Welcome to this month's Strange Horizons book club! This week we are discussing Hild by Nicola Griffith. Our next book will be Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung, and discussions further ahead are listed here. This week we also have a bonus discussion of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, which you can read here.
We hope you'll join us to discuss the novel further in the comments, but to kick off this discussion, the participants are:
Dan Hartland, whose reviews and criticism have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, Foundation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Erin Horáková, a southern American writer who lives in London with her partner. She's working towards her literature PhD at Glasgow, which focuses on how charm evolves over time. Erin reviews for Strange Horizons, and her journalistic and academic work have also appeared in a variety of other venues. She tweets @ehorakova.
Maureen Kincaid Speller, a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation.
How would you describe your experience of Hild, with particular reference to its style and structure? Did the novel, for you, justify spending so much time on a relatively short (and sometimes undramatic) period of the protagonists' life, and if so how and why? Did you find the very close alliance with Hild's own perspective a strength or a weakness?
Erin Horáková: Painful.
I had hoped to go after someone who really clicked with Hild, especially structurally, so that I could downplay my discomfort with the novel—because ultimately, I suspect I'm wrong for this book, rather than that this book is just wrong flat-out. SH reviews editor Aisha Subramanian spoke of ripping through its considerable bulk in a weekend, and sometimes one's in the right mood for a given book and sometimes one isn't, but I felt I was clawing my way through, page by page. I think Hild is, on a craft level, and for someone else, a good book. But I remember David Hebblethwait saying something on Twitter recently about having to rethink what craft meant and did, if a book he knew to be well-crafted just didn't make him think or feel anything, when something less "well-crafted" could.
What was wrong with Hild and/or me? The prose was entirely competent. I found the writer's enthusiasm for her subject and the way she framed her topic in the afterword in my edition really engaging. Maybe the problem was that it's difficult to feel the shape of the plot running through Hild, pulling you along as you read and giving you a narrative to organise the book's information within. There's not a plot so much as there are events coalescing. In part I think that's a result of Griffith intending to write one book, getting to 600 pages, shrugging and calling it Part 1 of a trilogy. Maybe if I read the next two books, a pattern will snap into place. Considering Hild's obsession with seeing patterns, that'd be hella meta.
Also on the subject of structure, I think Griffith may be deliberately obfuscating larger family trees (the map and tree at the front are so abbreviated as to not be very helpful) and action flows, to keep you from tracking and thus from being unduly invested in worrying about who's going to end up on the Iron Throne, because that's soooo not the point of Griffith's project. If that's the case, I'm interested in and perhaps sympathetic to that aim, but the fact remains that Hild's a consulting detective, and Hild has no mystery. Or only mystery, and no case.
When Val McDermid suggests on the book jacket that Hild is reminiscent of a thriller, I think that's touching on something salient, but that ultimately, she's wrong. The pacing and plot-driven quality I associate with thrillers is markedly not present here. Nor is the plot-driven, character-heavy quality I associate with a lot of modern epic fantasy. This feels more like quotidian, phenomenological literary fiction. If anything rather than a thriller Hild is like "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane", the two Doyle stories narrated by Holmes—but without the organisation around character that I think of as key to a lot of Doylian and a lot of Golden Age detective fiction, even as it's a component of modern epic fantasy. (I feel like genre generally is where "the character" goes after Dickens et al.)
I'd never begrudge a novel spending its time on not a lot, but for me, this was an unfun, unprofitable and shapeless not a lot. That said, the alliance with Hild's perspective was generally fine for me—I find it difficult to imagine a "viewpoint-swapping" rewrite being that valuable. The few, few times we were suddenly outside Hild were kind of jarring in their rarity. I don't mind "head hopping," and tend to write it a lot, but I know some people (who edit me . . . ) flip tables over it.
Victoria Hoyle: My experience of Hild couldn't have been more opposite to Erin's—if you were the wrong fit, I was the equivalent right. Structurally and stylistically the book played to many of my preferences as a reader, and particularly as a reader of stories that recreate the people and places of the past.
For a start I admired that Hild is so unhurried and generous on textural detail. The way the characters eat, work, kill, have sex, give birth, die has a robust quality, obviously grounded in enthusiastic research, that makes the historical setting rounded and thoroughly realised. It's also stylistically attuned to the eighth century world it recalls, so that multi-lingual, culturally unstable Northumbria is mirrored in both the descriptive language, and also in the way characters speak to and about one another. I thought, for example, that Griffith was unusually sensitive to the tonal difference in dialogues between Hild and Cian speaking the language of the wealh as intimates, between Hild and Edwin speaking the formal language of court, and the new forms of expression brought by Christianity. Erin mentioned Griffith's craft and I think it's exhibited most completely for me in the way she articulates such differences using stylistic registers. When I read historical fiction (and while I know we're not talking about genre yet, there is my flag hoisted) I'm always hoping to completely inhabit the past. Hild utterly delighted me in that respect.
