A little girl carries a heavy gold cup filled with mead through a hall packed with eager guests. Normally it’s a grown woman’s job. Today a precocious child bears the ceremonial chalice.
Enormous fire pits blaze at the center of the room, and the ceilings vault high above the crowd. Men fill lines of benches. Tapestries hang from stone walls. A king waits, bedecked with heavy gold and jewels. Rich cloth glitters in the firelight. The music of a lyre amplifies the dramatic moment.
The king drinks from the giant cup, then to his honored guests.
A man leans down, tells the girl she’s strange. “I am the light of the world,” she says. She repeats what her mother dreamt before the girl’s birth: You are Hild, the light that will shine on all the world. The king’s niece. His shrewd new prophetess.
Don’t let the cover of Nicola Griffith’s newest novel fool you. You won’t find the typical medieval girl-in-a-dress novel. You’ll read something completely different, otherworldly in its scope and beauty.
Set in seventh-century England and based loosely on what little knowledge exists about the early life of Saint Hilda of Whitby, Hild earns a place on the shelf beside masterful historical-fiction works such as Hillary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies (set some 900 years after Hild). All these novels boast finely spun characters and accomplish what is most fascinating in historical fiction: They display a common thread of humanity before an intricately detailed backdrop of times long past.
In Hild, Roman roads crisscross the countryside. Fearsome sprites lurk in woods and water, and strange priests of the new god Christ, wearing long black skirts, roam the damp English countryside. Like salesmen, they promise regional kings victory in battle and many healthy sons if they simply renounce their pagan gods and accept baptism.
We meet Hild as a toddler. Her father rules over a portion of England, until a rival poisons him. Hild’s maternal uncle, also a king, takes in the family, initiating the course of Hild’s uncommon life.
Her frequently unscrupulous and always cunning mother teaches Hild to watch people keenly. (“Always know what they want to hear—not just what everyone knew they wanted to hear but what they didn’t even dare name to themselves. Show them the pattern. Give them permission to do what they wanted all along.”) Her mother also shows her how to deliver observations to the king with a prophetic flair, then this ultimate stage mom convinces the king of Hild’s visionary power.
Hild has little choice in the path her life takes. She quickly becomes indispensable to the king, traveling with him around the country, predicting the weather days in advance, warning him of distant cousins scheming to overthrow him. Her prophecies always come true.
The people around her assume a supernatural source for Hild’s many visions, but in truth the predictions spring from keen and persistent scrutiny of every tiny piece of the world she inhabits, from the behavior of birds and insects to the maneuvering of political adversaries: “Hild looked deeper, letting her mind sink into the glimmer and shadow, as she might in the wood, looking at the leaves, or lying on her back watching the clouds, letting the thoughts come, letting the things she already knew arrange themselves in a pattern, a story that others might call a prophecy.”
In genre fiction, an overly plucky heroine typically challenges gender roles deliberately and in sometimes anachronistic ways. Not Hild. She simply gets things done however she must. Sometimes, self-preservation in service of a king also means Hild must challenge gender roles. This reversal of genre conventions satisfies even a skeptical reader, adding to the fullness and complexity of Hild’s personality.
An example? In an age when women weave and men go to war, Hild does both. She makes cloth, cares for women in childbirth, and wears a dress. But she also advises a king, influences his decisions, rides out to war with him and his men, kills ruthless bandits, and loses her girlish innocence far too young: “She rode a thin grey horse, a thin grey hound ran at the hem of her blue-grey cloak, and she sat tall, an enamel copy of a ten-year-old girl, hard and cold.”
Hild mystifies those around her. Some call her a witch. Others call her a freemartin (an old term for a hermaphroditic cow). Many people fear her: “She was different. Cold, hard, uncanny… Now he understood why her hounds spoke of her as they did: not human, more like a wall, a tide, the waxing of the moon. A force of nature. Implacable, untouchable.”
Hild always tries to find a place for herself in this demanding world, a fascinating and heartbreaking struggle: “She liked time at the edges of things— the edge of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood— where all must pass but none quite belonged.”
Like a puzzle piece whose edges are off just enough, Hild’s fit requires some force. She copes with her own eccentricity in various ways as she ages, and her ongoing battle with otherness becomes the novel’s central theme.
Evocative and full, the language of Hild forms a rich and colorful and wholly real portrait of an imagined seventh-century England. In interviews, Griffith has said she researched Hild for a decade. It shows. Her knowledge of the era appears infinitely broad and deep.
Griffith possesses a knack for weaving unfamiliar things — medieval warriors practice-fighting, households feasting in great halls, cloth-making, the construction of intricate gold jewelry — into her narrative so deftly they become things you could swear you’ve witnessed. The cadence of the words in a flax-harvesting scene suggests the hypnotic rhythm of many people doing difficult work together. Homer and Virgil used similar breathtaking artistic effects in their original languages.
On the subject of languages, early in the book, three-year-old Hild charmingly describes the archaic tongues of early England. To the child’s ear, Old English sounds like “words drumming like apples spilt over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Like her father’s words, and her mother’s, and her sister’s. Utterly unlike Onnen’s otter-swift British or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam.”
Modern words mingle with ancient: gesith, aethling, wealh, seax, haegtes, gaemecce, wyrd. Some of the old words we grasp from immediate context; the meaning of others requires settling in to the novel’s world to fully grasp. The old language rattles around in the mind after a reading, popping into thought at odd times.
The most intoxicating writing appears in abundant descriptions of nights lit only by fire and moonlight: “Torches hissed and fluttered and Hild was more or less asleep when she was carried down the gangplank, but she still saw the rich trappings of the horses there, and the gleam of jeweled hilts and brooches clasped at cloak necks. And she woke fully when an apple voice, so firm and round as to be almost scented, said, ‘Lady Breguswith, Edwin king welcomes you home.’”
Griffith, a native of Yorkshire, England, now lives in Seattle. She has written five other novels (Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, and Always), some set in the future, and she has won the Nebula, Tiptree, World Fantasy, and Lambda Literary Awards, as well as the Premio Italia.
Griffith clearly owns an extraordinary talent for building realistic future worlds. She has used that skill now to build a tangible past, with great success.
Annie Frazier lives in central Florida, studied ancient Greek language and literature at New College of Florida and has a short story forthcoming in the 2014 edition of The North Carolina Literary Review.