I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I imagine writers in this genre might get so focused on making the past real that they forget to make it strange, to make it art. Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel avoids that trap, making seventh-century England simultaneously so vivid and so dreamlike that I didn’t want to leave it, even after 500-plus pages. Even now, having finished it a second time (and wow, double post-novel depression!), I find it difficult to express my admiration for this book. Perhaps I should just quote Emily L. Hauser (@emilylhauser on Twitter) and be done: “Good lord, that was a book. A gobsmacking, wonderful book.”
Count me among the gobsmacked, and Neal Stephenson, too, who said that Hild feels like the classic on which Beowulf, the legends of King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones are based. That and the other glowing blurbs on the book’s back cover are closer to the truth than some of the other reserved-but-appreciative reviews the book received in print periodicals.
The story follows the girl and young woman who will become St. Hilda of Whitby, growing up in an England in transition: Hild’s people, the Anglisc, are in a back-and-forth struggle with the British, paganism is giving way to Christianity, a bartering and gift-giving economy is transitioning to one based on currency, an oral tradition of bards and mead-hall songs is giving way to the utility (or magic, as Hild at first thinks) of the written word.
Griffith has described the novel both as “Game of Thrones without the dragons” and “an ethnography of seventh-century England” (though her editor warned her never to speak the latter out loud). The first comparison can’t get at the depth and richness of this novel (though this really is a game of thrones, one in which life or death can depend on the color of one’s hair). The second risks sounding like a dry academic study, but Hild is far from that, immersing the reader in the physical culture of medieval England in a tactile, sensual way, while always keeping a strong focus on the characters.
The first thing that stood out for me was Griffith’s stunning evocation of the natural world, which she accomplishes with rich images and language. Here is Hild encountering a landscape which she will soon make her own:
The sun poured sudden and beechnut yellow into the valley. Spider-webs glistened. A fish plopped. She knew there would be crayfish and frogs, newts and loach, mallards in the spring, and heron and kingfisher, and, on the hills north of the wooded mene, hare and hawk. To the south, a ridge ran alongside a crooked arm of the beck, and she imagined standing there, peregrines tilting on the wind overhead.
And when that language turns to acts of violence, as in this memory of a time when Hild had to use her seax (a large dagger), the effect is sublimely awe-full:
At night she dreamt, again and again, of the hand gripping the gunwale, the curve of muscle, the tendons standing out. Over and over she drew her blade along that curve, over and over the skin opened like a flower and she looked at his arm and saw a blossom of meat, red bone, yellow fat, blue vein, plump muscle, before the blood welled up and poured over the memory, blotting it out.
These are not just writerly details, but a way of noticing the world that is integral to Hild’s character and her very survival. As the child of a murdered might-be king, and trained by her mother to be the seer to a rising king, Hild’s life depends on her astounding precocity. Her role as seer begins at the age of seven, and a year later she uses one of her visions to send her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, on a raid against the Irish. Some might find this not quite believable, yet this was a time when children, girls especially, grew up much faster than they do today, marrying and bearing children soon after puberty. And children are precocious. One of ours, for instance, memorized everything about dinosaurs at the age of ten. Hild’s precocity takes the form of a facility with languages, a fine awareness of the patterns of nature, and the ability to look for those same patterns in human behavior (not to mention the considerable help she gets from her mother, always working behind the scenes).
Talk of seers and prophecies might conjure images of Merlin in a pointy hat, but Hild’s magic is thoroughly grounded in reality. She begins her life a pagan, for whom the natural world is alive with spirit and portent. Like other animist shamans, much of her magic depends on detailed observation of the natural world and the ability to predict events based on that knowledge: when the sun will reach the solstice, when the rains will come, when the birds will arrive, and what it means if they arrive early or late. And she depends on more mundane knowledge of the human world, using her mother’s and her own web of informants to bring her news before others have it, so she can present it as prophecy. By her words, the people plant, the king goes to war, heirs are born and thrive, or not.
When she’s not prophesying, Hild makes the world magic simply by noticing things. In one luminous scene, she shows her best friend and secret half-brother, Cian, the magic in a pool: the way a staff appears to break in two when inserted into the clear water or the way a breeze moving over the surface makes the mud at the bottom appear to ripple. In the pagan view, this is the work of sprites, but one gets the sense that Hild’s pattern-making mind, were it cast a thousand years into the future and given the opportunity, might be the one to discover the law of refraction.