I was equally beguiled by the fact that the novel is structured like a life is structured as opposed to a novel: around the seasonal shifts of the year, the rituals of daily experience, the cultural and personal rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. Limited perspective, periods of inertia and confusion, elements of redundancy are meant, built in, as part of the totality of Hild's imagined life. This works (with all that detail) against forward narrative propulsion, which I agree the book lacks, but I was so engaged by the wealth of it all that I rarely noticed the mounting page count. I also felt that the languid, deliberate pace gave Griffith a lot of space and time to explore the themes I saw as being central to the project: gender, sexuality, the intersectional dynamics of power. There were plenty of payoff opportunities unrelated to the plot.
All that positivity aside, I did find the singular point of view focus on Hild difficult at times. While an incredibly perceptive, intelligent and wilful young woman, her youth and general lack of creative empathy meant that seeing the world through her eyes sometimes short changed other characters in the feelings department. I would have liked to see more of the world from Cian, Edwin and Breguswith’s point of view for example.
Dan Hartland: Well, this could get interesting! I say so because I find myself leaning towards Erin's experience of the novel, but having real sympathy for Vicky's enthusiasm for those elements of it which she emphasises. I wonder if the question of Hild's perspective isn't the bridge between the two positions, though: for me, it was the frustration with the focus on Hild which Vicky describes that most consistently characterised my own experience of reading the novel. It felt to me very much as if Griffith was as interested as Vicky suggests in the society, culture, politics, and language of eighth-century Britain, and that, yes, the novel includes a wealth of material that offered a real sense of inhabiting the period (though I'm less confident that any novel can really achieve a recreation of the past in this way). But it also felt to me as if this interest had overtaken her enthusiasm for the protagonist: that Saint Hilda—the individual Griffith has said she has wanted to write about for twenty years—was getting in the way of Anglo-Saxon England, the setting in which, in order to write that novel, Griffith has become so steeped.
I'm attracted to the idea that the novel feels so slow because it is unconventionally structured around seasons rather than chapters; but I don't think that's the only reason that Hild read to Erin and I at times like treacle. In trying to recreate eighth-century Northumbria as faithfully as she can, Griffith has hit against the old enemy of the medievalist: the incompleteness of the record. She simply knows more about the battles and dynastic rivalries, the geographies and fauna, of her environment than she does about the character she continues to insist upon filtering it all through. Rarely have I felt, when reading a novel, that the protagonist is so divorced and detached from the matter of the book. In part, this is because Hild is established early on as an observer—that watching is her gift. But that only explains what Vicky very accurately calls her "lack of creative empathy" so much: what also hobbled the novel for me was her distance from characters, mentalities and places which seemed more central to the events of the novel. That is, I experienced a cleavage between Hild's life, which is ostensibly the subject of the narrative, and the to-ing and fro-ing of this early medieval society, which the novel spends so much time describing and explaining and expositing that, in truth, it came to overwhelm the bildungsroman entirely.
So if Griffith has facility with language—and in all honesty I found myself craving the supple and varied wordplay of Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, in my view a far more linguistically and imaginatively effective recreation of the Old English mindset—I fear the subtlety of context it offers wasn't quite matched by a subtlety of narration. To reiterate, I'm very much sympathetic to Vicky's vision of the novel as a reimagined life, a post-modern hagiography untethered by the contemporary formal demands of the novel. We judge Hild conventionally at our peril. To recreate a life, perhaps, you must recreate a world . . . but each must serve the other if they are both to avoid standing in the other's way, and I'm not sure the novel quite avoids stepping on its own toes. Indeed, increasingly I didn't feel its heart to be with Hild. I felt it to be with the historiographical inquiries we can find in less fictionalised form on Griffith's fascinating Gemæcce blog (where did that battle take place, how did that thegn die).
That is: my experience of the novel was that there was an extent to which its two sides don't quite lock together . . . Like Erin, I'm happy to own that confusion—but fear, too, that it may be hard-coded into Hild's apparently dual project.
