NOVEMBER 11, 2013
MIDWAY THROUGH Nicola Griffith’s splendid Medieval novel Hild is a scene of hedge-construction. Griffith lingers over details, letting her hero’s observations lead the reader to a gradual understanding of the craftsmanship underlying its design, the involvement of the whole community in the making, and the complex living system that will result. First come elm stakes to support the structure. Next, a few trees from the existing woodland are selected as anchors. The trees are “plashed”: “They lopped a branch here, a branch there — Hild tried to spot the pattern for their choice, but they worked too fast — and with a casual flick of the axe cut the tree almost through at the base and bent it over to weave between the stakes.” Various species are woven into the pattern: hazel, sloe, rowan for luck. Finished, “it was beautiful. The bare hedge glistened thick and sinewy as a dark snake with the white-sliced stake tops like a dotted pattern along its back.”
This scene can stand for the novel itself, and for its genre of historical fiction. Supporting the narrative are bare facts: names, dates, battles, kings. Between those dead stakes the novelist transplants green shoots, bits of lived experience that link the historical moment to the present. She then lops and bends and weaves these shoots — the smell of horses, the sound of crows, the stirring of desire — to make a pattern that is not only beautiful but also meaningful.
Nicola Griffith started as a science fiction writer, and she brings to history the same skills in world-building and pattern-making that made her 1992 utopian novel Ammonite a multiple award-winner. Both science fiction and historical fiction take us out of our own time and at the same time reveal something about ourselves. Details in both have double significance: they mean one thing inside the narrative and something else in the context of the world we live in. The world Griffith brings to life in Hild is the northeast of England in the seventh century. The title character is a Northumbrian princess known to history as St. Hilda. The story begins with her early childhood, when her father is poisoned and her mother must accept the protection of his uncle and possible murderer, King Edwin. No stranger to poisoning herself, Hild’s mother is one of the more memorable characters that shape her upbringing. Others include her half brother Cian (who does not know they share a father), pagan priests, priests of the rival Irish and Roman branches of Christianity, minstrels, warriors, farmers, and many rival kings. But above all, one remembers the women.
Most historical novels — and indeed most histories — read like reports from the early ethnologists, all men, who confidently declared that mythic stories were all about male heroes, that women had no coming-of-age ceremonies, and that societies were organized around the exchange of females. Once women scholars began to arrive, all those claims were revealed as nonsense. Similarly, Griffith looks past the warriors and kings to find out what Anglo-Saxon women were doing and saying. She finds that they were hard-working (even the queens), opinionated, bawdy, and politically engaged. In their company Hild grows into a remarkable woman — a seer and a leader of women and men — but not entirely an exceptional one. Taller, stronger, and more perceptive than most, she is nonetheless part of a community of strong-minded peers. Griffith invents a plausible tradition to represent the commonality of women in Hild’s world. Each noblewoman is expected to marry in a way that will strengthen her family’s economic and political position, and part of the narrative necessarily involves matchmaking of the Austen/Trollope sort. However, there is another sort of alliance to be made, for which Griffith goes back to the Old English root of “match.” Each woman chooses or has chosen for her a female gemæcce: the relationship seems to be variously a form of service (the Queen’s gemæcce is a sort of lady-in-waiting), political alliance, sharing of confidences, and adoptive sisterhood. It is not unlikely that some such system existed, though not as formally as Griffith portrays it. The search for the right gemæcce for Hild serves as a version of the marriage plot without tying her to a romantic plot and a passive role. Instead, she can spend her time learning to observe the natural world (beautifully rendered in Griffith’s prose) and human society.
Her keen sensitivity to both allows her to predict both the world’s weather and the even more volatile political climate. Griffith lets Hild’s prophetic abilities remain ambiguous — is there a divine plan behind the patterns she sees? In the end, it doesn’t matter much which, if any, god is doing the planning. Hild never waits around for divine assistance but relies on her own strength and intelligence and the allies she gathers to take her safely through times of turbulence and hardship. The historical record provides Griffith with enough dynastic struggles and violence to satisfy fans of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, and Griffith draws on her own background as a teacher of martial arts to give the battles urgency and conviction. Hild becomes a sort of woman warrior but not an anachronistic swordswoman; her weapons of choice are first the knife and later the staff with which St. Hilda is always depicted. Here Griffith benefits from the lack of historical documentation; since men wrote so little about women’s lives, there is room to invent institutions such as the gemæcce and characters as sturdy as her hero. Whatever the real Hilda was like, she was extraordinary.
Fictions based on either scientific speculation or historical recreation depend on the writer’s ability not to eject us from the imagined world with an anachronistic detail or a mis-chosen word. Nothing collapses the illusion faster than a poorly researched prop or a bit of post-Freudian psychological jargon: we don’t want to read that a seventh-century Angle was “conflicted.” Griffith’s language is so thoroughly grounded in Hild’s experience and in the place that we take her word for the time. Only once was I thrown out of period, when a group of drunken warriors sing the children’s rhyme “Do your ears hang low,” but after reflection I thought that even if the rhyme itself doesn’t go back so far, the bawdy joke underlying it undoubtedly does. The detail took root and became part of the pattern.
The novel is the first installment of a larger project. It ends with Edwin’s impending downfall and an unexpected marriage while Hild is still a young woman, not yet the religious leader she was to become. I can hardly wait for the next phase of her life, not only because she is such an engaging character but because I trust Griffith to craft upon the historical record another length of hedge, another living tapestry.