Monday, February 10, 2014

Book review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Whether historical fiction, fantasy or another genre, the best novels create a believable world and show it to the reader. In most cases the novelist opens a window to display the world to the reader. Nicola Griffith does much more in her fascinating novel Hild. She pulls the reader right into seventh-century England and gives the reader a vantage point behind the title character’s shoulders. Griffith’s depiction of Northumbria is so vivid that the reader can hear the battle sounds and smell the animals in the barn.

Or maybe I should say byre instead of barn. One of the ways that Griffith recreates seventh-century England is through her masterful use of language. She minimizes her use of Latin-derived vocabulary in favor of words found in Old English. Some of these words are still in current spoken usage or are reasonably familiar from Anglo-Saxon history texts. I congratulated myself on knowing words such as scop (bard) and weregild (fine paid as compensation for killing), but I still found myself turning often to a dictionary. At first I was a little annoyed at having to look up words. Why didn’t Griffith just write cows instead of kine? I spent a long time trying to find a definition for toll as in the expression tolled a bead before I realized that Griffith must be using some conjugation of the word tell in its old meaning of count, as in telling rosary beads. And even when I didn’t have to look a word up, I wondered why Griffith sometimes found it necessary to use older spellings, as in strayberry instead of strawberry. But eventually I realized it was part of Griffith’s way of transporting the reader to Northumbria. After all, we wouldn’t want to go to France without reviewing some basic French greetings and expressions. Likewise, we can’t go to seventh-century England without learning some of the language of the time that has survived to the present day, at least in British usage or as an archaic form or a technical term. Griffith does provide a glossary for the most commonly used words, but that is the only concession she makes for the traveler to this long-ago world. The longhorns I pass by on my way to work and the juicy strawberries in my backyard garden are not the same as the cows and strawberries of nearly fourteen centuries ago. Griffith’s use of older terms helps remind us that we are in a different land.

Through Hild’s eyes, we also experience many aspects of life in early Anglo-Saxon times, from medicine and herbalism to the daily work of feeding and clothing a family. There was only one place where Griffith broke the spell and hurled me out of the seventh century. I have no doubt that the Anglo-Saxons sang bawdy verses full of double entendre; the Exeter Book riddles are a clue that suggestive works were enjoyed. However, I do not think that Old English verse followed the rhythm of Do your ears hang low!

The entire novel is narrated from the perspective of Hild, or St. Hilda of Whitby, as she is usually remembered today. Hild is one of the few women of her time whose name is still known in the present day. Griffith’s story is not the first fictional portrayal of Hild. The abbess appears in Ethelreda by Moyra Caldecott and A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Thomlinson, as well as Thomslinson’s young-adult book Wolf Girl. In all three of these books, Hild has already entered religious life – or is about to do so, when she first appears in Ethelreda. Griffith instead depicts the childhood and early adult life of Hild, with only the slightest foreshadowing of her later role as abbess. As Griffith observes in the author’s note, everything we know about the first half of Hild’s life can be summarized in a few sentences from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Griffith takes these few details and builds an entire story around them. The story and the world she creates are compelling, believable, and consistent with what is actually known about Hild and her time. Some of the details are not necessarily known historical facts, but they are plausible. For example, I am not aware of any documentation of formal relationships between two Anglo-Saxon women, as depicted in Griffith’s description of the gemæcce. However, in a world where women’s lives were so consumed by the task of producing clothing, it is quite possible that such partnerships may have been helpful in completing spinning, weaving, and the many other tasks required for textile production.

The novel is essentially a coming of age tale, as Hild must learn to navigate the many trials and difficulties that come her way and draw upon her strengths to find her place in life. The Hild we meet in Griffith’s novel is an extremely engaging character, with exceptional talents and abilities. The one quibble I might have with the character is that perhaps she is a bit too exceptional. Even acknowledging that she must have been one of the greatest geniuses of her age, just how many three year olds would be capable of concluding that the king was smiling just to show visitors that he was at ease in his own hall? Some of the inferences Hild makes from observing birds and other animals are just not plausible. I have learned from some of the best animal behaviorists of our time, and I do not think many of them would claim that animal behavior observations can really help them predict the actions of world leaders. Perhaps Hild was just really good at applying what she learned from the natural world to the interpretation of human events, but even that would be a remarkable ability, especially for a young child. I accept that Hild was an extraordinarily gifted and perceptive person whose advice was sought by many, but I am not convinced that the real Hild would have manifested such singular abilities at the very young ages depicted in the novel Hild.

My doubts about the extent of Hild’s singular nature are minor, and Griffith’s rich prose swept me along for the adventures in Northumbria. I recommend the book strongly. It is an essential read for anyone interested in the early Middle Ages, but the story and the writing make it a wonderful novel for any reader. Nicola Griffith is working on the sequel to Hild, and I can’t wait to see where she and Hild will take us in the next installment.

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