Erin Horáková: Also, I was thinking about Ishiguro because the other SH book club is doing The Buried Giant, and was estimating words per page because of the huge typographic differences between the two. Without being obviously miserly with its gutters, Hild seems to have a lot more words to the page. The Buried Giant is sort of printed like a luxury item (Minor Ishiguro for the sort of person who Buys the Booker) and has a plump font, to be sure, but I started to feel like Hild by might be a bit artificially crammed into the familiar shape of an epic fantasy installment. Print Hild differently, if my rough and ready wordcount is at all close, and you're looking at something substantially more, well, epic. You could see that format being more saleable, but if Hild is actually shaped more like Anna Karenina (but with two parts still to come!), does that change how we think about its structure?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I fall more on the side of having thoroughly enjoyed Hild. But in saying that I have been wondering what it was I enjoyed exactly, and in what way. Hild seems to be the antithesis of The Buried Giant, which I also enjoyed, but in a very different way. I couldn't put Hild down, and it's a long time since I felt quite like that about a long book. It's a very immersive book.
I have read a lot of "historical" fiction over the years, alongside the fantasy and SF, and have always felt there was a certain flavour of it that meshed with F and SF, but without ever giving any thought to why, other than that it felt right. I note that most of this material is set pre-Norman Conquest.
The epitome of rightness, for me, would be John James's Votan, which I love because it's funny and clever . . . and the epitome of wrongness is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, or Stover and Harrison's god-awful novel about the building of Stonehenge.
Hild is very close to James, although often much darker in tone, and much more than in terms of detail. I love the detail, even though at times I feel there maybe could have been less of it. Yet, it touched so often on things I know a little about and I was nodding, ticking things off in my mind, thinking "of course." There's a kind of Anglo-Saxon geekiness I enjoyed.
Having said all that, I suddenly realised, about a hundred pages in, that this novel was moving much more slowly than I'd expected and that my supposition the novel was about Hilda of Whitby was entirely wrong. which leads me to complicated thoughts about Hild as a "fantasy" figure, which I'll save for later.
Erin talked about feeling the shape of the plot, and I can't say this was a problem for me in that I guess I was reading it as a sort of chronicle, an imaginary version of "An Ecclesiastical History of the English People" from the receiving end, so to speak.
I think Dan mentioned the idea of the "post-modern hagiography". I found myself thinking about secret histories too; the veiled childhood of the saint. Exceedingly veiled, in this case.
And then I started wondering whether Hild wasn't effectively positioned here as a version of the Stableboy King, with Griffith taking advantage of her being hidden from history to construct this quasi-fantastical biography.
Vicky mentioned the pace as deliberate, giving Griffiths space. Having invoked John James in my previous email, one of the things that did strike me about Hild was that while James was writing about men, and the women were usually difficult wives, recalcitrant girlfriends or beddable servants, Griffith offers an amazing portrait of a society in which a woman's life would depend on how well she built her alliances with men and women. In the end, I took the pace as reflecting the care needed in doing that to achieve a satisfactory result. At the same time, I wondered if in part Hild as person didn't also exist (a bit like Eowyn, however briefly) to test the boundaries of such a carefully constructed society. What might a woman get away with, and how might she get away with it?
Dan Hartland: I agree entirely that there's an Anglo-Saxon geekiness at work in Hild that can appeal; and, likewise, that reading the work as a sort of chronicle makes sense—though chronicles weren't so interested in psychology, were they? Again, this is a novel/book/post-modern hagiography with something of a split personality!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Much like Hild herself, in some respects. We might almost be saying here that the construction of the narrative reflects in some way the doubled (tripled?—I'd love it to be tripled, and pick up on the supposed older idea of the triple goddess)
Dan Hartland: It's interesting that Maureen mentions secret histories: one novel of which Hild reminded me in particular ways was Q by "Luther Blisset". They're very different books in many respects, but both have the more or less explicit air of a secret history—and Q, too, seeks to almost bewilder the reader with detail, rendering traditional pacing irrelevant. I didn't get along with Q either, in all honesty, but it and Hild do seem to me at a respectable other end of a spectrum to, say, Mary Gentle's 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, which is similarly long and similarly secret (and, like Hild, very interested in excavating alternative gender identities from history), but rather more given over to derring-do.
Of course, 1610 is also very much an historical fantasy, where Q and Hild are sort of historical fantasias . . . but perhaps more on that anon.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: You interest me—I've not read Q. I can see the association with 1610 now you mention it. And the distinction between "historical fantasy" and "historical fantasias" sounds very intriguing. I think I can see where you might be going with that. More!
On that note: as a group you’ve talked about Hild as immersive history, as secret history, as post-modern hagiography, as historical fantasia, and, perhaps, as fantasy itself . . . what is the most productive way of reading Hild? And why?
