A thousand and more years ago the United Kingdom wasn’t. United, that is. There wasn’t yet a parliament, a monarch, or an England, a Scotland, and a Wales to join together. There was instead a hodgepodge of tribes, all with their own languages and cultures constructed out of various influences—Roman, Pictish, Celtic, Saxon, and who knows what all else—that traded and warred with about equal frequency. At the time there was little to suggest that the island of Great Britain they occupied would one day be the home of a single, coherent society. Perhaps the first glimmering of this idea was a book written in the eighth century by a man we’ve come to know as the Venerable Bede. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People helped promote a sense of national identity that hadn’t previously existed.
One of the most intriguing figures in that book and in the development of that identity gets only a few pages of coverage from Bede. She’s a woman named Hild who was born a pagan, converted to Christianity, and grew to become the founder of abbeys and an advisor to kings, truly striking accomplishments for a woman of her time. To appreciate what kind of talent and presence she must have had, think about how few women get to contribute to today’s power politics, then erase centuries of social progress. She’d make Condoleezza and Hillary look like pushovers.
Nothing at all is known about Hild other than what Bede relates, which makes her story perfect fodder for a writer’s imagination. That writer is Seattleite (and erstwhile Yorkshirewoman) Nicola Griffith, who has painstakingly converted the scant historical record into lavish fiction. Her Hild is a marvel of research, overstuffed (in the best sense) with sensory detail about life in the seventh century. When her characters eat you can taste the herbs, and when they dress you can feel the weight of richly woven fabric. You can feel the weight of expectation on their shoulders, too, especially on Hild’s.
Her story begins in childhood with the announcement of her father’s death. In his absence, her family must rely on the good will of her uncle Edwin, a petty king with designs on greater power. Coached by her mother and making use of her own intelligence and talent for observation, Hild must find a role in his court that will make her essential to him. The wrong sex to wield a sword and too young to be a wife, she learns instead to give advice so wisely that she comes to seem uncanny, always mindful that the wrong word may lead to exile or worse. It’s a delicate balance, just like the one Griffith makes between exterior action and private reflection. Hild is a thoughtful person in a tumultous world, and her namesake novel handles both those elements with equal grace. Weapons clash often enough to stir the blood of adrenaline junkies, and conversation is subtle enough to please the European art film crowd. Sir Walter Scott’s sweep with the sensibility of Austen, in other words.
Set as it is in the relatively unspoiled historical terrain of late antiquity, many reviewers have insisted on reading Hild as a fantasy: “Chain mail? Let’s call it Tolkienesque.” Its immersive, authoritative world-building and occasionally archaic vocabulary will certainly satisfy Game of Thrones fans, but Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series or Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, both resolutely realistic, might be better points of comparison. The only magic here is the hypnotic spell storytellers have always cast, from the time of Beowulf until now.