Book review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

St Hilda of Whitby… founder of the Yorkshire coastal town’s distinctive, brooding abbey and one of the most powerful women of the early Middle Ages.

Hild by Nicola Griffith
Hild by Nicola Griffith

What little we know of Hild, the Christian saint’s historical name, comes from the writings of the famous author and scholar the Venerable Bede, but what is certain is that she was a woman of great influence, sought out by kings for her wisdom.

Taking the bare bones of the seventh century abbess’s early years, Yorkshire-born novelist Nicola Griffith, who now lives in the American city of Seattle, works a special brand of literary magic to conjure up not just the formidable woman but the perilous, pitiless age she inhabited.

The result is a stunning blend of real history and soaring imagination, the total immersion in an age of brutal patriarchy and violent rivalries and a country in transition from pagan belief and simple Celtic Christianity to the new Roman Church.

Written in almost lyrical prose and steeped in the language and customs of early Britain, this is a novel rich in historical detail, outstanding in its observation of human nature and bristling with the violent tensions that ran through society’s ruling factions.

Even before Hild was born, her mother Breguswith, wife of Prince Hereric, a nephew of King Edwin Snakebeard of Northumbria, dreamt that the child in her womb was destined to be ‘the light of the world.’

But Britain in the seventh century is a country where small kingdoms merge frequently and violently. As Edwin plots his rise to ‘overking’ of all the Angles, Hild’s father is poisoned, leaving her family at the mercy of the ruthless, unforgiving Northumbrian ruler.

Edwin is prepared to use every tool at his disposal, including blood, bribery and belief, and into this vicious, vibrant court steps seven-year-old Hild with her ‘quiet mouth, bright mind’ and a powerful curiosity.

Hild has a unique way of reading the world. She likes ‘time at the edges of things – the edges of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood – where all must pass but none quite belonged.’

By studying nature, observing human behaviour and matching cause with effect, she has developed the ability to make startlingly accurate predictions. It is a gift that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her.

It is also a valuable weapon. Hild becomes indispensable to Edwin… unless she should ever lead him astray. Danger is only ever a heartbeat away and the stakes are life and death. Hild must tread warily, for her family, for her loved ones, and for the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can see the future and lead men like a warrior…

Griffith offsets the fascinating minutiae of a noblewoman’s everyday life in the seventh century – weaving, gathering and drying herbs and caring for her children – with the male power battles that dictated her fortune and fate.

At the centre of all the action, drama and emotion is Hild, the complex, gifted child on whom expectation lies like a heavy mantle, and who must steer a dangerous course if she is to keep her family and those around her safe from the will of a capricious king.

Hild is not just a novel to read and enjoy, but the witnessing of a story in which every word has been carefully selected and finely tuned, and which offers the rare experience of entering an age very different from our own.

From the archaeology, poetry and jewellery of the seventh century to its textiles, languages, food and weapons, Griffith has built her research into a believable and breathtaking world.

And the good news is that the second chapter of Hild’s life is already on the production line…

(Blackfriars, paperback, £9.99)