[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Hild, Nicola Griffith’s Nebula-nominated novel, takes us to seventh-century England, to the court of Overking Edwin of Northumbria, and into the heart and mind of the young girl who will become his seer, and later be canonized by the Christian church. St. Hilda of Whitby, as she will come to be known, is a child of three when the book starts, and no older than fifteen or sixteen when it ends.
Hild is the great-niece of the king, raised in his court after her father, who was in exile, is poisoned. Hild’s mother teaches her to be quiet and observant, “Quiet mouth, bright mind.” Hild’s love and understanding of the natural world becomes the basis for her prophecies and counsel to the king. There is no direct magic or fantastical element in this book; Hild bases her pronouncements on observation and intuition — but she has an amazing track record of accuracy. In one case, Hild, no more than seven, is taken on a journey with her uncle the king. The trek is part diplomacy but also part war-party, because there have been rumors of rebellion and treason. Before the party leaves, Hild idly asks an adult where the birds are gone to when the humans climb up and raid the nests for eggs. Later, Hild figures out the answer, and persuades her uncle to turn back and thwart an ambush of the royal compound, planned for when the king was away defending his territory.
Throughout the book, Hild gathers to herself friends and loyal followers. She also makes enemies. One adversary in the book is the Roman bishop Paulinus the Crow, sent by the Pope to convert the British Isles. Edwin is willing to be baptized for political reasons, and also to please his queen, but he does not take to heart the Christian belief system. Paulinus never completely understands this. He also dismisses Hild because she is a woman, even though she allies herself with him several times for reasons of her own. Hild sees Paulinus plainly, but also recognizes that the Roman church brings something vitally valuable, something that will change the world; written language.
Griffith creates a concrete, breathing world that is very different from ours. The book is truly a novel, an imagining, since until she became an abbess later in life, there is very little known about the historical Hild, but this world, its food, its politics, its structures, its clothing, speech and song, feels like a real place. Most interesting, for me, is that, after centuries of scholarly works that wrote focused only on the few activities of a few men, Hild’s war-torn world is filled with women. Griffith doesn’t have to make up women warriors or mystical shield-maidens to show the importance of women in this society. Every king wants a son and heir; he also wants at least one daughter as a “peaceweaver,” someone he can wed to another king or tribal ruler to create a family connection and ensure loyalty. If this makes women chattel, so were the men; sons of tribal rulers were sent to the overking to be “fostered,” but a more direct term might be “held hostage.” It is women who oversee the cooking and healing, weave the cloth, tend the flocks and fields. This isn’t new; what’s new here is that Griffith puts it, correctly, in the position of commerce. The weavings, the wool, the grain, the oil expressed from linen or hazelnuts, are all trade goods, goods that would not exist if the society were dependent only on the men.
This isn’t a utopian society. While women in Edwin’s court have greater self-determination that their descendants will, they are neither free nor equal. Griffiths deals with slavery, with war and senseless slaughter. Hild herself kills wounded after a battle, because the king will not spare healing for his enemies. She becomes the target of one of the rebels and later in the book, becomes a killer herself, hunting down and executing the bandits who are raiding her land. She sees first-hand the effects of hunger and poverty, and knows very well the risk of poison.
Hild knows that her privileged place at the left hand of the king lasts only as long as her pronouncements are accurate. As she gathers around herself a bigger household, she creates more hostages to fortune. After watching her uncle manipulate those around him for years, she is still startled, at the end of the book, at how cleverly he manages to manipulate her.
Griffith has said that Hild has captivated her and she plans to write at least one more book on the character’s life. Hild ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger, but it is still the right ending for this particular story.
This is a spectacular book. I am grateful that Griffith provided a glossary and something of a pronunciation guide, because I did struggle with the language slightly. I may not have been able to say their names, but I felt like I lived with these people, through some fascinating and dangerous times. Nicola Griffith is brilliant, and Hild is a brilliant achievement.