Victoria Hoyle: A nuts and bolts reading of Hild, cataloguing genre markers, returns a clear verdict of historical/history fiction for me. This is a story set in the Anglo-Saxon past, and I consider the totalising approach Griffith takes in her writing as an attempt to recreate, re-envision, revive the specifics of time, place and people in that period. Yes, her ability to access the past is circumscribed by the limits of evidence—both of Hild's individual timeline and her wider context—but she devotes herself to what can be known and does nothing counter to it. That Anglo-Saxon geekery that Maureen mentioned is at full throttle. In her commentary on the process of writing Hild Griffith's joy at accessing the long-time gone is palpable; she seems invested in it as more than an allegorical backdrop or a jewelled setting for her own purposes. This is one of the ways in which Hild is distinct from a novel like Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, in which the mistiness of the early medieval is a helpful shortcut to a certain type of cultural landscape. For me The Buried Giant is a user of the past, Hild is a collaborator.
Which is not to say that I think Hild is only productively read as a scholarly meander to the 8th century. In common with non-fiction history it's an act of narrativisation underpinned by contemporary theory and ideology, and it seems to me that the way Griffith puts the history to work—in feminist, intersectional interpretation of womens' experience—is what is most powerful about it. I quite liked the idea that this represented a kind of "post-modern hagiography" at first, but the more I think about it the less that rings true. I do think Hild is a post-modern novel, insofar as it inherits the possibilities of post-modern history, but it's more anti-hagiography than hagiography. The latter is a reductive genre in my understanding, that takes an individual and refines them to saintly parts for the purposes of fixing them for use; Hild conversely seems to be all about expanse, conflict, challenge and how they can be explored for use.
I find it puzzling that Hild has been read and interpreted so widely as fantasy and I'm keen to hear what others think. The only way I feel I could argue that point would be to suggest that all history is fantasy, disregarding how much or how little evidence underpins it. I could probably talk myself into that position at a push. While ultimately I don't think it would change my appreciation of the novel, I do think it would impact on my love for it. If I convinced myself that Hild was a fantasy novel, then I would have a lot more sympathy with Erin and Dan's view on its pace and structure, and a lot less patience with Griffith's detail. It's an interesting thought experiment.
Erin Horáková: I often think of genre in terms of the type of story a work tells. But since people appreciate Hild for reasons not closely-tied to narrative progression, maybe Hild should be more defined by its mood and qualities as an immersive experience than by a framework that might not really speak to its interests? I see Victoria's resistance to the term "post-modern hagiography," but also why that term might appeal to us, under such a rubric. And maybe a "post-modern" hagiography involves adding to and complicating a Saint's Life—taking that Arthuriana-instinct for building myths around a frame (and often a Saint's Life involves a string of Awesome Deeds/Wild Shit That Happened to Our Hero) and doing something similar with events and feelings? Ultimately "immersive history" does sound more right, as a descriptor for Hild's qualities.
I do think someone should chuck out the obligatory chestnut that there's a liminal quality to Hild's "powers." And here I am, holding a nut, so. Hild's abilities could be intellectual, spiritual, magical. There's nothing unsatisfying about liminal fantasy, though—Turn of the Screw's not a crap ghost story, and if I think about Hild as an almost-detective then I also want to throw in that my favorite detective stories pretty much aren't. So if I didn't get on with Hild as Fantasy, the problem is not the liminality.
Dan Hartland: The genre discussion is so dreaded, of course, because it rapidly devolves into a series of dances around heads of pins: already we're wondering about extents and levels and relative presences in Hild, seeking to calibrate various of its elements rather than encounter them in the round. All that said, it was me who originally used this phrase "post-modern hagiography," so I'll take responsibility for it! Erin captures my own understanding of the term when she suggests that included within its bounds is precisely an undermining of the reductiveness of the original form. I might also suggest that, though Hild is complex and occassionally unlikeable, she also has some Mary Sue-ish tendencies which sometimes lead to Hild resembling a saint's life in more straightforward ways.
Whatever the usefulness of the particular phrase, it's in the conjuring of Hild that I become less and less convinced by the novel's historical anchorings. Hild is in many ways a modern figure—certainly her psychology, indeed, the psychologies of every character in the novel, are presented in ways we might recognise from other, more conventional and contemporary, literary novels. In this I'm not convinced that "immersive history" is quite right: it seems less important to me if every scop and seax is in the right place, each thegn and thung properly conjured, than if I feel a work has captured the likely thought processes of a period. And does Hild really do that? In its straightforward depiction of cynicism about religion, for example, it feels decidedly closer to Dawkins than Dunstan. Vicky rightly uses the words "recreate" and "re-envision" to describe what Griffiths is doing, and the devil is in the "re," right? Where in the words or deeds of the novel's gesiths is the plangent loyalty of the Wanderer? Where in the ealdormans' understandings of the past are the ubi sunt laments of The Ruin? In some ways, the world of Hild looks, but doesn't feel, like Anglo-Saxon England.
