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Fiction ‘Hild’ tells the tale of one of the Middle Ages’ pivotal figures

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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“Hild” by Nicola Griffith (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 546 pages, $27)

Hild, according to an author’s note in the back of this book, “was born fourteen hundred years ago [in 614] in Anglo-Saxon England.” She was baptized in 627, then disappeared from the record until 647. From the little we know of the person who became one of the pivotal figures of the Middle Ages, Saint Hilda of Whitby, Nicola Griffith has crafted a historical novel of great detail and intricate plot.

And this long novel only covers her life up to the moment she marries. The same author’s note indicates that Griffith is writing the next part of her story.

Griffith has done her research well. She fills the book with numerous details about the flora and fauna, what people wore, the work they did, the weapons they used.

She also ties certain details to the political realities that form a major part of the book. For example, she writes: “By one rill, where low tangled hawthorn and gorse grew among the long sea grass, [Hild] found a row of tiny wrens and mouse pups spiked on thorns: the work of the wariangle, the butcher-bird.” Later, she adds: “Like kings, they ravaged then moved on, leaving their trophies hanging from battlements, drying to husks, proclaiming, My land, my law.”

Griffith uses many words from the languages spoken then and includes a helpful glossary, so that we get to know the meaning of “wealh,” “gesiths” and “wyrd,” for example.

From an early age, Hild displays signs of putting together her close study of nature with how larger events may unfold. Her mother, Breguswith, encourages her to use these gifts but cautions her to steer clear of warring men: “Our time is not yet come. For now we live like mice in the byre. Everyone knows we’re here, but we’re not worth attention. Quiet mouth, bright mind.”

Hild’s mind is indeed bright, and soon enough King Edwin, the brother of her father, who died when she was a baby, takes her into his circle as a seer, especially after she warns him to return to a city in time to fend off an attack.

Hild’s gifts are perceived by many as supernatural, but we see that she is careful and wise in her statements. She has intimations that go beyond mere reason, but she also employs a network of people providing her information about the movements of other regional rulers in the land.

One of the main problems of the book is the implausibility of one so young acting so wisely. Although Hild is abnormally tall, taller than most men, she makes complex decisions and has a commanding demeanor while still 13 or 14 years old.

The novel is set in a pivotal time, when Christianity is making inroads into what is now England. For Edwin of Northumbria, Christ is another god, like Woden, who may help him extend his power over the realm to become the overking of the Angles. He employs the priest Paulinus, who shows his own hunger for power in seeking to baptize as many as possible and drive out the wealh priests, who, though also Christian, are outsiders. “Wealh” is the root word for the current “Welsh.”

Hild, who is baptized along with Edwin and much of his household, is careful around Paulinus while managing to steer Edwin in ways that help him extend his power.

Early on, she becomes friends with another priest, Fursey, who teaches her to read and to speak several languages. He also teaches her that “there is God, only God, and God lives in everything. In the air and in the earth, in the rhyne and the willow, in you and in me.”

Fursey becomes a trusted counselor, though they become separated when he goes to live in another region. He tells Hild, “You are a prophet and seer with the brightest mind in an age.”

Much of the book is about how deftly and delicately Hild manages to use her skills as a woman (girl, really) in a time when men ruled utterly.

Like “Game of Thrones,” “Wolf Hall” and many other books about kings, “Hild” traces the complex strategies of alliances and wars to gain more power. Despite the aid of a map and a family tree at the front of the book, following all these rulers and their children and alliances feels overwhelming.

Griffith does a good job of painting Hild’s character, her internal conflicts, her struggles with using violence and with her passions. Her relationship with Cian, her half-brother and childhood companion, is complex and a major part of the story.

Griffith writes well. She describes the effect of singing on Hild: “It had made her heart feel the way she imagined a gull might, hanging over a swell held by only the wind.”

She discusses how the Christian faith might seem to one new to the faith. Hild says, “I don’t understand why the Christ, or whichever one it is, is so squeamish. No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense.”

She also captures the wonder of things we take for granted. When a woman sees Hild read a letter, she calls it magic, as if she were opening a spell.

“Hild” will appeal to those who love historical fiction, who enjoy entering a world from long ago. Those reading it only for its plot may not be satisfied. It does open up an important historical period and shines a fresh light on what we wrongly call the Dark Ages.

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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