding bandits on land she has sworn to protect. There is a myth building up around her now, not just as a royal representative of "the king's fist," but a witch, an unkillable being, one who must be feared and followed.

They hammered stakes across the gap and impaled the bodies, the heads, the hands, in a long row facing Craven, all branded with the wolf's head. That night , by firelight , her men limewashed their unused shields and painted a staked man and a wariangle in a glistening mix of blood, rust, and oil. Men of the butcher-bird....
She told herself it was all to the good. The rumours were doing her work for her. But not far from the road a tremulous voice shrieked Butcher-bird! and a hazel tree shook as someone small scrambled out of reach.
She wanted to leap offer her horse, climb up the tree, back the child against the trunk, and shout, It's how I keep us safe!
But there was no us. Belonging was not a seer's wyrd. (p. 422)

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