And that brings us back to fantasy. We're routinely told how A Song of Ice and Fire was inspired by the real medieval past, and at times Martin simply lifts episodes from the Wars of the Roses or Maurice Druon and plonks them down into Westeros. How is his use of these obvious historical antecedents qualitatively different to Griffith's? In extent, of course—but then we return to the genre discussion of doom, and to Erin's important questions about the liminality of Hild's magic. Daeneyrs has actual dragons, Hild just has Sherlockian skills which present as magic: I don't know whether the way in which either of these conceits re-envisions the medieval past has a qualitative effect upon the nature of the novel's mode.
That's why I wonder if we might want to pick up that phrase I used earlier, historical fantasia. In music, a "fantasia" is an improvised composition without a strict form. If ASoIaF allies itself very clearly with the form of high fantasy, I'd certainly accept that Hild does not. In its obsession with materiality, however—with the lived-in quality of a medievalised past that is often festishised by fantasy authors—I wonder if Hild doesn't play much more fast and loose with history than it seems to on the surface. Griffith is interested in burhs and baldrics, maybe, but not necessarily in the way in which the past conditioned people's thoughts and understandings differently—indeed, she has said in an interview with the Paris Review that, "I wanted to show that the people fourteen hundred years ago had minds just like ours." Perhaps, then doesn't sit with either historical fantasy or historical fiction very comfortably. This careful and interesting threading, in fact, might be the very way in which the novel manages to open up space for an examination of intersectionality, which as Vicky says is one of the most exciting things about it . . . and which I hope we talk more about!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It surprises me too that Hild is read as fantasy, yet I can see that from the point of view of readers who are accustomed to reading a lot of a certain kind of fantasy, and who may not have heard of Hilda of Whitby, or know very much about early English history Hild could be regarded as pressing a number of the right buttons, ergo they automatically read it like that.
And particularly when, as Dan says, it possesses certain Mary Sue-ish characteristics. I was, of all things, struck by a vague resonance with McCaffrey's Dragonsinger novels, and I suspect my own initial delight in it stems in part from a sense that it could be a very easy novel to read oneself into if one so desired.
I wonder if for some it is fantasy because of the detail, and the resultant perceived "world-building."
(And more prosaically, and I hesitate to say this, but feel I needs must, there is always the group of people for whom, once you've written one or two fantasy or SF novels, anything else you do will be co-opted as such even when it clearly isn't—genre by association.)
Erin Horáková: I also strongly agree with Dan's points about not necessarily feeling the Medieval Mind. What do we lose when we say "people of the past were just like us!"? Obviously yes, in that they were real people rather than morons because they didn't know about germ theory, and "people of the past" weren't static cut outs whose ideas were monolithic and simple, who were wholly devoid of doubt or cynicism. But ideas and intellectual fashions are technologies, and it did bother me that priests and lay people of all stripes didn't seem to experience religiosity, because that feels out of place, even as it would if they'd all been using iPhones.
This is a weird analogy, but in the Big Finish Doctor Who audios, there's an ancient Egyptian companion, and the play that introduces her takes special care to say she's (secretly) atheist, that she's rational and scientific. So that's all right then, she's worthy of being a companion! Except how would that work for an ancient Egyptian who's been raised to believe she's a vital living cog in the religiously-constructed world, and that her faithful adherence to certain religious practices literally keeps her people alive and her society going? In historical fiction and its SFFnal variants, when we graft "a modern mindset" onto historical figures or invented characters, and thus enshrine someone who was Right before their time—is it a sort of Time Colonialism? Can this hunt-the-rational-person-we-can-identify-with activity be disconnected from how we think about people who are religious right now? Is it about showcasing the variety and complexity of religious opinion in times not our own, or about shoring up our own convictions, building a lineage for them?
