“The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

hildI found Hild shelved in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section at Bookmark, which means I almost didn’t realize they had it in stock, as I don’t usually browse that section. (I was poking around in case they had John Crowley’s Little, Big, which Tom had got me interested in.) I can see why the staff had put it there: the front cover blurb compares it to The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But it isn’t fantasy: it’s historical fiction, if based, Griffith says in her Author’s Note, on a particularly scanty record: “We have no idea what [Hild] looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.” “But clearly,” Griffith goes on, “she was extraordinary,” and that’s certainly true of the protagonist Griffith has created from the sparse materials available.

Maybe, though, considering Hild “fantasy” is not altogether a category mistake. “I made it up,” Griffith says about her story, while explaining that it is also deeply researched: “I learnt what I could of the late sixth and early seventh centuries: ethnography, archaeology, poetry, numismatics, jewellery, textiles, languages, food production, weapons, and more. And then I re-created that world . . . ” — that is, she engaged in “worldbuilding,” which is a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental?) task of the fantasy or science fiction author. Of course, her world is built out of real pieces, but it’s an artificial construction nonetheless. I suppose this could be said of any historical fiction, or any fiction at all, so maybe I’m trying to blur a line that’s already indistinct. But there’s something about Hild — the strangeness of its world, but also  of Griffith’s evocation of it — that makes it haunting and uncanny, as if we are not so much in an earlier version of our own world but in an alternative version.

It’s mostly Hild herself who’s responsible for that sense that we’re looking through, rather than at, the world: she is the king’s “seer,” the “light of the world,” and thus it is her job, her destiny, her “wyrd” or fate, to perceive the world differently than others. She is constantly seeking patterns, in nature and in the shifting relationships of the court and the kingdom. Her powers of perception set her apart: she is admired, revered, and feared. Her gifts are not necessarily supernatural, though: her “visions” are the results of long thought and sharp intelligence, and sometimes they are also simply predictions shaped to suit what her listeners (especially the King) want most to hear or do. Signs and omens must be interpreted, and that too requires political savvy and deft diplomacy more than any preternatural insight. Hild’s status as the King’s “light” defines her from birth and shapes both how she is treated and how she must behave: it is a burden, a responsibility, a terrible risk and a great liberation, because it exempts her from the ordinary constraints of a woman’s life.

Hild is an extraordinary character: strong, charismatic, intelligent, intensely physical, remarkably whole and convincing. One of the most interesting aspects of her characterization is the novel’s certainty about her woman’s body: it’s a central fact of her life and Griffith makes that clear without apology, voyeurism, or special pleading. I can’t think, for instance, of another novel in which starting to menstruate is a plot point in quite the way it is here — incorporated with perfect naturalness into the ongoing story of the heroine’s physical and psychological maturation, experienced as an initiation into an alliance of other women, associated with independence from authority rather than readiness for male sexual attention. That’s not to say that sexuality isn’t also an important part of Hild’s story, but though there is a love story of sorts running through the novel, her desires are hers, physical feelings she can satisfy on her own, or with women: they are not (or not just) ties that bind her emotionally to a man, and they certainly do not define her ambitions or determine the arc of her story.

The shape of that story is only partially revealed by the end of Hild. (Griffith is working on the sequel now, but I almost wish she’d waited and published one epic novel, as Hild so obviously stops rather than concludes.) Hild eventually becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby, but she isn’t there when we leave her this time. What we have seen to this point, though, is her development from an uncanny child into a fierce woman. The overall trajectory of Hild is all upward in that way: not just Hild herself, but the world she lives in is taking on a different form over the novel. The most important change is the rise of Christianity, which is gradually replacing the old forms of worship which Hild, as a seer, initially represents and serves. The transition is an uneven and not entirely welcome one. For one thing, people are reluctant to give up their old beliefs, and the representatives of the new God are not altogether persuasive. The God they represent, too, is very different from the old gods, who were more personal and more fun. “They don’t like jokes,” says one of Hild’s women about the Christians; “I don’t think their god does either.” And the new God is demanding in unfamiliar ways, insisting on obedience and reverence, and preoccupied with the unfamiliar notion of original sin. He’s also “squeamish,” inexplicably hostile to women’s bodies: “No blood in the church. No woman with her monthly bleeding. It makes no sense,” says Hild’s friend.

