Nicola Griffith's Hild is a historical novel set in seventh-century Anglo-Saxon England, the first volume of a planned trilogy chronicling the transformation of a homeless, fatherless three-year-old girl into an influential abbess and saint. Thanks to her mother's hard work, clever political maneuvering, and careful training in the arts of observation and caution, Hild eventually becomes attached to the court of her uncle Edwin, where she serves the king as a contingently employed prophetess, likely to be executed should her advice ever prove disastrous. As the niece of a powerful king, Hild finds ways to secure power and influence closed to most medieval women, but her unique position also endangers her life. Following the cyclical rhythms of harvests, births, and military campaigns—warring Anglo-Saxon kings have their own kind of campaign seasons—the novel shows us Hild growing up as Edwin and the other powerful men in Northumbria and abroad play at their games of thrones. In Hild's England, you can marry your enemies away with a daughter or niece, or simply kill them, whether in open battle or by other means.
Hild, then, is a historical novel driven by political intrigue, but in generic terms it also fundamentally remains a saint's life, that most popular of medieval genres—with the significant difference that this saint's life happens to be written not by a pious medieval churchman, but by a lesbian non-Christian celebrated for her science fiction and fantasy exploring LGBT issues. Griffith's marvelously rich novel, however, has persuaded me that a non-Christian may be better suited to write the life of a woman born into Anglo-Saxon paganism and baptized much later along with her king.
But where is the fantasy or science fiction in Hild? In many ways a straightforward historical novel, Hild strives for an abundance of realistic detail, but crucially engages with the supernatural throughout the course of the narrative: not all of the characters earnestly believe in the direct interventions of gods, fairies, and demons, but they rarely rule out the possibility. Indeed, we could say that supernatural possibility suffuses an otherwise realist text. For example, during a superb baptism scene, Hild can feel the presence of the mysterious demon that the priest calls Satan, even if the crying of the doused infant soon punctures her sense of the numinous. Hild's power as a seeress, too, relies on this same acceptance of the possibility of the preternatural. Her mother, for example, sets Hild on the path to becoming a seeress by claiming that a prophetic dream had foretold that her child would become "the light of the world." In private, Hild denies any supernatural gift or pact: "I'm not a seer, either. I just notice things" (p. 61).
This gift for "noticing things" allows Hild to predict and prevent a sneak attack that would have struck while Edwin's army was away, but she is sufficiently intelligent to explain to the king that she derived this knowledge from a dream rather than her own superior logic and military expertise as a ten-year-old girl. Hild, then, accepts her "mantle of the uncanny" (p. 74), but her gift is in fact plain canniness. She can read flights of birds like any good seer, but again her apparently divine gift comes down to observation and understanding: she "foresees" bad weather by noticing the exhaustion of some seabirds, exhaustion that in her reasoning must have been caused by their struggles in a storm over the water. The supernatural, then, is surely one of Hild's tools, but hardly in the typical fantasy-novel sense; the magic in Hild is simply the magic of Anglo-Saxon England.
Some of the novel's advertising copy and other reviews of it may introduce you to Hild's England by suggesting that this is the world of Beowulf. But the world of Beowulf, even with its insinuations of a cosmic struggle of order against chaos, can in fact seem small in comparison to this world. In Beowulf, we largely remained confined to a single hall, where one band of men huddles against mysterious forces before venturing forth to defeat them again and again. But the world Griffith aims to reconstruct literally contains Beowulf, as we see in a passing reference to a singer of "the good story about the Geats and the dragon" (p. 429). The scope of Hild is not a single great warrior and his comitatus, but Anglo-Saxon England in all its richness and complexity: its fields, forests, streams, peasants, livestock, food, spices, fabrics, markets, princes, politics, wars, customs, languages, and more. Irish priests trickle in from the west, and emissaries from a distant Rome somewhere to the southeast. Griffith elegantly captures a sense of vast distances and a wider world beyond Hild's narrow experience: when her sister leaves to marry a king in East Anglia, the two seem worlds apart, and the Franks live even farther away.
