by Joy Ralph
Hild is a remarkable book; the first of three planned novels about the medieval abbess and royal counselor venerated among various Christian sects as Saint Hilda of Whitby, who was instrumental in the early conversion of the residents of the British Isles to Christianity. Working from the extant biographical record of St. Hilda, Griffith has teased out the events implied like a delicate tapestry, connecting the events envisioned and described in a web of historical research and keen insight into how (modern or medieval) humans struggle to relate to each other.
Without the novel’s afterword, and the research it inspired, I would have assumed a good deal more of the original source material had been available than the short entry in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Its author, Saint Bede, lists a handful of facts known about Hild’s origin: year of birth, how her royal family falls prey to the politics of King Edwin as he consolidates Northumbria, and her subsequent childhood in Edwin’s court. When the king agreed to be baptized as Christian by Bishop Paulinus, the court (of course) joined him in going through the rite. This initial short paragraph is all we hear of Hild until twenty years have passed.
What might seem a flawed set of gaps in Hild’s personal history is where the brilliance of Griffith’s authorship shines. She has woven her novel together by learning the history of Hild’s time as documented in the kingdoms and countries surrounding where she most likely lived, and extrapolating what the life of someone in her situation and social station would have been like.
This was, for me, a revelation of an earlier history than what often comes to mind when thinking of older times: before the Vikings, before the Normans, and six hundred years before the Magna Carta. In lesser hands this constructed narrative might come across as clunky or forced, tacked on to the historical events; instead the story flows naturally and smoothly as Hild grows from precocious child and royal niece to king’s seer and strategically marriageable member of Edwin’s court. The novel traces her navigation of the circumstances and her decisions that became the foundation of the diplomacy and statecraft she gained fame for in her later life.
Legendary master crafters in medieval times were said to be able to weave cloth so fine it could be compressed and passed through the eye of a needle. Griffith’s novel is like that cloth, each detail solid and real and wrapped around the warp and weft of the story to form a magnificent whole. The work is exceptionally well-grounded in the history and the ethnography of sixth and seventh century Britain. It is a historical piece set in a remarkably different place that is peopled with tribes that are commonly thought of in terms of their later history, when the consolidation of the smaller kingdoms of Hild’s time has rendered their names different words referring to the same group of people. The Anglsc (Angles) and the Saxons have yet to be yoked together into the Anglo-Saxons, and they, the Britons and Wealh (Welsh), as well as other lineages and families are separate peoples inhabiting the British Isles. Only later will they become the tapestry of the people of the British Isles in any singular sense.
What might seem a flawed set of gaps in Hild’s personal history is where the brilliance of Griffith’s authorship shines.
Hild is also a fantasy novel in the sense that Griffith has taken the scant paragraph describing Saint Hilda of Whitby’s childhood circumstances and unfolded it into a book of five hundred pages recounting the first thirteen years of Hild’s life. The events described are speculation, but they feel so real as to belie the paucity of the source material. Griffith has a feel for the time and people that allows her to spin her story with an authenticity and an attention to detail that is enticing and immersive. The majority of the main characters are recorded historical personages; Griffith includes a family tree indicating the four fictional additions she has made to the royal lineages of Northumbria.
In Hild’s day the new miracle of communication was the ability of the clergy of the Roman Catholic church to read and write, and a letter could be passed along between the priests faster than any single herald could ride to deliver the message in person. The Christian priests were valuable to the royals and other participants in the plot and scheme-ridden environment of the seventh century; in turn attempts to conquer and unite the kingdoms of the British Isles were encouraged by many of the priests with the missionary aim of increasing the numbers of baptisms. The increased interconnection and communication that resulted from the presence of the priests at court is part of what enabled monarchs like Edwin to expand and consolidate their political reach. One of the things I enjoyed most about Hild is the feel of veracity it carries throughout, and how enticing it makes learning about the actual circumstances of her time. It emphasizes the “story” in history and makes the people of those early days familiar and understandable. I recommend Hild to anyone who likes historical or fantastic fiction, and I anticipate with eagerness the rest of the trilogy.