Will this new God diminish or invalidate Hild’s power, as a seer or as a woman? Will He punish her, perhaps, for the evils she has committed as a warrior or a prophet of other gods? Hild approaches her own baptism with trepidation, but then feels renewed courage:

She breathed deep. She was Anglisc. She would not burn. She would endure and hold true to her oath. An oath, a bond. A truth, a guide, a promise. To three gods in one. To the pattern. For even gods were part of the pattern, even three-part gods. The pattern was in everything. Of everything. Over everything. . . .

Her heart beat with it, her tears fell with it, her spirit soared with it. Here, now, they were building a great pattern, she could feel it, and she would trace its shape one day: that was her wyrd, and fate goes as ever it must. Today she was swearing to it, swearing here, with her people.

I wondered (given that she becomes a Christian saint) whether Hild’s baptism would stand as an epiphanic moment of faith — as a revelation. While the language and the mood here is uplifted, though, the strongest sense is one of continuity: “she was still herself,” the scene concludes. Christianity never seems to be the one right way: it’s just another way, and one that is as prone as the old ways to express the will, greed, and ambition of its adherents rather than any divine plan. Hild’s strength continues to be herself — her limbs, trained for fighting, and her mind, astute and endlessly observing.

The other thing that’s rising in the world of the novel is literacy. This is tied to Christianity, in that it’s the priests who are usually the most ‘lettered’ of the characters. But Hild quickly perceives the value of writing as a way of maintaining networks across distances. Her ability to read and write is valuable to her politically, as her success and survival as a seer depends on good and abundant information. But it means most to her personally, as the typical fate of women is to be sent far from home and family in their roles as “peaceweavers,” cementing alliances as wives then securing kingdoms with their heirs. Hild realizes that if she could write, for instance, to her married sister Hereswith, Hereswith “wouldn’t be lost to her”: for someone in Hild’s anomalous and therefore lonely position, letters would be a lifeline, bringing her news and also preserving her own private identity while living among those to whom she is “the maid who killed, the maid who felt nothing. The maid with no mother or sister or friend.”

kinghereafterThe novelist Griffith most reminds me of is Dorothy Dunnett. She luxuriates in tactile details the way Dunnett does, for one thing, as in this description of a waterfront marketplace:

Rhenish glass: cups and bowls and flasks. Wheel-thrown pottery, painted in every colour and pattern. Cloth. Swords — swords for sale — and armor. Jewels, with stones Hild had never seen, including great square diamonds, as grey as a Blodmonath sky. Perfume in tiny stoppered jars, and next to them even smaller jars — one the size of Hild’s fingernail — sealed with wax: poison. . . . A six-stringed lyre inlaid with walnut and copper, and the beaver-skin bag to go with it. A set of four nested silver bowls from Byzantium, chased and engraved with lettering that Fursey, peering over her shoulder, said was Greek. But Hild barely heard him: Somewhere a man was calling in a peculiar cadence, and he sounded almost Anglisc. Almost. Instead of the rounded thump of Anglisc, these oddly shaped words rolled just a little wrong. Not apples, she thought. Pears. Heavy at the bottom, longer on the top.

The extraordinary complexity of the created world is also reminiscent of Dunnett — the intricate family trees, the tangled web of alliances, the unfamiliarity of the names and vocabulary, and thus the associated down side of such authorial mastery: our (or at any rate, my) difficulty keeping track of who’s who, of who’s doing what to whom and why. Like King Hereafter, for example, Hild is full of passages that perplex rather than clarify the action:

As the weather improved, messages began to come in from all over the isle. Two, from Rheged and from Alt Clut, said the same thing: Eochaid Buide of the Dál Riate was sending an army to aid the Cenél Cruithen against Fiachnae mach Demmáin of the Dál Fiatach, and chief among the Dál Riatan war band were the Idings — though the man from Rheged thought two, Oswald and Osric, called the Burnt, while the messenger from Alt Clut thought three, Oswald, Osric the Burnt, and young Osbald.

