35. Hild, by Nicola Griffith

19 Nov

Drink a cup of buttermilk, sleep on a mattress of horsehair and sweet gale, watch the dairy maids pour off pans of cream, learn the words gesith, aethling, gemaecca, wealh. Meet Hild, a real Dark Ages saint re-imagined by British writer Nicola Griffith as a player in the medieval island’s game of thrones, a child grown to young woman rendered in 536 densely beautiful pages of pristine period detail.  A more perfect cup of witchery does not exist, for those of us who like historical romance but also have literary standards.

The author has said in interviews that it was her intent to write a strong female character in the seventh century who had freedom and agency—she believes such women existed, we just think they didn’t. She took the real story of a girl born to hardship, who rose to become an important figure in the church, and set out to understand how she could have gotten there, largely by building a world that made sense around her, and then filling the person into it.

The book is a spectacular accomplishment, and is totally immersive in the details of pre-modern life. Hild’s triumphs as a seer in a hostile king’s court are constructed so smoothly from fear, cunning and circumstance, that they’re as believable to us as they are to her. Griffith also finds convincing ways for Hild to partake in the culture of swords and war, while still being circumscribed as a woman would have been. The rise of the Christian church and driving out of the old gods (Woden!) is as frightening as it’s meant to be. And the character’s sexual awakening, incestuous love for a half-brother, and various accommodations with her slave handmaiden are a gift, coming from a writer with Griffith’s skill with metaphor. Skin is like the flesh of hazelnuts, hair like linden honey. These people, you want to see have sex.

There are so many beautiful descriptions of everything in this book, it’s hard to choose one to sum it up, but this is from page 5:

“She knew them by their thick woven cloaks, their hanging hair and beards, and their Anglisc voices: words drumming like apples split over wooden boards, round, rich, stirring. Like her father’s words, and her mother’s, and her sister’s. Utterly unlike Onnen’s otter-swift British or the dark liquid gleam of Irish. Hild spoke each to each. Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam.”

Apples to apples, otter to otter, gleam to gleam. An amazing book.

4 Responses to “35. Hild, by Nicola Griffith”

  1. juniperpaul February 22, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    Valerie, thank you very much for your review of Hild by Nicola Griffith. Of all the reviews of her book I’ve read (and I’m reading them intently right now as research), yours is the one that most poignantly brought back to me the emotional and intellectual thrills I felt while reading her book more than a year ago.

    The most perceptive reviews I’ve seen, whether positive or negative, have come unsurprisingly from writers who know the craft and historians who know the period and historical novelists who know both. They understand the fine line that Griffith walked (danced!) between what we know and what we imagine, between the dusty ledgers of facts gleaned from the historical record and the thoughtful, unsure reality of the human moment, between the facile sureness we feel when we draw back and see something from a safe distance and the dangerous, uncomfortable experience of it when we dive right in.

    The superficial and dismissive reviews I’ve read have for the most part heavily referenced the most popular current trends in historical fiction (e.g., “Game of Thrones,” a give-away term strongly suggesting that the reviewer has seen the TV but not actually read Martin’s novels) or have been kept at a distance by the language (and what a shock – it happens in seventh century Britain but they don’t speak the English of fourteen centuries their future?!) and the bewildering complexity of a daily world in which not only the customs are different but people have names that aren’t as immediately familiar to us as Beyoncé, Britney, and Bilbo.

    Hild captured me. In all its 500-something pages it’s not always an easy novel to read – and why the hell should it be? – but it’s incredibly rewarding, emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally. What a fantastic job Nicola Griffith has done. And to think it took her only about ten years!

    Thanks again, Valerie. I’m glad that reading Hild eventually brought me to your own writing, to which I’ll now subscribe.


    • Valerie Stivers-Isakova February 22, 2015 at 12:35 pm #

      Hello Paul and thank you for your thoughtful comment and kind words! You must have been really digging through Hild search results, since my blog just does not come up until 10, 20 pages deep for some of these popular titles, I don’t know why. If you’re enjoying being angry about the dismissive genre reviews of Hild, here’s what I wrote about that for my 2013 end-of-year roundup. Bookforum really pissed me off.

      Please, please come back and tell me why you are researching Hild and the reception to Hild in this way!

      And thanks again for your nice words. This blog is a labor of love, and I struggle with the balance of time-spent to quality-of-reviews to things-I-really-ought-to-be-doing. So acknowledgement/enabling is always appreciated!

      • juniperpaul February 22, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

        Yes, I believe it was your wonderful Bookforum rant that brought me to your site.

        I’m rooting around for reviews of substance for my draft of a Wikipedia page on Hild. I’d actually love to get your criticism of the draft; if you have a few minutes please email me for the link.


  1. Top 10 Best and Worst New Books (That I Read In) 2013 | An Anthology of Clouds - December 23, 2013

    […] 2. Hild, by Nicola Griffith Here’s another book that I think is being semi-robbed by the literary establishment, for the depressing, predictable reason that it’s being treated as genre. Bookforum, in particular, which lately has seemed like it’s going out of its way to kiss the ass of every writer-about-town, no matter how terrible their book is, did a really torturous review struggling with the fact that this book is historical and might possibly be construed as fantasy, because the heroine is considered by some characters in the book to be able to see the future. It was only through comparison with Wolf Hall, another historical novel that is safely agreed to be literary, that the reviewer garnered the courage to put pen to paper. Phew! No matter that Hild is a brilliantly researched, intensely granular, almost out-of-body experiences of being transported to another world. Every detail of life in the seventh century is foreign, but rings true.  The plot kept things moving, and the prose reminded me of Marilynne Robinson in its beauty and strangeness. […]

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