And I know Mary Sue is a loaded term, often deployed to dismiss female agency of any kind (I've often wished for a framework to discuss over-powered protagonists and femme Wesley Crushers that hasn't been so co-opted by dismissive sexism) but I agree with Dan here—there is something about the way the narrative fetishizes Hild's omni-competence (and for me, it was most visible in the action sequences) that made me a bit uncomfortable. And you could say—"well, but we all put up with it in a brotagonist like Sherlock Holmes!" And that's true, but only to a point—it's only the ludicrousness of Guy Ritche's world as a whole that saves his brawling version for me, and nothing on this earth could save Moffat's insufferable Sherlock. I think the differences in the extent to which I can accept the various versions of that character show what a delicate thing "super-competent characters and their narrative's degree of sympathetic alignment with them" is. Perhaps your limits there are also quite personal—that character's my bae, you want to punch her teeth out, and vice versa.
Victoria Hoyle: I'm also put off by the kind of throwaway "people of the past were just like us" approach to psychological realism in historical fiction, and I have a lot of sympathy with Dan's comparison of Hild with Paul Kingsnorth's Wake. That book is determined to distinguish its actors from its contemporary readers, both linguistically, mentally and ethically, to the point of alienation. As a result it's both challenging and sort of enchanting; it has its own power definitely. But I wouldn't say that I think Griffith's approach in Hild is any less a valid attempt to access the early medieval mind, as both are equally readings or interpretations of historical evidence. Kingsnorth choses distance and difference as his point of departure, but his protagonist is no less modern in some ways than Hild in spite of that. Wake is enormously impacted by contemporary discourse on, for example, PTSD and an understanding of mental health that is entirely 21st century. When Griffith says that "people of the past were just like us" I don't agree with her—how can we ever access sufficient understanding of them to judge?—but I do think that attempts to represent their difference in fiction are all equally limited. I'm not sure I know how Hild could have done it better, only differently. I say that because I don't think Griffith has written a narrative that aligns with contemporary mores or perspectives. There were numerous points where I felt that jerk of disjuncture: the casual violence, the acceptance of slavery and stratification of power, the dominance of an oral rather than written tradition.
A couple of other things. I wanted to pick up on Erin's point about the lack of religious conviction in the book. It's something I've chatted to other people about, because it seems unrealistic that characters should just switch their faith. I've been thinking about this in two ways. First, as I understand it the spread of Christianity in this period was explicitly political and conversion was strategic, especially at the level of society where Hild is operating. Second, I think the book does a good job of distinguishing between religious belief and religious affiliation. I think I'm right in remembering that although many of Edwin's gesiths, including Cian, are baptised early on they don't necessarily change what they believe, and continue to carry their symbols of Woden in battle and sing his songs in the hall. I thought Griffith was quite sensitive to the stages of conversion, putting us on the front line of a transition that will take generations.
And finally, both Erin and Dan have used the dreaded label of Mary-Sue and Hild in the same sentence, which makes me feel beholden to ride to her defence. I can see what Erin means about Hild's omni-competence—it does seem like she can do everything asked of her—but I also see that omni-competence as being a part of the presentation about herself that Hild has to make in the world. Being a seer requires that she has an otherworldly lack of weakness, a supernatural perfection. Under that she makes lots of errors, feels afraid, judges situations wrongly, is angry and selfish and uses people for her own gain.
Hild features a wide range of different characters, with diverse experiences. In what ways does the novel link its exploration of the intersections between ethnicities, genders, sexualities and religious beliefs to its plot and larger structure? How successful is it at weaving its thematic strands together, both at a societal level and as they relate to the character of Hild herself?
Victoria Hoyle: It's now almost three months since I read Hild and it would be fair to say that I've come to remember it by themes rather than by plot. The detail of the here-there, this-that has fallen away quite rapidly and left behind a sense of place and those "intersections of ethniticities, genders, sexualities and religious beliefs" of the question. I have so much to say I don't know where to start!
Ethnic distinctions are built into the language and structure of the book from the opening scenes. The three year old Hild we meet is bilingual, but already aware of the difference between her mother tongue and the wealh language of her male friend Cian. This difference is clearly not only in the sound and shape of the words—although Griffith describes that wonderfully well—but in where they can be appropriately used, with and by whom. Even at such a young age Hild understands that one language carries more weight and influence because it is spoken by a ruling elite, while the other is more intimate and familial and belongs to the labouring classes. I appreciated the way in which Hild learnt to deploy these languages (and Latin too later on) as a register of difference, to get what she wanted or to signal her shifting allegiance to one identity group or another at a given time. And I also found it incredibly sad that she loses her affinity to the wealh language as she grows older, and her influential royal position asserts itself.
