Hild, by Nicola Griffith, is not a book everyone will love. It is set in medeival Britain, and uses plenty of words from Old English, Old Irish, and Brythonic. (There is a glossary at the back.) (It is the second book I've read in a row that made me question when we started using the F word: it first appeared in print in 1680, so in Longbournits use was timely, but here it is anachronistic.) Many of the characters' names are very similar (AEthelric, AEthelfrith, and AEthelburh, for example), which makes it hard to keep track of who's who. And, speaking of characters, there are a lot, many more than you'll find in the family tree at the start of the book. Many of the place names are not the ones you're likely to associate with Britain— Bernicia? Deira? Hwicce? Gwynedd? The politics are confusing. It casts Christianity in a muddy light. There are a handful of sex scenes; war, murder, death, and violence; and yes, the use of the F word (and a few other swears). At nearly 550 pages, it's a long book.
So now that all of the seeming negatives are out of the way (for me, the only real negative was not completely understanding the politics), can I tell you how much I loved this book? Loved it in the same way I love The Mists of Avalon, and for one of the same reasons: my inexplicable pull towards Britain, especially pre-ChristianBritain. Hild brings medieval England to life in extraordinary ways.
Hild was a real person; Saint Hilda, who established the Celtic-style monastery at Whitby. She had a reputation for wisdom; five of the men from her monastery became bishops, and kings and princes sought out her advice. But she was also known for her care for the poor.
This book explores her early years. Imagines them, really, as nothing is known of her except for her birth (the daughter of the exiled brother of King Edwin ofNorthumbria) and her baptism (in 627 along with the rest of King Edmund's royal family). She is imagined as King Edwin's seer; he relies on her to prophecy what choices he should make to further his ambition of being king over all of Britain.
In this time in Britain, the Romans had left centuries ago, but Edwin's wife brings a Roman bishop, Paulinus, with her when she marries him. The Catholic church is trying to establish itself in Britain, which had Christian priests but was mostly pagan.
The "prophecy" that Hild manages (from a very young age) is mostly based on her ability to observe carefully and then make connections between what she knows and what its impact might be. As she gets older, she trains with her oldest friend, Cian, for battles, as the king usually wants her to come along to the many different wars. Her mother, Breguswith (who predicted before her daughter was born that her baby would be "the light of the world"), is instrumental in encouraging Hild'sproclivity for seemingly-uncanny knowledge.
Hild uses her successes to build wealth and a sort-of extended family: her friend Begu who becomes her gemaecce (a formalized relationship, sort of like marriage, except between two women friends); her slave Gwladus who becomes more than a person who works for her; the Irish priest Fursey, who was captured in a battleHild prophesied and who taught her (and later her sister Hereswith) to read and write; different slaves, soldiers, and priests of Edwin's household. She convinces the king to give her land in Elmet (where she lived until her father was murdered), and so she also acquires her own retinue of farmers, servants, shepherds, and weavers.
These people help Hild in many ways, not the least of which is combating the loneliness she feels as the king's (very young) seer. But they also add tension, because if her prophecies and advice prove false, it isn't just her who will be punished, and this is where the story's suspense comes from. How will she guide the king to make decisions that will help both of them? She manipulates the outcomes of his decisions with hints, suggestions, timely dreams, and omens interpreted in ways that make him see different perspectives. She's fairly brilliant, actually, and she is motivated not just by her own position, but also the king's: she knows that kings always, eventually fall.
But it isn't just a novel of long-ago political maneuverings. It is also—mostly, in fact—just about long-ago life. The way they made cloth and clothes, what they ate and drank (all that mead and ale! were they ever sober?), the forms their relationships took. Also the landscape, and weather, and how they influenced nearly every part of their lives. Their health, too: there is one scene that describes what happens to a pregnant woman with untreated preeclampsia (not called that, of course; they didn't have a name for it, and only one solution, which was aborting the baby to save the mother) that is horrifying.
Also their religion.
Hild, I think, is like Emily Dickinson: she goes to church by going outside. Watching the way that plants grow, waves move, birds act, trees change, meadows evolve—this is how she partakes of the sacred. But also through her pagan observance for the god Woden. Perhaps because her real heart is within nature (and not tied absolutely to Woden), when it is politically astute for her to convert to Christianity, she does so. This part of the book was the most disturbing to me. The people give up their relationship to Woden, sometimes forcefully, for the Christian God and for Christ, but they only receive the hard parts of the religion. "Hard" not in the sense of difficult, but of unyielding. The God the priests tell them of is only one of thou-shalt-nots, of cold Sundays in stone churches. Of longing for death and giving up everything pleasant or joyful. They don't learn the full breadth of Christianity, of Christ's love, forgiveness, joy, grace, or charity. They only learn terror, and that they would give up their father's religion for what they are told is Christianity is utterly baffling to my (more-than-slightly pagan) heart.
There is a scene in the book where Coifi, the main priest of Woden and used-to-be religious adviser to the king (now supplanted by Paulinus), must show his allegiance to the now-Christian Edwin by desecrating the god's holy place. There is a spiraling path outlined by trees that leads to the totem at the center, and Coifihas to kill Woden by throwing a spear into the heart of the enclosure. An iron-tipped spear, because Woden forbade any edged weapons near his totem. "Woden, god of war and the wild hunt, god of chaos and uncertainty, pain and death, was unpredictable." But Coifi still flings the spear, and there is no lightning or thunder, no reply from Woden; one of the newly-baptized soldiers pulls the small wooden Woden's spear off from the cord around his neck and drops it into the grass.
Now he only wears the Christian cross.
This scene made me weep. Literally weep, like putting the book aside and lying down to sob. Not because I don't believe in Christ. But because the Christ I know is not who they met. Because they mostly didn't have a choice, but "chose" Christianity to stay in the king's good graces or protection. Because the Christian priests used the religion not to enlighten or educate the people, but to gain power and wealth and, in their minds, to attain their position in heaven. And, because, I confess: I don't fully understand why we strive so hard to overthrow other people's beliefs. It seems so...sterile. So utterly without mystery, everyone believing in exactly the same thing. I know I probably shouldn't feel that way, but I do.
So yes: despite the difficult vocabulary, baffling politics, proliferation of similarly-named characters, and the length, I loved Hild. Was fascinated by it, in fact. The only drawback? I didn't know that the author would be writing a sequel—Hild's adventures as an abbess, I assume—and so, while it wrapped up...well, not exactly nicelyin the sense of morally and not-at-all-strange, but with at least a conclusion, there is still much more story to be told. I hope whenever the sequel is released, I have a cold (like I did when reading this one) so I can cocoon in my bed and read it in three or four days straight.