Speaking now in my capacity as a professional medievalist, I'd also judge the novel an excellent representation of the complexities of the Anglo-Saxon conversion, a slow and gradual process that involved a great deal of politicking and a great deal of cultural and theological reconciliation. For a time, Edwin rules with both a Christian bishop and a pagan seeress at his side, and, as Hild becomes more acclimated to Christianity, her existing values mediate her understanding of the new religion she adopts: sin remains the most difficult concept for her to grasp, but she quickly recognizes the importance of baptism as a kind of oath. Griffith also pays commendable attention to the multilingual character of seventh-century Britain, and integrates a significant amount of Old English into her own prose, particularly in the case of untranslatable concepts like "wyrd" and "wealh." Major characters, too, have names with letters no longer used in the modern alphabet (æ, ash; ð, eth; and so on), and other words contain macrons indicating vowel length (such as "wīc"). Some readers may find these orthographic decisions alienating, but Griffith includes a helpful glossary and some other supplementary materials for the new visitor to the English Middle Ages. At times it can even prove challenging to keep track of Hild's age, to say nothing of all the goings-on in distant kings and kingdoms—disclosed in scraps of overheard conversation or fragmentary written messages—but part of the novel's pleasure lies in its occasional difficulty, much like the experience of studying the Anglo-Saxon era itself.
Old English literature, after all, is a literature of gaps. The poetry in particular delights in deliberate circumspection, filled with rhetorical devices like understatement, euphemism, litotes (the use of negatives to affirm a positive), and apophasis or paralipsis (saying by not saying). A caesura divides each line of verse into two half-lines, and modern editions represent this pause typographically as a large blank space:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon.
And of course there are the inevitable gaps in our knowledge of Old English literature: we have only a small fraction of the manuscripts produced during this time, and many of those still extant have textual loss due to fragmentation or damage (including even the Nowell Codex, the Beowulf-manuscript). The size of Old English vocabulary is relatively small, but individual appearances of words can become all the more cryptic for it. With no firm conclusions, scholars also still debate the nature of the relationship between the few written texts we have and a much vaster oral tradition, and then there is the matter of the scanty historical record itself. These various kinds of gaps imbue Griffith's narrative in various ways, including the use of several favored Anglo-Saxon rhetorical devices.
In an inadvertent paralipsis, Hild ponders a reminder of a lost past by attempting not to call it to mind: "She refused to think about the beautifully carved but clumsily painted box on its shelf above her bed, the eight ivory wafers wrapped in violet linen" (p. 113). As in Old English poetry, there is also a persistent strain of the elegiac in Hild: we observe again and again how Anglo-Saxon civilization flourishes amid the ruins left by the departed Romans, and Hild repeatedly becomes victim of tormenting memory: "She felt a twist inside, a longing for a family and home that never was" (p. 86). Anglo-Saxon elegy is often specifically a poetry of exile, and Griffith picks up on this theme as well; after the death of Hild's royal father, her childhood caregiver laments, "We are alone in this world" (p. 8). Even Griffith's prose sometimes falls into the distinctive cadences of Old English verse: "Autumn blew, leaves fell, flames flickered, and in hall song turned to war" (p. 10).