Gendered expectations structure both Hild's life and the novel itself. Men and women of the ruling class are expected to follow set trajectories, with marked divisions of labour. One of the central conflicts of Hild's character is her coming to terms with the ways in which her own unusual situation diverge from the norm. Being the King's seer, this special quasi-religious status she has, puts her into situations which would otherwise be the preserve of young men—royal visitations and battles. She convinces Cian to teach her to fight with a club, leads groups of men against outlaws, saves damsels in distress and kills both in anger and in fear. And then she comes home and weaves and works in the dairy and struggles to name her anomalous status. She can be neither a warrior or a weaver. The closest analogue she has are the Christian priests, the men in skirts, whose gendered male status is changed by their religious beliefs.
Hild's bisexuality has been one of the most talked-about aspects of the book (no guesses as to why, I suppose), but for me the most interesting questions of sexuality in the book are addressed in the person of Gwladus, Hild's slave and lover. She appears first in one of my favourite scenes, where a pre-teen Hild calls out a bully at the market, and then proceeds to steal the show for me. Her position is tough: she's wealh, a woman and a slave to someone in a precarious position of power. Her only currencies are her sharp intelligence, which she can only use at certain times in certain ways, and sex, which she uses to secure status with both men and women. I appreciated Griffith's sensitivity in showing that Gwladus is low status, desperately limited and lonely, but also that she is challenging and difficult, hard to like. Hild's relationship with her is both fascinating and slightly sickening, bringing to the surface issues of power and control, sexuality, ethnicity and class.
Dan Hartland: I can on this question agree with every word of Vicky's appreciation: easily the most interesting and compelling aspect of Hild is its thematic treatment of the various intersectional identities at play within its pages. As Vicky notes, Griffith's Northumbria is a society built around strict codes and behavioural norms, and these are signified very clearly by language and dress, by proximity to power in the mead hall and by the food and drink one consumes within it (we recall the scene in which potency is linked to the quantity of mead consumed, for example). These hierarchies are disrupted in multiple ways throughout the novel—and I'm glad Vicky pointed out the role of the Christians (who are described at one point as "mincing"), because the complexity of their depiction in particular fascinated me.
At the heart of the disruptions, however, is of course Hild. It can be no coincidence that the reader's attention is routinely drawn to her seax—a weapon that can be used to cut and hew things, of course, but which also nods toward intercourse and gender. If Hilda's real-life position later in life as a powerful and respected abbess is not quite as surprising as Griffith seems to find it (nuns were often highly active politically and intellectually in the first millennium of Christianity, only later being confined to their nunneries), then Hild at least creates a very rich fictionalised route to full participation for a woman in this hide-bound society. Indeed, Hild is not the only woman to follow it: one of the most interesting characters in the novel is her mother, Breguswith, who knows better than perhaps any character in the novel how to play the games of her society. (Not for the first time in Hild, I was put most in mind of Dune, in Breguswith's case seeing something of the all-seeing Bene Gesserit and of Lady Jessica—but all of that is surely for another, more tedious, discussion.)
It's in these soft but significant disruptions of what we may or may not have come to believe to be the patriarchal rigour of early medieval society, by which in general the men of the novel seem not to be overly troubled, that the novel finds its best moments: again as Vicky says, Gwladus, "sold like a sucking pig", is in many ways its masterstroke, a character far more able than the eponymous Hild to embody Griffith's themes of intersectional struggle. Here, too, we might see the novel's interests slowly drifting away from its supposed protagonist, except that in some ways this is precisely Hild's tragedy, that in becoming a commander of men she transforms herself into what Begu calls "a carved totem". Some of the key moments in Hild's development are among the bloodiest and cruellest in the book—finishing off the wounded on a battlefield, for example—and there's an extent to which the disruptions also disrupt her. "I know what to do with women," Cian says on the final pages of the novel. "I don't know what to do with you."
By the end of the novel, perhaps, Hild has successfully escaped most of the moulds set for her, and arrived at the alternative path she begins the story declaring she wants. It's a sign of the novel's complex vision of the roles played by and allowed to individuals, however, that Hild ends this first volume in a nuanced version of that familiar role of the early medieval maiden—married off. Hild perhaps seeks to add warp to history's normative weft, not to unravel the tapestry entirely.
Erin Horáková: This is, as Dan and Vicky suggest, the best stuff about the novel. I like how this stuff is not only included, it's the fundament of the story. I don't think I have a lot to add about ethnicity and gender, and I've talked about religion for question two, so I'll touch on sexuality.
We have "ticking time bomb puberty", which always irks me. Hild's going to explode if she doesn't get some! So too Begu. Eh. I get that they're an agricultural society and so are probably pretty frank about the birds, the bees, the cows and the chickens, but something about this struck me as—annoyingly modern. Why can't they just shake hands with the czar, again? Especially if pregnancy can be this high-stakes? Y'all are about to enter into a good few centuries of monasteries and celibate spinsters and the like, so I hope your pon farr biology changes quick, or they're going to be cleaning scraps off the cloisters from all these explosions.
