Marie’s Reading: “Hild” by Nicola Griffith

hild-204x300The novel Hild takes its inspiration from the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby.  Very little is known about her, and what little we have comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English.   Hilda (called Hild in the novel) was the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, and figured prominently in Britain’s conversion to Christianity.  Hild was known for her wisdom, such that kings came to her for advice.  That’s all we know.

So Griffith, in sweeping and detailed style, decided to use a novel to fill in the holes in Hild’s story.  Her girlhood, coming of age, and role in the king’s family and household are explored here, as well as her relationships with both warriors and priests.  All in all, it’s a grand effort with a fantastic sense of place and a few great characters.  This is certainly a novel for those who enjoy plot over character development, and appreciate lush scene-setting in their historical novels.

Not to say the characters aren’t well-drawn.  It’s simply that, apart from Hild, they don’t seem to get that much time for development or relationships.   Even with Hild, there’s not much time spent on introspection, at least not for more than a line or two.  Once you’re into the rhythm of the story, though, and have got all the names more or less straight, it’s easy to slip into Hild’s mind and follow her story.  Or maybe imagine sitting on her shoulder, seeing it all with her.  As I said, there’s not much interior character focus in this novel.

But as I said, that’s only a criticism if you’re after lots of character insight and development.  Speaking personally, I could have done with a little more character depth as far as Hild was concerned.  I was left wanting to know more about her, and why she joined the Church, how she became a saint, et cetera.   You might be disappointed with this novel if that is the sort of story you’re after.  This is a sweeping historical epic, grand in scope yet lushly described, with lots of detail about daily life in the Dark Ages.    So you’ll probably be quite pleased if that’s the kind of book you want!

Griffith touches quite a bit on the ever-changing political landscape of seventh-century Britain.  In Hild’s world, connections and family lines are everything, and there are many kings and many wars.  Another element examined here is the introduction of Christianity to Britain.  As with the character development, I found myself wishing for a bit more depth.  Intrigue, power plays, and the rights of kings are central to the plot, and yet there’s no in-depth explanation or discussion of them.   The ending leaves the definite sense that there is a second installment to come, which will continue on with Hild’s story.

As I was reading Hild I was thinking a lot of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  I’d suggest that for further reading if you like novels which fill in the holes in history and myth–in the case of The Mists of Avalon, it’s the story of King Arthur told from the point of view of the women.  It’s also a grand story, but more romantic in tone, far more character and relationship centered, and far more explicit with the themes of warring religions (Christianity versus the priestesses of Avalon) and feminism.   Bradley does go in-depth with those issues, bringing them to the fore and a constant source of discussion and development.

For those who love richly detailed historical novels, you might try Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose a mystery set in a monastery in medieval Italy.  Daily life among Franciscan monks in the Middle Ages is wonderfully drawn, and the mystery is a good one.  The novels of Peter Tremayne might also be good choices if you want more stories in that particular vein.

If you enjoyed Hild for the details of women’s lives and experiences in history, and appreciated the fictionalized backstory, you might like Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George, which gives humanity and backstory to Mary Magdelene.  George also wrote novels about Henry the VIII, Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

–Marie

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