"[G]roaning with gold" (p. 329), a polished gem of an alliterative epithet, may be the most Anglo-Saxon phrase in the book. But the novel's stylistic affiliations with Old English literature run deeper still, and also become evident in how much this tale of alliances and intrigue leaves unsaid. Of course, there are practical reasons for Griffith's characters to keep silent and speak slant: "Even at three, [Hild] understood the danger of overhearing a hint that a king in his own hall was an oath-breaker. Never say the dangerous thing aloud" (p. 11). This piece of advice will become one of Hild's mantras, and her tutor, an Irish priest, later quotes a bit of Anglo-Saxon wisdom that will become a second important refrain for the novel: "As your poets say, 'Fate goes ever as it must.' You must, you must, learn to see the world as it is" (p. 118). This repeated sentiment, "Fate goes ever as it must," echoes the Beowulf line "Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel" (445b), and another version appearing in The Wanderer: "Wyrd bið ful aræd [Fate is entirely inexorable]" (5b). Hild's own mother frequently answers questions with questions, or otherwise speaks in riddles worthy of an Anglo-Saxon collection of wisdom literature. Indeed, the wiser, more conscientious characters we see in the novel tend to be female: they have to be, in this world in which "Men are afraid women will laugh at them" but "Women are afraid men will kill them" (p. 16).
But it's not all fear and darkness for the women in Hild. One of the most refreshing things about the novel—especially, I'll admit, for someone who reads medieval literature with some frequency—is that we see medieval women behave like human beings: eating, drinking, drinking to excess, masturbating. Of course, most often we see these women working. The novel features scene after scene of labor, but reading these passages never feels laborious, perhaps because of the richness of detail that Griffith lavishes on them, which sometimes rises to a kind of sacramentalization of work. Work is everywhere, even when people are not working: as Hild observes a new sail, we not only learn that it is "beautifully dyed and tightly woven," but are also casually reminded that it represents "the work of ten women for a year" (p. 110).
At various times, the novel praises Hild's "pattern-making mind," but we are also led to understand that this attribute of her intellect finds nourishment in the literal weaving she must do as a medieval woman. Weaving appears as a major metaphor elsewhere in the novel, as when Hild grows suspicious of one of her mother's plots: "My mother is . . . She's planning something. Making up a pattern to weave all the threads into, to tell a story" (p. 263). Another epic saga of political intrigue, Frank Herbert's Dune series, refers to such plots as "plans within plans" or "wheels within wheels," but Griffith prefers these more complex images of patterns, weaving, and the loom, which themselves boast of a long lineage, from the three Fates of Greco-Roman mythology—the one who spins, the one who measures, and the one who cuts—to the "Loomings" of Melville's Moby Dick ("Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver!"; "The weaver-god, he weaves"). But in Hild, the metaphor always retains a close connection to actual work, the intricate labor of textile production that dominated the lives of most medieval women.
By the novel's end, we also come to understand the Hild's pattern-making mind perhaps aims higher than her mother's intrigues: Hild grows interested in the weaving of the world. Somehow, the "women's work" of weaving allows Hild to ponder very material practicalities as well as eternal questions, and at one point she suspects that she shares this interest in the great patterns of things with a bishop, perhaps a hint of later, less political interests in Christianity: "Did his god talk to him? Did it make him feel the way she did when she felt the pattern looking out at her from every blade of grass, every leaf, every beetle's wing?" (p. 489).
Despite these glimpses of a higher order in the pattern of the world, Hild returns us again and again to the physical embodiment of work like weaving, and Griffith, through Hild, reflects on how that labor is gendered. For example, one of the striking differences that Hild observes between male and female labor is how the latter must always be interlarded with childcare, compared to the interruption-free work of a male smith: "She thought of women always having to break the flow of their spinning to catch a child back from the fire, or pause in the heckling of tow to bind a wound" (p. 134). Although plausibly couched in Anglo-Saxon terms, this is obviously a modern feminist recognition of a "room of one's own" problem that endures today, when the greater burden of childcare in heterosexual marriages where both partners work still statistically falls on the woman. This is not to say that Hild is simply the mouthpiece of a contemporary feminist progressivism dropped into the seventh century. After all, Hild may be a strong female character in Anglo-Saxon England, but chattel slavery still makes perfect sense to her, at least at first: "'We shall buy a slave.' A wedding gift for Hereswith. More practical than a gold brooch" (p. 136).
