Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

Novel about English saint reveals a seer and a sage

A novel about the early life of St Hilda moves slowly, all the better to ponder, as the book’s main character often does

Map Of Britain In 658. The Northumbrian Kingdom 588 To 685. From The Book Short History Of The English People By J.R. Green, Published London 1893 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Map Of Britain In 658. The Northumbrian Kingdom 588 To 685. From The Book Short History Of The English People By J.R. Green, Published London 1893 (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

If ever you think about saints, how do you see them? Static figures with arms piously outstretched, perhaps, or maybe suffering tortures in the name of their faith? Reading Hild, Nicola Griffith’s painstakingly researched novel about the early life of St Hilda, will give you a very different picture.

Griffith’s image of Hild, who lived in early seventh-century Britain, shows us a powerful, clever woman who became an adviser to a king and a leader of men, able to wield prophecies, prayers and swords with equal expertise.

When Hild’s father, the king, is poisoned, Hild’s quick-witted mother Breguswith takes her family – Hild, her sister Hereswith, and Cian, a boy who Breguswith says is the son of her maid Onnen but who is actually Breguswith’s son – to the court of Edwin Snakebeard, her husband’s brother and the new king. Breguswith keeps Cian’s paternity a secret to protect him from the new king; she teaches Hild to keep a “quiet mouth and a bright mind” in order to survive and flourish.

Breguswith also promotes Hild as a seer, based on a dream she had just before Hild was born, in which Hild was a jewel that would become “the light of the world”. Breguswith teaches her that being a seer isn’t about magic, but about “finding out the how and the why of things”and about being a careful observer of the world around her.

The world into which Hild is born is a world in flux, shifting slowly and sometimes violently from a pantheistic world filled with gods that need to be placated to a monotheistic world devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Griffith renders this world in such detail, however, that we never feel as if we are reading a stilted history book or a theologian’s treatise. The prose reads easily, despite the archaic sounding names and the occasional Old English word (and there is a glossary at the end of the book for the truly obscure terms). Given Griffith’s deft prose, intrigue among the tribes of the British Isles seems as vivid and complicated as the politics of our own world, and have stakes that seem as high.

The Christian priests are men of intrigue and spycraft, as comfortable with the word of God as with a sword, and the spread of Christianity across the British Isles has as much to do with politics and power as it does with devotion.

Hild allows herself to be converted, but thinks to herself that Christ was the priests’ “name for the pattern, her path, her wyrd. She was still herself”. “Wyrd” is Hild’s name for fate, and although history tells us that it is her fate to become a Christian saint, within the time span of the novel, Hild allies herself with the church out of political expediency, not religious conviction.

It is easy to assume that in the seventh century, a woman would not be in control of her fate; conventional wisdom would have us believe that in the medieval world, women were powerless except as bargaining chips in creating powerful marriage alliances.

In Hild’s world, however, women are not powerless but are in fact instrumental in creating, quite literally, the fabric of the society in which they live. The weaving that all the women do becomes a metaphor for how Hild sees her task: “a sharp and subtle mind weaving others’ hopes and fears and hungers into a dream they wanted to hear”.

As Edwin’s “seer”, Hild must weave together the various political and religious factions that threaten Edwin’s primacy, but she is aided by the wise women surrounding her, including her mother and sister; Edwin’s second wife, Aethelburh, a Christian with a swift political mind; and Begu, Hild’s gemaecce.

The gemaecce functioned as a kind of chief of staff for her superior and the relationship between the two women usually became a lifelong bond, even after one or the other married. These women and their partnerships with one another form the emotional centre of the novel; it is their relationships and their objectives – personal and political – that drive the novel’s primary plot lines.

Readers who want fast-paced historical fiction would do better elsewhere, however. Like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a novel to which Hild has been compared, this novel moves slowly, its concerns emerging gradually, like a pattern in a tapestry, one thread at a time.

Griffith’s book is not a novel to race through, but rather one to sink into and ponder, as Hild does, why people do what they do, why they believe what they do, and whether we control our own fate or whether, in fact, “fate goes as it ever must”.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Updated: January 2, 2014 04:00 AM

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