After the high-speed frolic of Golden Hill, the syrupy slowness of Call Me By Your Name and the spare elegance of Lady Into Fox, Hild was a thick, soft blanket, and I sank gratefully into it. Another impulse book, because it’s about St Hilda of Whitby, and I’m not used to reading historical fiction set in my part of the world.
Hild was a big, immersive doorstop of a book (though in Kindle form) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Some things to bear in mind.
Firstly, this book is set in the 7th Century. Griffith has done a lot of research, but she’s also used some artistic licence to fill in gaps and add to the atmosphere. If this is not your thing (and especially if you’re a scholar of 7th Century England and can see the joins) then this might annoy you.
Secondly, if you’re reading it on Kindle, then be aware that it skips the map. The map is useful to keep straight what’s going on, because Hild travels a lot and the place names are pretty different from what they are today. Even if you aren’t the sort of person who follows a story on a map as it unfolds (I’m not at all) I think it helps to at least glance at it and have an overview of what the world looks like before you start.
Thirdly, this is the first book of a trilogy, and it doesn’t take you up to Hild’s famous stint as Abbess of Whitby, so be aware of that. I found myself a little worried at times about the pacing (not that it’s slow, but that it covers such an early part of her life) and wondering how it was going to get everything resolved in time. Spare yourself similar worries – there will be more. Let yourself trust the story.
Though Griffith does her utmost to bring the world of the 7th Century to life, the beginning of the book especially feels a little mythological – Hild is three at the very beginning, and she’s much more articulate than any three year old has any right to be. It does jar a little with the later parts of the book, which feel much more grounded and tell a story of how a human being can become a legend.
I hesitate to say “ordinary” people doing “ordinary” things, as Hild is patently not an ordinary person. She’s remarkably insightful, observant and capable of guessing the most likely outcome of politics and battles. But Griffith is careful to show that she isn’t supernatural – Hild is caught off-guard by truly unpredictable things, by waves of illness, bad luck and faraway plots. She’s lucky and clever and brave, no more than that, and the legends that spring up around her among her own people are clear exaggerations of her powers. In light of that, the beginning of the book seems a little disjointed from the whole. I wouldn’t have minded a full semi-mythic treatment of Hild’s life, or a full realistically grounded one, but you can’t really do both at once.
The things Griffith invented to flesh out the world didn’t bother me so much – I found that they were in the “right” atmosphere, by which of course I mean the atmosphere that felt right for the story rather than totally correct. Historical fiction is sometimes a kind of translation, in which you have to decide between pure accuracy and transposing an experience to your target audience, and as this TvTropes page will show, it’s a long tradition.
I did sometimes – especially near the beginning – find it hard to follow the tribal conflicts and warmaking. Who was where, in relation to what. Maybe having the map handy would have made it better? When Hild had dramatic realisations, or characters would talk obliquely about politics, I didn’t always share the drama of the reveal. It’s a book that makes you work decently hard to keep up with that side of it, and I’m not sure whether I just don’t have the mind for it or whether it was actually hard to follow. In the end, it didn’t impinge too much on my enjoyment, and I did start to put names and ambitions to faces after a while. Your mileage may vary.
As well as tribal conflict there was the spread of Christianity to contend with – still a new religion to the British Isles and slowly ousting all of the old gods. As I knew Hild would one day be a Christian saint, I was curious to see how she’d get on with it, and interested to see that, at first, she didn’t. Compared to the old ways of life, Christianity seems to make no sense – the god lacks the strength and virility of Woden and other gods, and the places of worship to him are bare and cold and austere. Hild doesn’t seem to get on very well with priests in general (at least not the ambitious ones) and the Christian priests are no different at first. But she likes the Christian music, and makes friends among the clergy, and it turns out the power of Christianity isn’t in its religion at all, but in the literacy that its priests bring with them. Religion is treated very pragmatically.
There were perhaps too strong echoes of a certain common pagan narrative for the treatment of religion to ring entirely true for me – Hild and her mother are adept at healing with herbs and whatnot and find themselves in direct conflict for this with priests, who will only prescribe prayer, and Hild is considered demonic by at least one of the bishops for what we the reader know is just her cleverness and luck and status-while-being-female. The loss of female rights and status under Christianity is hinted at (though of course everyone’s lives are pretty hard and brutal regardless of religion in the 7th Century). I don’t know how much of this narrative is true, but my gut reaction without doing a lick of research is that it seems a little too convenient that it falls so perfectly within the “never again the burning times” style of pagan feminism that I find a bit woolly. You know the type – where women were widely regarded as equal, if separate in their duties, until Christianity came along and ruined it for everyone. Still, that might say more about me than about anything else.
Being me, the part I enjoyed the best was the nature writing. Hild seemed to spend her life being busy and longing for time to spend just sitting in a tree and watching things (relatable) and when she did get those times to herself I would have sat with her for days.
I also enjoyed another casual treatment of bisexuality – Hild likes both men and women, and no one cares, and more please. I didn’t know before I looked up the author afterwards that Nicola Griffith is a respected LGBT sci fi writer, so there’s another author I have to keep an eye out for.
I’m genuinely curious to see where the next two books take her – or rather, the route they take her to get there – but annoyingly the next book isn’t out yet, so I’ll have to wait, and try not to think of Hild every time I see the magpies courting or the nutria sliding into the river.