Although Hild decides against purchasing a slave for her sister, she ends up with one of her own after witnessing a disturbing scene at a slave auction. Hild first responds to the slave with compassion when she notices a physical resemblance between her sister and the slave, and recoils at the thought of her sister being captured and sold into slavery by a victorious enemy king. Later, Hild comes to recognize that a deeper parallel between the respective situations of her sister and the slave had caused her to imagine a resemblance between the two: "Hereswith was this wealh woman's age, being sold by Edwin—in a finer marketplace, it was true, but still, sold like a sucking pig" (p. 145). In other words, Hild finds herself objecting to the role of the "peaceweaver" in Anglo-Saxon politics—the woman sent off to marry a foe and secure an alliance—and begins to see the inhumanity of both slavery and the place of "free" women in Anglo-Saxon society. But Hild buys and keeps that slave anyway, out of loneliness: if Hild is progressive for her time, she is also human. Fortunately, the relationship that develops between Hild and her slave is one of the novel's most interesting explorations of the interpersonal interactions among Anglo-Saxon women, about which we naturally have very little historical evidence.
Even if Griffith's depiction of life for Anglo-Saxon women diverges in some ways from what their lives were really like, for the most part the experiences and subjectivities that she imagines fall within the bounds of possibility. I see no reason, then, to nitpick this or that historical detail, but I will say a little about the novel's language. Griffith demonstrates a preference for the solid Anglo-Saxon register of modern English: words like "wold" tend to crowd out over French imports like "forest," which came to replace them after the Norman invasion. In combination with the novel's healthy seasoning of genuine Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, this language policy does much to contribute to the reader's immersion in pre-Conquest England, but I have to point out that occasionally Griffith employs vocabulary that sounds more authentic than it really is. For instance, words like "flux" and "ague" sound like historical terms for diseases, but, as far as I can tell, their use in English postdates the Anglo-Saxon period. Similarly, French legal terms like "pannage" did become common in late medieval England, but would have been alien to an Anglo-Saxon; one character even uses the word "lackadaisical," which Laurence Sterne invented in the late eighteenth century.
More noteworthy is Griffith's repeated use of the word "wight," a very common Old English word meaning "human being" or "living creature." Even in the later Middle Ages, the word typically referred to a supernatural entity only with a qualifying adjective, as in "an evil wight." In Griffith's usage, the word instead seems to refer unequivocally to some kind of Tolkienesque wraith, a chilling barrow wight: "They will breathe on your face as you sleep and you will be trapped in a cold dream forever and ever and ever" (p. 14). In short, Griffith's wights owe more to Tolkien and his legacy in contemporary fantasy than they do to Anglo-Saxon concepts of supernatural beings, just as two words that Tolkien adapted from generic Old English terms for giants and monsters, "ent" and "orc," have come to represent very specific types of creatures in genre fantasy. In a novel like Hild, however—a product of its own time and place of composition—I don't know that we should even consider this modern influence a flaw. Historical novels inevitably incorporate many layers and many other reconstructions of the era that they strive to recreate, and that the wights of the great medievalist J. R. R. Tolkien should haunt later novels set in Anglo-Saxon England seems perfectly fitting.
Of course, Nicola Griffith—an author decorated with multiple Lambda and Gaylactic Spectrum Awards, and co-editor of the Bending the Landscape volumes of LGBT fantasy, SF, and horror—has written a very different life of Hilda of Whitby than a Catholic medievalist like Tolkien might have written, and there is more to be said about the queerness of Hild. Yes, there is same-sex desire in Hild—and more than desire—but it is clear that Griffith's goal in writing the novel was not simply to queer the famous Christian abbess and consider her mission accomplished. I'll admit to some surprise at how deftly and successfully Griffith fits queer desire into what most readers know only as the hyper-macho world of Beowulf, and how much sense it makes at every point. In fact, the Anglo-Saxon England imagined in Hild not only accommodates the bare existence of non-heteronormative sexualities, but also becomes a vehicle for more complex meditations on queerness.