Throughout, Griffith insists on her main character’s otherness. Hild is queer, in both the modern and old-fashioned senses of that word. Nicknamed at the outset “little prickle,” that prickly nature stays with her as she grows up. She is so often silent that people begin to make up stories to fill in the gaps. As a seer, “reeking of wyrd” (fate), she is often feared. She fixes people with her “fathomless gaze” while placing a hand on the seax at her hip. She and Cian grow up play-fighting together, and as he follows his path to become a warrior, she insists that he teach her to fight too. She grows tall and strong, and looms over most people she encounters. Fascinated with the edges of things, she roams the woods at dusk and dawn. All of this prompts people to call her a haegtes (witch, loosely) when they aren’t calling her a freemartin (a female calf masculinised in the womb by a male twin). And, once she comes of age, she finds herself attracted to both women and men. “Both skirt and sword,” Hild occupies a space between men’s and women’s roles, between Anglisc and British, between pagan and Christian, between royal and commoner.
Give me a character like Hild, coupled with Griffith’s evocative prose, and I will keep reading forever, caring not a bit where the plot is taking me. And Hild’s narrative structure can seem to wander, as Hild and the king’s court travel from fief to fief. But I think Griffith has developed a new form of narrative movement here, one that drives forward not so much by action and reaction as by image leading to vision leading to action. Hild remembers a man whose gaze reminded her of a stoat eyeing fledgling birds; the image haunts her dreams until it develops into a vision: the king must go to war to defend the nest; then we wait with Hild to learn whether her vision was true and whether the fledglings (in this case her mother and sister) survive. The narrative tension is always there: if one of Hild’s visions goes wrong, the king will kill her or simply leave her with no path in life, like the priest of the old gods usurped by the new Christ bishop.
As we get impatient with the waiting, so does Hild. She occasionally takes action herself, convincing the king to grant her that piece of land to manage as her own, leading her sworn men to chase down bandits in that province, and, most gruesomely, putting wounded enemy soldiers out of their misery.
The king’s warriors won’t perform that latter duty because it’s “women’s work,” and that brings us to another of the novel’s major focuses, the never-ending work of women, even royal ones, in this society – in the fields, in the dairy, in the kitchen, at the birthing bed, and especially at the loom. Weaving becomes a dominant metaphor for Hild’s view of her role in the world: she is helping to weave together alliances of trade and fealty just as she and her mother and the other royal women weave cloth out of wool thread.
With its focus on the role of women in this society, and with Hild’s attempts to find a place outside those roles, this is a feminist novel. But there’s some debate in the LGBTQ+ community about whether Hild counts as a “queer novel.” Which is absurd, or what does the “B” in LGBT stand for? Others have criticized it for importing a modern view of sexuality into a time when homosexuality couldn’t have been tolerated or, absurdly, didn’t exist. (On her blog, Griffith has the love letters between medieval nuns and the ribald poetry about sex between women to disprove the latter claim and cast doubt on the former.) But as Griffith depicts it, it seems realistic that Hild’s bisexuality would be hardly remarkable in this society. Lacking a Christian idea of sin (thank Woden!), those around her accept it as natural and normal. This differs from our modern view, since categories of gay, straight, and bisexual seem not to exist in this time. (The same acceptance may not exist for men: the one possibly gay priest seems quite closeted, though that might have more to do with his vows of celibacy.)
I’m tempted to say that this is a novel that rises above feminist and queer genres, just as it rises above the genre of historical fiction. But that would imply that there can’t be great novels in those genres (and that “regular literature” is somehow not a genre, a point Lev Grossman successfully skewered). And I would never want to say that there shouldn’t be LGBT and feminist novels that are as narrow and partisan as many by straight men. But this is not one of those novels. It is certainly feminist, but men are not left out, as Hild moves between the two spheres. And while there is certainly a point of view on men, especially the warriors (always so predictable!), there is no “man-hating” (in that ugly, stupid, Men’s Rights Activist’s straw-woman version of feminism). One has only to look to the speech Hild gives celebrating the absent war band to understand the all-encompassing humanity of Griffith’s vision. And this, to me, is the importance of the LGBTQ+ and feminist movements, and of great literature: to inspire us toward a wider embrace of humanity.
Hild is a feminist novel, a queer novel, and a historical novel. It’s also simply a great novel, one that everyone should read.
Recommended music pairing: Lisa Gerrard’s dark classical music.
(And one other tip: read this in the print version, not as an e-book: it’s much easier to flip to the vital family tree and glossary, and the map is much more legible. Plus, it’s a beautiful physical object, earning it my rare rating of “print-worthy.”)