A Traveller in Time: Hild

Nicola Griffith, Hild (2013)


Hilda historical Whitby fiction

Hild is not a novel for everyone. If you are put off by the thought of a dense, slow-moving narrative largely preoccupied with political machinations in a remote period of British history, populated by a large cast of characters whose every other name seems to begin with Os- or Aeth- or Ed-, you might want to look elsewhere. But readers for whom this sounds like an intriguing challenge rather than a form of literary torture will be rewarded by a rich and immersive experience of that alien land, the past, and by the chance to encounter an unforgettable central character.

Who is Hild? She is based on a real person, the daughter of a displaced king in seventh-century Northumbria. She became known to history as Saint Hilda, founder of the important abbey of Whitby, a teacher of bishops and advisor of kings. In nearly 600 pages, the novel only deals with her early years, bringing her just over the threshold of womanhood. Only a few fragments of fact-cum-legend remain about this period of Hild’s life, tiny seeds that in Griffith’s imagination have blossomed into a comprehensive vision of an extraordinary girl growing up in a dangerous and revolutionary time, when petty kings fought for territory with ruthless brutality, and a strange new religion became another weapon in their wars.

Though baptized at thirteen as part of the general conversion of her uncle King Edwin’s court, the Hild of the novel sees the Christ as “just a god like any other.” This new god displaces Woden more through political expediency — he has powerful mortal allies in kings, bishops and archbishops, and the pope — than through any kind of inner moral transformation. Two more novels are projected to continue the story, and I am very curious to see how Hild will develop into the woman revered as a crucial figure in the development of Christianity. Will Christ come to mean anything more to her than just the god who happened to come out on top in the religion war?

It’s quite an ambitious task, this attempt to get into the minds of our hybrid pagan-Christian ancestors, and while she may make some missteps Griffith largely convinces us through the sheer vitality and piercing precision of her language. Passages of lyrical beauty bring the natural and sensual world to life, making us feel that we see through Hild’s eyes into a world unimaginably different from ours yet strangely familiar. Here’s her response to hearing a new kind of music, brought by one of the Christian deacons with his choir:

The music, when it came with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.

She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.

It was cool music, inhuman, the song stars might sing. Endless, pouring, pure. Were it water, it would turn any bird who drank it white.

The music soared. Hild soared with it.

In a wonderful article in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books, Nicola Griffith wrote, “For me a good novel is one that draws me in and puts me right there, right then, with the characters: I walk where they walk, feel what they feel. I live their lives, just for a little while, and come back increased.” I certainly feel increased by having had the opportunity to live with and through Hild for a time, and I can’t wait to walk with her again.

For those who just can’t get enough of Hild’s world, Nicola Griffith blogs about her research and associated matters here.


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