Breguswith—not to be confused with Begu—and Hereswith. Coelgar and his son Coelfrith. Cian, Ceredig, Cadwallon, Cwichelm. Aethelric, Aethelburh, Aedilgith, Aelberht, and the aethelings. Osfrith, Osric, Oeric, Onnen, Oswine, Osthyrth. Guenmon and Gwaldus (pronounced oo-la-doose). Eorpwald, Eadbald, Eamer, Eadfrith, Eanflaed. These are people in Hild by Nicola Griffith. Some are mentioned only in passing, but others are important characters.
Kingdoms and tribes: Yffings, Iddings, Gewisse, Rheged, Alt Clut, Dal Riata, Dyfneint. Classes of people: gesiths, thegns, wealh.
Tinamutha, Bebbanburg, Yeavering, Gipswic, Elmet, Lindum, Arbeia: places in seventh-century Britain that you’ll visit with Hild, the book’s main character. (I can’t remember another book in which I checked the front page map so many times.) As a daughter of a mysteriously murdered aethling (prince), Hild’s traditional path would have been as a peaceweaver (bride of royal blood) between kingdoms. But she has a different wyrd (fate): to serve as seer for her uncle, King Edwin.
A strange world—it almost seems like a fantasy world. But Hild was a real person, known to history as St. Hilda of Whitby. To tell the first part of the story of how Hild became St. Hilda (a sequel is in the works, apparently), Griffith immerses us—with very little editorial context—into Hild’s time and settings. We smell pork roasting, observe rooks swooping, feel flax and wool beneath our fingers, hear seals barking off-shore, taste mead and small beer. We also experience the violence of this era along with Hild, who witnesses brutal battles and learns how to kill men herself.
Britain is just emerging from the darkest of the Dark Ages. To maintain his power, Edwin—king of Deira and Bernicia, or Northumbria—must be at war, planning a war, or amassing information about other wars being fought in the region (at a time when communications were primarily person to person):
The household stewed in its own juice and kegs of mead and winter ale, and gossip and rumour flowed into the gap: The Idings were marching with the Dal Riata—no, the Picts. Cadwallon had allied with Rheged and the men of the north would stream down the beach in the dead of night. Penda had already taken Lindsey and was even now burning Elmet.
As “light of the world,” Hild—even as a little girl—is expected to provide insight into how Edwin should proceed. She is observant and intelligent, and she learns to make connections between patterns in nature (“the wordless, untouchable patterns she sensed when she counted the petals of a daisy or watched ripples in a pond”) and in statecraft. Her enigmatic, accomplished mother provides behind the scenes manipulation until Hild, gaining confidence in her abilities, assembles her own network of protectors, spies, and informants.
This is also the era when priests from Rome are arriving in Britain, crowding out the old gods and the old ways:
Change was coming, and it wasn’t just spring, wasn’t just the first milk of the year, or stallions flaring their nostrils when the mares walked by, or little throstles pecking at the backs of the goats to carry way soft hairs for their nests. It wasn’t just the hammer and shout of the king’s new talking stage rising west of the great hall. . . . The thegns thought they understood . . . What was one more god? Gods were like the flotsam that washed up with the waves, always coming and going, and those big enough to remain gradually were work away wind and water and time. . . . The thegns were wrong. The Christ and the priests were different. They were a storm that would change everything. They read. They would sweep the beach clean. But not of her. That was not her wyrd.
Hild learns to read from a friendly priest and eventually undergoes baptism, but her already precarious position as seer is continually challenged by “the Crow,” a bishop who is a rival advisor to Edwin and who zealously strives for mass conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. (Griffith deftly weaves into her narrative a pointed critique of the missionaries’ tactics in spreading the faith.)
Edwin’s thegns, or lords, finally assemble to consider baptism. Using one of my literary favorite images, from Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (I read an excerpt in a literature class; Griffith used it as the source for St. Hilda’s biographical record), one of the thegns says:
For what can men know? Our understanding is like that of a sparrow flying through the king’s hall at Yule. Outside it’s all howling darkness and rain, inside it’s a warm hearth and music. The sparrow flies in one door, into light and laughter. Then out the other door, back into the dark. And that moment for the sparrow is like our moment in middle-earth. Because, like the bird, we know nothing of what came before now and what’ll happen after.
Griffith has assembled these historical currents into a blood-and-bone story of a uniquely-gifted teenager trying to survive and thrive in a dangerous, ever-shifting environment. Courageous, even frightening, and yet also compassionate, Hild feels great responsibility for those she loves and those who look to her for protection: the characters, some historical but most fictional, who are the product of Griffith’s lively imagination and scrupulous research into the period (“ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewelry, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more”).
There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing—forays to war and into the wilderness, progresses from one village to the next—indicative of a time when a ruler had to move court to maintain authority and to avoid depleting any one settlement of its resources. While I sometimes lost track of the territories and the allegiances (and their bewildering complexity is exactly the point), I was more than willing to follow Hild’s adventures because they are so vibrant, unusual, and yet believable. Eighth-century Britain’s not a place where I’d want to live, but it’s a fascinating place for a literary quest.