Or how about this one;

The murdered Eorpwald had been the godson of Edwin. Sigebert was of a different Christian lineage. he had spent his time across the narrow sea at the Frankish court of Clothar, and now Dagobert. If Sigebert was bringing threescore men, they would be Dagobert’s. If he won with their help, he would be obliged to align himself with the Franks. What would that mean for Edwin? Where was Dagobert in relation to the growing alliances of the middle country and the west — Penda and Cadwallon — and the men of the north: Idings, Picts, Scots of Dál Riata, Alt Clut, perhaps Rheghed?

Where was Dagobert, indeed? It helped a bit when I found a partial guide to pronunciation in the back of the book, and a glossary, and there’s a family tree too, but my experience reading Dunnett helped the most, particularly my conclusion that I don’t need to keep up with all the details to stay interested. Both authors are good enough story tellers that the necessary drama rises above the morass of confusing specifics. If I didn’t always know exactly why Hild was fighting someone in particular, it was enough to know that she had her reasons: the heat and blood of the battle was no less intense because I had to suspend, not disbelief, but my desire for perfect comprehension. The absolutely key characters — her mother Breguswith, her best friend, sparring partner, half-brother, and eventual husband Cian, or her “gemaecce” (“female partner”) Begu, for instance — are wholly distinct, and above it all is always Hild herself, “the pattern-making mind of the world.”

8 Comments to “The Light of the World”: Nicola Griffith, Hild

  1. June 1, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    This sounds promising, in spite of the fact that it stops rather than concludes. 🙂

    As for Dunnett, I managed to get a copy of King Hereafter as per your suggestion but haven’t read it yet–because my husband is deep into it and gives me stink-eye if I so much as glance at it.

    And Little, Big…I would really like to read your take on it. I read it years ago and still find myself pretty frequently thinking about it and wondering what the hell it’s about–but in a good way. My mystification about Crowley’s novel is as much pure admiration as anything else.

    • Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
      June 1, 2015 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      I would definitely recommend it. One aspect of it that I didn’t do justice to here is the wonderfully descriptive prose, especially the descriptions of nature and landscapes. It’s more elliptical or poetic than Dunnett but both really convey a strong sense of place. And I’m just so impressed with Hild as a character: she’s whole in a way that few (especially female?) characters are.

      I’m glad your husband is enjoying King Hereafter!

      I haven’t found Little, Big anywhere yet but you folks have got me intrigued.

    • June 1, 2015 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Well, I’ve started writing about Crowley, so all intrigue should disappear pretty quickly. Tomorrow I’ll use the dreaded P-word – postmodern.

      I love the marketplace paragraph you use here, and share your doubts about the – I don’t know what – let’s say utility of the lists of names. I don’t remember any passages in the Icelandic Sagas that are quite that thick. Well, there probably are some, there must be – that’s just the sort of thing I would not remember.

      • June 2, 2015 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        Postmodern! I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap, Tom.

  2. June 1, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I love both historical fiction and fantasy for a lot of the same reason, experiencing a world that’s different from my own. So, to me, the two categories are very much related and require a lot of similar skill in authors, even if some of the specific rules for each genre differ. I read a lot of historical fiction that feels too much like our world with dirtier clothes and stricter rules. I like it better when an author treats the past like another world.

    I’ve had this on my list since it came out, and your comparison to Dunnett makes me really eager to read it. But I didn’t know it was to have a sequel. That makes me wonder if I’ll be happier if I wait until I can read both in quick succession.

  3. June 2, 2015 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    A historical novel set at this time should feel like a fantasy novel sometimes, shouldn’t it? The characters believe magic and miracles are real and should act like they are real. That Carlo Ginzburg history book I read, about Italian peasants going into trances to fight witches for the harvest, is an episode from 900 years later!

  4. lawless's Gravatar lawless
    June 4, 2015 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    As a matter of marketing, I think “fantasy” is a better label for this because it’s more likely to find the right readers. Many readers of historical fiction are hung up on modern plausibility and would be tripped up by how so much of this is imagined.

    Even readers of fantasy with historical underpinnings get confused. There are readers of A Song of Fire and Ice and viewers of A Game of Throne who think rape and brutish behavior is mandatory because that’s realistic and historical when both are fantasy inspired by historical events. Hello, dragons?

    The centering of a female character in a narrative with elements that are implausible to us when so much of what happens can’t be documented is likely to get more pushback if framed as historical fiction than if framed as fantasy.

    I very much appreciate your thoughtful and detailed reviews. This book has been on my list since a writer I respect raved about it.

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