Hild by Nicola Griffith

This was recommended to a friend on Facebook and, being interested in all things Anglo-Saxon, ordered it from the library.  I came to it with no expectations; I had never heard of the author before.

I loved it.  It’s not an easy read – it is very long and not quick going, although it’s detailed rather than dense (I was able to read it on public transport).

Hild was the abbess who presided over the Synod of Whitby.  (It’s a big deal in early medieval history).  There are a couple of lines in Bede about her early life and then nothing until she turns up in Gaul many years later.  Griffith has imagined her early life.

Hild’s mother was in a precarious situation so she claimed that she had a vision whilst she was pregnant that her child would be “the light of the world”.  From the very beginning she trains Hild to observe everything – people, animals, and weather.  When, following her father’s murder they end up at the court of King Edwin of Northumbria she gains a reputation as the King’s seer from a ludicrously early age.  There is nothing supernatural about her talent; she just observes and is incredibly good at drawing conclusions.

Hild becomes indispensable to the king and rich, but mostly people are afraid of her and, when the Christians show up, there is tension with bishop Paulinus.  She has a part in almost all the political (or tribal, if you will) intrigues in the British Isles.  She’s never safe, though – one false “prophecy” and it will all be over.

The political aspects are interwoven with descriptions of the day to day business of keeping a settlement alive and prosperous in the early Anglo-Saxon period which is hard work for everyone but particularly women, and shows how women’s work is essential to the economy.  There are a lot of references to warp and weft – not only is weaving a very important activity, early Germanic cultures thought of fate in this idiom.  There is some rhythmic, repetitive language which is reminiscent of oral traditions.  (The bard is a key figure at Edwin’s court).  The descriptions of the wildlife and the landscape are just wonderful.  It is not a landscape that I know well (except for the parts set in what is now West Yorkshire), but they are places I have been and the descriptions are wonderfully evocative.

Even though we know that Hild will be OK, there’s a lot of tension in the book.  Kings and chieftains are fickle creatures and nobody knows when they will fall our of favour.  There’s war, and banditry, and deaths in childbirth and from disease. Val McDermid’s blub on the cover says “reads like a thriller”, and it does.  There is a chapter where Hild is staying at a thegn’s home instead of being on tour with the king and she notices how relaxed everyone is – just getting on with their jobs and hanging out in the hall rather than lots of men boasting and jostling for attention all the time.

The early medieval period is fertile ground for historical fiction – there are so many snippets in the primary sources that are open to all kinds of interpretation.  It also has several features that are intriguing to modern audiences – the tensions between paganism and Christianity, relations between the native Britons and the Anglo-Saxon invaders (or equivalent ethnic groups anywhere in Europe following the migration age), and an honour-bound warrior culture.

I could waffle on for ages but the short version is I highly recommend this book if you like historical fiction or detailed, evocative writing.

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