In Hild, marriage seems de facto understood as an economic, lineage-related, child-producing, alliance-making relationship, which differs in accordance with one's socio-economic status (so far, so AP Euro). It can overlap with, but isn't fully continuous with, the characters' understanding of what's sexually permitted and normalised (I didn't get much of a picture of different cultural ideas about sex herein, except that maybe stuffier priests were down on promiscuity).
I'm never sure about historic depictions of queerness—between this queer writer and me, a queer reader, there's a sort of transaction of wish fulfilment. "Past societies were sensible about this sort of thing, at least to a point!" Is that true, though? And even if it is, it sort of relates to Maureen's note about the world feeling inhabitable. By writing a world which, at least in some circumstances, I could safely inhabit, I feel like historical fiction and historical fantasy are inviting me to feel like I could be a Playable Character in these stories. And while I want to see queer characters, and don't want to see them all suffering horribly, I feel a bit awkward when historical writing carves out queer-friendly timezones—it feels a bit like the Idealised Woman-Friendly Celtic Peoples project of, what was it, 80s and 90s fantasy and historical fiction? If we're talking about a period where historically, it's not easy being queer, and saying it was a paradise, that's some erasure. And are we telescoping definitions of sexuality into our own, modern understandings? Because those are like, ten minutes old.
In Hild, at least, they never mention that she's bisexual per se—but they they don't seem to have any feelings about what it means to do these homosexual sex acts and have these homosexual relationships. Which is odd because they start out with some naturalised Wodin-flavored paganism, and that myth canon seems to want to say a few things about possible queerness, even if they are about the dangers of marrying Thor in drag or of changing into a woman and getting pregnant by a horse. And there's a cloying element to some of the rose-tinted "See, it was nice in the past!" because hell it probably wasn't, and I feel a bit pandered to, in a way that's extra insulting because it isn't fine now. It's an extra-layer of weirdness if I feel like a book is getting kudos—for giving a sunny queer utopia? I know that's really confusing—what would make me happy here? I think it's all about negotiating this trope, and actually, Hild does it fairly well/doesn't badly set off my fanservice cringe, though I do wish I'd gotten a bit more about what the cultures in play thought about queerness. (Though that's my gripe with Hild, really: I felt like I was always getting details—threads, never whole patterns.)
Hild's queerness is messy on an inter-personal level—her relationship with Gwladus is not a perfect affirmative Ruth and Naomi lovefest, as y'all say. The ways being in a relationship with Gwladus "masculinize" Hild though, almost making her get into a brawl over her with a better-trained warrior, and the way Hild comes back from battle ready to savage Gwladus—is this allowing a woman to have feelings and experiences we traditionally code as masculine, or I don't know, packaging this relationship as m/f?
Victoria Hoyle: I wanted to follow up on Erin's discussion of queerness in Hild. As another queer reader I definitely shared some of her reactions: wish-fulfillment and then discomfort at the unexamined acceptance of Hild's family and peers to her "bisexuality" and especially her relationship with Gwladus. However, more and more I think these reactions result from the fact that the latter is a master-slave transaction. As for their acceptance of her sexuality, I think perhaps we are reading too much into their complicity. Would they have reacted in the same way if Hild and Begu became lovers? I don't think so. Griffith shifts taboo away from the sex of the partner and on to the position that partner holds in society. It is acceptable for Hild to sleep with Gwladus because Gwladus belongs to her and is her social inferior; similarly her encounters with labourers and farmers. I read it as a dynamic of use/power rather than sexuality. Until the very end with Cian I always saw her sexual encounters as being fraught with the implications of who can and who shouldn't take control during sex. I wouldn't say, for example, that Hild and Gwladus have a good sexual relationship; I found it quite disturbing in parts. There is the issue of consent for a start—is Gwladus in a position to either chose or consent to what Hild asks of her? I interpreted this as a radical disjuncture with our own discourse of sexuality.
For further discussion:
- How important are the historical veracity and breadth of historical knowledge on display in Hild to your reading experience?
- What, if any, is the relationship between Hild and YA?
- If Griffiths had chosen to write her novel as an unambiguous fantasy novel, how would it have changed your reception of it?
- How does Hild compare to other historical or mythological novels of womens' lives? What are the novel's antecedents and travelling companions?
- To what extent do you find it possible or valuable to inhabit the temporal Other?