We don’t know much about Saint Hilda, or Hild, of Whitby. We know (from Bede) that she was born in 614, the second daughter of a prince of Elmet, who was poisoned when Hild was small. We know that she went to live at King Edwin’s court in York, and that she was baptized when she was thirteen, with King Edwin and all his court, in what would become York Minster. We know that later, at the age of thirty-three, she became a nun, and founded several monasteries, and was a huge force in helping to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, and that kings came to her for her wisdom and advice until she died.
Imagine: a tiny girl who was second daughter to a poisoned prince, building so much influence and power in the brutal seventh century in Britain, with the swirling patterns of Britons and Anglisc and Picts and Irish and Franks. How did it happen? Who must she have been, to make that happen?
Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild shows us how it might have been. It begins in Elmet when Hild is only three, and her mother Breguswith takes the reins once her husband is poisoned (“Quiet mouth, bright mind,” she tells her daughter.) From that moment, Hild learns to watch what’s around her, from the patterns of nature that tell about seasons and crops and flooding, to the patterns of human behavior that tell about love and anger and fear and desire. All of this goes to make her King Edwin’s seer, someone who is supposed to have the gift of prophecy when really she has the gift of the keenest intelligence in an age.
As the king’s seer, Hild is often alone. People fear her abilities: she’s a haegtes, a witch, even though she’s a child. It takes time for Hild to gather a misfit band of allies she can trust to tell her the truth and keep her safe: an Irish priest; a wealh slave; her sworn sister Begu; a small group of men who have seen her kill; her beloved foster-brother Cian. All other loyalties shift like the sands, but not these.
One of the most fascinating pieces of this book (Griffith uses the concept of warp and weft, so I might say fascinating threads) is the way Christianity is coming into Britain at this time. King Edwin and his court, including Hild, are worshipers of Woden at the beginning of the book, and the Christ is a god like any other, with his own peculiar ways. But Christianity is like a tide, coming in insistently, and Hild sees the pattern before others do. One of the most important things about it is that Christian priests can read: they can send messages no one can intercept or mangle; they can send a whole web of messages at the same time; information can go all over the island. Hild grasps this instantly. She insists that all her allies learn to read and write. She wants this power to be hers as well.
I admit that parts of this book were confusing, simply because the names were far worse than a Russian novel. Two Aethelrics. Aelthelfrith. Aethelburh. Eadfrith. Osfrith. Eanfrith. Eanflaed. Ealdwulf. Oswine. Oswiu. Osric. But! Once I accepted that I was not going to remember who everyone was, and just let some of that wash over me, this novel was unbelievably gripping. Hild was a fascinating character, keen as a peregrine, sharp as a blade, and still aching for companionship as any child would. The power struggles between kings (and between kings and bandits, and between kings and bishops, and between Hild and her own desire for power) were absolutely on point. The writing is beautiful, too, about nature and about the humans who inhabit it. This is some of the very best historical fiction I’ve read in an age, about an age I didn’t know well. Really, really recommended.