Hild: A Lyrical, Lingering World

HildOriginally published at Fantasy Literature.

Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel is something rare. It’s a historical fantasy, but it’s not a magical adventure, a bodice-ripper, a military drama, or even a political thriller. It’s not the kind of book you dive into and finish a day later and forget almost immediately. Hild is a whole world with a taste and texture of its own. It lingers.

The story is a fictionalized (but not fantasized) vision of the early life of Hilda of Whitby, a slightly obscure 7th century English saint. The plot clings to the trailing skirts of a young girl who becomes the seer to a medieval King. Amid a sea of old English names and places (Ǽthelfrith, Ealdwulf, Caer Loid, Hwicce), Hild uses her influence and intelligence to navigate the choppy waters of politics and war. It’s a slow, beautiful story full of winter evenings by the hearth and long rides through the countryside and sudden spurts of violence. It’s simultaneously about the huge, grinding ways that cultures change, the depth and complexity of the past, and a young girl making her own way.

In the spirit of full confession, Hild is not technically fantasy. There’s no magic performed in the story. Merlin doesn’t stroll in halfway through and have a magical showdown with Morgan le Fay, and there aren’t any dragon sightings or wood sprites or Faeries spelled with an ‘e.’ Hild’s own magic as a seer is a combination of artifice, mystery, and her own fierce observational intelligence. But it does feel like fantasy, and not just because we’ve been hardwired to expect sorcery whenever we see a sword.

It feels like fantasy because, in 7th century England, the lines between the rational and supernatural, religious and superstitious, magical and real, had simply not been created yet. Those boundaries were built over the next thousand years, constructed from the exclusivity of Christianity, the skepticism of the Age of Reason, and the aggressive modernism of the 19th century. But in the 600s, life was still a constant series of negotiations between the material and magical worlds. Hild’s youth and brilliance are not objective realities, but tools to manipulate the mysteries of her world.

More broadly, Griffith has created a medieval England that is free of the colorful revisions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Walter Scott and T.H. White and the whole Arthurian revival haven’t infected Hild’s England with their mostly-nonsense about codes of chivalry and round tables. Instead, we find an England that is in a constant state of cultural upheaval. Borders change, mythologies mix, and languages evolve. Even greater changes lurk on the horizon: Christianity is gaining its second toehold, bringing along a new Church hierarchy and a culture of literacy.  Nicola Griffith didn’t write the medieval past she imagined, but the one she painstakingly researched.

The subtle decisions of syntax and vocabulary are crucial to this intricate world-building. A hefty number of old English and Celtic and Germanic and Latin and British terms work their way into the story, which is at first disorienting (what is a gesith? Or a wealh? Or, lord help me, a gemaecce?). It’s not dissimilar from the feeling you get from epic science fiction when it plops you onto a new planet and starts chatting about spice-mining or the Spacing Guild or the Mri. But, as other reviewers have already noted, the past is at least as “alien” as the future or an unknown planet.

Griffith’s language is at its best in the descriptions of the natural world. Every bird and flower has its name, and every shift in the weather has meaning. There’s something about the lyrical, effortless way she integrates nature and the human experience that makes it terribly real. The Anglisc language drums “like apples spilt over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring,” as compared to the “otter-swift” British (5). Hild herself is a watcher, an observer, and the habits and motions of the natural world have shaped her thoughts.

St. HildNo amount of research and lyricism would save this book if it weren’t for Hild herself: A girl in and of the past, navigating a complex and patriarchal world. Griffith hasn’t caved to the strong-woman-defies-patriarchy-and-becomes-a-legit-knight tendencies of fantasy with female leads (although, admittedly, Hild does learn to use a staff). Hild gains power and influence for herself and her family, but not by hacking up bad guys and teaching everyone about equal rights for women. Instead, her weapon is her intelligence. She also isn’t motivated by some personal horror-story—she isn’t strong because she was “broken first,” she’s strong because she has natural ambitions and hopes of her own. She changes the world not because she’s man-like, but because she’s human-like.

Notes and other reviews:

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6 comments

  1. I am, honestly, so excited to read this book (at whatever point that I might get a chance to do so). After seeing a ridiculous number of glowing reviews, not to mention reading about Griffth’s process and the amount of research and work she put into Hild, I feel like I’m obligated to read it as a die-hard fan of good historical fiction. Thank you for writing a thorough review and for whetting my appetite even further!

    1. I know! I felt very much like I published my review, read everybody else’s, and realized we all had the same things to say about it. The only caveat I might make is that there are some times when it drags–we don’t get to skip to the interesting bits. But, obviously, I recommend it whole-heartedly.

      1. It seems like bits which drag are unavoidable–I have yet to read an enjoyable book which proceeds at a breakneck pace from beginning to end. (Key word being “enjoyable.)

        Also, side note: Why would anyone care about the spelling of your name? If you wanted insist that 41!8 is pronounced “Alix,” that should be your prerogative, yeah? I say that as someone who spends a LOT of time correcting people regarding her own name, so maybe I’m touchy on this point, but still. Take that, haters, indeed.

  2. It’s been awhile since I’ve read any historical fiction, which is a shame as that used to be my go-to favorite. This one sounds like a good place to jump back into the genre!

    1. Dude. This book. It’s like the most thoroughly researched fiction I’ve ever read. I just realized/was told that Griffith intentionally avoided verbs with Latin roots and chose English or Germanic ones instead (like using “gather” instead of “collect”), even outside of the dialogue. Like, just, all the time. That’s insane.

      Also, as a special historical gift to you, there’s a really excellent exploration of medieval slavery as a sub-theme. One of the main characters is a very complicated slave woman who I think is…Welsh? Anyway. Good. The book is good.

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