Not much is known about the historical figure that came to be known as Saint Hilda of Whitby. She was born in the early seventh century in England, related to several royal families. One of the patron saints of learning and culture in the Catholic Church, Hild lived during a time of transformation in the British Isles; kingdoms were always changing hands and Christianity was making headway. While there is scant information about her, it is clear from what is known that she was a woman of intelligence, intuition and power. And as such, she proves to be a fascinating subject in Nicola Griffith’s imaginative work of fiction, HILD.
While pregnant with Hild, her mother, a Kentish woman named Breguswith, dreamed that the child would be the “light of the world.” Treated with no small amount of reverence, Hild indeed acted as a beacon and a seer for her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, a role that resulted in the precarious safety of her widowed mother and older sister. Travelling with the King, Hild, tutored by her mother and an Irish priest named Fursey, begins to understand the political intrigue behind the thrones, wars, allegiances and marriages. She uses her keen powers of observation and knack for omens to influence Edwin and others, and to secure safety and power for those she cares about or who would benefit her family.
"From family loyalties to political maneuverings, from the secrets of the written word to the strength of swords, Hild’s is a complex story and a good one for readers wishing to lose themselves in a thick, elegantly told and captivating novel."
But her young life is also full of heartache and loneliness. Her father was poisoned when she was a baby, leaving behind Onnen, the woman who essentially raised her, and Onnen’s son Cian, to form alliances of their own. Hild’s world (both in history and in the historical fiction created by Griffith) is brutal and dangerous but still full of magic, possibility and an awe of nature.
Involved and complicated, HILD is a novel that immerses readers in a time and place rarely explored in fiction. Griffith uses the language and cultural structure of that time and place to her advantage in the storytelling, but readers will need to pay attention to the rich, dense narration to understand this challenging but engrossing tale. Names like Ywain, Cwenburh and Cadfan of Gwynedd, and words like ætheling, wealh and gesith may be daunting at first, but quickly the rhythm in which Griffith writes and the charismatic Hild herself will draw readers in and keep them engaged.
Hild grows up to become the Christian abbess and is later declared a saint, but not in this novel; Griffith focuses on Hild’s early years and states in her Author’s Note that she is at work on the follow-up book. From family loyalties to political maneuverings, from the secrets of the written word to the strength of swords, Hild’s is a complex story and a good one for readers wishing to lose themselves in a thick, elegantly told and captivating novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 7, 2014