“She was the light of the world”: Hild, Nicola Griffith

HildNicola Griffith is likely to most people, or at least to readers of this blog, known as the author of the sf-novels Ammonite and Slow River, but her latest novel is a historical one. It takes place in seventh century Britain, centring on the historical figure of Hilda of Whitby, a Christian saint. In Hild, Griffith envisions what Hilda's childhood might have been – the book begins when Hild is three years old and is the first instalment in her journey towards sainthood of a planned trilogy.

Before Hild's birth her mother, Berguswith, dreamt of her child being a great jewel shining light over the world and Hild learns from an early age that she is, as her mother explains to her, the light of the world. Berguswith teaches Hild to be ever watchful and attentive, in order to be able read and understand people and to understand what is happening in the world around her. After she has been widowed and her children orphaned, Berguswith places her daughter in King Edwin's court, making her his seer. The young Hild uses her knowledge of the world and people to prophesy everything from weather to victories for him, securing her own and her family's safety and future. But the world around them is changing: small kingdoms are merging, King Edwin reaches for more power and more land and foreign priests begin to arrive, bringing with them a new religion called Christianity. In this power struggle Hild becomes an important player, using her influence and uncanny abilities to weave together political alliances, ensure victories and defeat in battle and shape even life and death.

Hild is above all a gorgeously written and richly imagined novel. Griffith's extensive research combined with her storytelling abilities has created an absorbing read that brings this, to me, little known period to sprawling, glorious life. Ironically enough, considering that the novel is historical fiction, it many times reminded me of why I used to like epic fantasy so much with its massive amount of characters and storylines, the obligatory frontispiece of a map, and all the political intrigues and bloody battles. While the novel does not include any strictly supernatural phenomena (even though it, upon occasion, flirts with the supernatural), it does introduce many words and concepts that are new to most readers and Griffith manages to make what is often an unfamiliar world intelligible to me more deftly than many fantasy authors.

The main focus of the story, however, remains on Hild – not only as the king's seer, but also as a small girl growing into a young woman learning to navigate power, femininity and sexuality in a frequently difficult world. To the reader, Hild comes across somewhat eerie but at the same time as thoroughly human; while gifted with unusual powers of perception and constantly caught up in the intrigues and battles over the British isle, she is above all struggling to keep herself and her loved ones safe in the midst of King Edwin's ever-changing court.

Admittedly, I'm still hoping for more science fiction from Griffith, but in the meantime I will gladly contend with the promise of two more Hild-novels.