With Griffith's help we can read the introduction of Christianity as a kind of queer moment in English history, destabilizing gender structures along with all of the political and religious upheavals. To Hild, the Christian priests, celibate men eschewing combat and wearing robes or "skirts" more appropriate to women, almost define a new gender category: "What about men in skirts, where did they fit? Skirt or sword, book or blade" (p. 90). In a later discussion about sin that takes place between Hild and a priest, Griffith again manages to ask questions that seem very contemporary within the framework of Anglo-Saxon England, the kinds of questions that medieval scholars have recently begun to ask of Old English literature. The priest first laughs at Hild for asking what degree of deception counts as falsehood: "'What counts as a lie?' You're as slippery as a bishop. If only women could take the vow!" Griffith has Hild answer with a serious joke: "Hild said solemnly, 'What, exactly, counts as a woman?' And this time she laughed, too" (p. 454).
Hild has good reason to ask such a question: her own gender identity has become quite complex by this point in the novel. Men sometimes use "freemartin" as a term of abuse for her, but to some extent the narrative reclaims this recurrent image of the freemartin, an infertile cow hormonally masculinized in the womb by a male twin. Hild comes to appreciate her special access to both the male and female spheres, rather than neither of them, where she ultimately seems to consign the priests: "Unlike Paulinus [the bishop], she was both skirt and sword" (p. 399). Hild achieves power within patriarchy by accepting that uncanny mantle, her "cloak of otherness" (p. 110), and one of the real charms of Griffith's novel is the way in which the author manages to tell the story of a woman from this time without either imagining a fantasy world where women can wield power through magic, or simply valorizing hearth and home over male activities like battle and politics (from which women were of course largely excluded).
For example, for all of its many virtues, Ursula K. Le Guin's novel about ancient Rome, Lavinia (2008), falls into the latter category, as Lavinia can accomplish equally heroic deeds in a sphere nevertheless strictly differentiated from the masculine heroics of her husband Aeneas. Hild, on the other hand, relishes exploding such binaries, achieving success in both worlds: "there were different kinds of power: the still, pent power of the seer; the free, raging power of the butcher-bird. But did there have to be only one path?" (p. 452). The butcher-bird is the gruesome symbol that Hild adopts for herself when on the "masculine" warpath, as it were. But note that the chainmail coif that Hild wears on the cover of the novel is a little misleading: Hild does not become a great leader in battle for an entire nation, some phallicized warrior woman on the model of Joan of Arc and all her progeny in contemporary fantasy. Instead, this butcher-bird never draws a sword, and only participates in battle when leading a small expedition of men to hunt down some outlaw bandits.
Even so, Hild takes pride in her ability to use the kind of violent force usually reserved for men: "A lady of wyrd, a lady who could kill. Skirt and sword" (p. 421). Yet violence, especially through the chilling image of the butcher-bird, haunts the entire novel, and one wonders, as the series continues, if Hild will become even more critical of or at least more ambivalent about her complicity in structures of violence than she already is: "She understood why a king often threatened violence. It felt good, and it worked" (p. 151). Hild can claim power and knowledge in both the traditional male and female spheres, but, in the end, does she want to belong to both of these worlds, or can she find her own new path?
Griffith has left me quite interested to see where the future books will take Hild, even though we know where she'll end up: a Benedictine abbey in Yorkshire, the place where a famous synod was held to determine once and for all when Easter should fall and how monks should shave their heads. I recall once, in an undergraduate medieval history course, when our professor asked why it mattered so much how you calculated the date of Easter. In a sense, Griffith has already begun to articulate the stakes of the looming Synod of Whitby in her portrayals of the conflict between the Irish and Roman churches. In fact, Griffith's answer to the question of why the Easter math matters probably does not differ so much from the answer that my professor wanted from us: power. In the follow-ups to Hild, Griffith's challenge will be to answer this question in a way that makes for a compelling narrative, but, based on this first effort, I am confident that Griffith, like Hild always does, will find a way.
T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.