Hild is the kind of work of historical fiction that can’t be discussed without using words like “epic.” Several hundred pages long, this weighty tome tells the story of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby, seventh-century British abbess. Nicola Griffith sketches Hild’s life and world in such painstaking detail that by the end of the book the main character is probably no more than twenty years old, with much of an eventful life ahead of her — so it’s likely this book will be the first of a trilogy, at least. In terms of its depth and scope as a historical novel I can’t compare this to anything other than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. While I didn’t find Griffith’s writing as compelling or readable as Mantel’s, I think, on reflection, it’s a fair comparison.
In fact I found this a very slow read at first. Griffith brings us into a world most of us, even avid readers of historical fiction, know little about — the world of early medieval Britain. Several hundred years after the Romans and before the Normans, this Britain is a world of multiple kings and chieftains, warring tribes and competing religions. Griffith is the kind of writer who has really done her research and renders this world in rich and minute detail. That level of detail, along with hundreds of Anglo-Saxon names and the political details of which king is allied with which and who is fighting whom, rise up and threaten to overwhelm the reader (this reader, anyway) in the early pages. I struggled to keep straight who was whom, which word meant what, and how I should pronounce people’s names in my head (I made the executive-level decision early on that even if the writer tells us that Gwladus was pronounced something like Oo-we-lad-us, for the sake of my own sanity I would have to think of the character as Gladys if I was ever going to get through the book. One example of many).
So, a very slow start as I got used to the characters, their names and the world in which they lived. But it was worth the time and effort, and by the time I was halfway through the book I was immersed in the challenges Hild faces as the niece of a king, a girl who has been set aside from birth as a seer. She has an important but loosely defined role at her uncle’s court and Hild is really the story of her discovering how to fill that role, which is constantly changing. Her later role, as abbess of a Christian community, is still far in the future as of the end of this book; she has been baptized when her uncle decided to accept Christianity, but the change from worshipping Woden to worshipping Christ is a purely political one for Edwin, who hopes to be “over-king of all the Anglisc.” Hild’s own spirituality finds its root not in the worship of one god over another but in something deeper that she describes as “the pattern,” a pattern she sees in the natural world all around her.
There are so many things Griffith does well in this book that I couldn’t enumerate them all, but I like the fact — despite all the extra work it means for me as a reader — that she manages to create Hild’s world as a world completely other than our own. Not that there’s nothing here we can relate to; the characters are recognizably human and believable, but I was constantly being reminded that these were people who lived in a different world, well over a thousand years ago. This is particularly evident when Hild encounters her first Christian priests: their trick of making symbols on paper that can carry a message to someone far away seems very strange to her, although she is quick to grasp its usefulness. She is also puzzled by their concept of “sin”; she understands oathbreaking, since her world is one in which everything is predicated on loyalty to one’s lord, but the general concept of sin is meaningless to her. Hild is not a quick or easy read, but it’s a rich and vivid journey into an unfamiliar world. I will definitely be reading the sequel.