Nicola Griffith has been published in multiple genres, including sf and crime fiction. In her view, “Genre is just a tool, a vehicle.” She simply writes “novels about people that I want to talk about.” Her latest novel Hild is historical fiction, and she’s chosen to “talk about” St. Hilda of Whitby, a seventh-century abbess who persuaded the illiterate cowherd Cædmon to share his praise song “Cædmon’s Hymn,” which eventually became the first work to be written down in Old English. Griffith sees Hilda, or Hild, basically “midwifing English literature….She rode the crest of cultural change, when they went from not writing to writing. “
Who was Hild? Born in 614, she was the younger daughter of the heir to the Elmet subkingdom, in what’s now West Yorkshire. She was baptized in 627, and after that, Griffith says, Hild isn’t mentioned in recorded history until 20 years later, at which point she founded an abbey. Hild covers the early, essentially unknown life of the future saint, whom Griffith portrays as a precociously brilliant observer of people and their actions. Little Hild is so talented at understanding and predicting what people will do and what effect their behavior will have that her abilities are perceived as supernatural, and her uncle, King Edwin, chooses her to be his seer. Of course, that means that “she has to be right,” Griffith points out. “She’s kind of like the pope. She has to be infallible.” Otherwise, the consequences might be fatal, both for herself and many others.
Reading Hild is an immersive experience, involving vocabulary from several languages, including Old English, Irish and Welsh. Griffith offers a glossary, but refuses to over-explain in the body of the text. “Readers are not stupid,” Griffith argues. “Trust me… and it comes clear in context.” She also vividly describes the many domestic duties that fell to women running a noble household, including weaving and cheesemaking. “My favorite books have a lot of processes,” Griffith says. “If you can see the economics of a milieu, you can understand that situation so much better.” Some of the details she includes come from reference books on textiles, but in other instances, “I made stuff up and I extrapolated. It was rather like writing science fiction: extrapolative creation, worldbuilding.”
Men’s and women’s responsibilities at court are quite sharply delineated in the novel. “Gender roles are very true for the ruling class,” Griffith says. “The thing that kept a community from starvation, that was the women, and the men ran the wars, the politics.” Roles were probably more fluid for the lower classes, Griffith believes. “In the fields, you’d have a hard time telling the men from the women. I’m guessing a man would watch the baby, stir the pot.”
Might was right in those days, and as far as we know, it was the men who held the weapons. “Most overt power came from people who led the fighting. I can’t think of any Northumbrian king who died in their beds,” Griffith says. “They all died fighting—they were warlords. Women just weren’t warlords.” Instead, women’s power was more subtle, expressed through domestic skill and persuasion (and, occasionally, the covert use of poison). In Griffith’s novel, noble daughters are valued because of their role as “peaceweavers,” an Anglo-Saxon term that she assumes refers both to the alliances that a woman claimed for her family through marriage as well as her diplomatic ability. Griffith cites a story in which Hild’s uncle Edwin is in exile at the East Anglian court and the king, Rædwald, wanted to kill him. However, the king’s wife (whose name is not recorded) convinced him not to, saying that if he killed a guest, no one would ever trust him again.
Basically, Griffith is “trying to look at different ways in which women could have power and agency.” As a seer, Hild has a substantial amount of influence over King Edwin’s decisions. History suggests that in later life, Hild sought power in the church, but the book ends with Hild as a young woman, long before that point. (Griffith plans to continue the story in at least one more volume.) It’s not entirely clear from this novel to what degree Hild’s actual spiritual beliefs will play in her decision to enter the church. Griffith argues that Hild’s faith might not even be relevant in that decision at all.
“Religion is an organization. Religious is a political thing. Personal belief is personal,” Griffith says. Hild is simply seeking knowledge and power through the channels available to her. “Today, [Hild would grow]…up to be a scientist.”
Amy Goldschlager is an editor and book/audiobook reviewer who lives in New York City. She has worked for several major publishers, and has also contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus, ComicMix and AudioFile.