An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 17, 2014

Vaccaro, ed.: The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium

Vaccaro, Christopher, ed. The Body in Tolkien's Legendarium: Essays on Middle-earth Corporeality. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013. 200pp.

Reviewed by Leigh Smith (

Tolkien’s view of the body is a delicate issue for a medievalist. We who see him as a colleague are suspicious of readings that appear to evince a too-modern fascination with the material. On the other hand, we must admit that many of the conundrums with which all Tolkienists struggle are related to physicality. Where do little orcs come from? Does Sauron always have a body? Does Frodo actually “fade,” and if so, how? What order of being is Tom Bombadil? No one who has read Tolkien seriously can believe he did not think of these questions. Every year, more of his previously-unpublished notes testify to his obsessive attention to detail. Therefore, if we find his treatment of physicality confusing or paradoxical, we must try to explain it. This is the purpose of The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium, a varied “collection of essays on middle-earth corporeality” (its subtitle), and its editor, Christopher Vaccaro, is well aware of the difficulty. His fine introduction places the major conundrums in their contexts—medieval heroic literature, Catholic theology, World War I—and summarizes the major attempts of critics to use postmodern theory to illuminate Tolkien’s view of the physical. The essays vary in quality, but all will contribute on some level to a reader’s understanding of Tolkien’s work and worldview, and several point to areas where further research is needed.

The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium is divided into four parts: “The Transformation of the Body,” “The Body and the Spirit,” “The Discursive Body,” and “The Body and the Source Material.” Most of the essays focus on The Lord of the Rings, but some concern (primarily or in comparison to LOTR) The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and The History of Middle-Earth. Not surprisingly, two essays focus on Frodo’s body as a site of transformation and struggle. Others focus on female bodies, monstrous bodies, and the physical component of the Ringwraiths and Sauron.

“Part I: The Transformation of the Body” includes the two essays on Frodo’s body. First, Verlyn Flieger argues convincingly that the physical changes in Frodo act as visible signifiers of his “changing relationship to himself, to the ‘real’ world around him, and to the quasi-metaphoric, quasi-psychological world of the Ring” (12). Calling attention to his growing (post-Weathertop) ability to perceive both darkness and light, Flieger addresses an important paradox about the way Frodo changes in the course of his journey: he grows and diminishes. Flieger concludes that he does not become, as Gandalf once hoped, “like a glass filled with clear light,” but that Saruman is right to say he has “grown”: his greatness is made possible by his knowledge of the darkness and weakness within him.

However, Anna Smol comes to a slightly different conclusion. Arguing that “Frodo’s body is the territory on which he battles to maintain his physical and psychological integrity” (39), Smol concludes that Frodo becomes that glass filled with light, though his “faded” condition leaves room for darkness as well. This essay includes an interesting discussion of the “uncanny” and the “abject” as they relate to the horrors of the war zone, and Smol usefully compares Frodo and Gollum in terms of abjection and the transformation it implies. She overstates a little Gollum’s loss of identity: it is not quite true that he “cannot even speak of himself with the first-person pronoun” (48). He does so on several occasions, e.g. “I don’t want to come back. I can’t find it. I am tired” (222). However, the larger point about the dissolving of boundaries and the loss of physical and psychological integrity is well-taken.

Between these two discussions is Yvette Kisor’s excellent essay on another kind of paradox: the “necessity of embodiment created by the Ring exists simultaneously with the Ring’s propensity to rob the wearer of visible bodily form” (20). The Ringwraiths and Sauron seem not to be quite corporeal, and the Ring has the short-term effect of invisibility and the long-term effect of “fading.” Yet, as Kisor reminds us, Sauron and his servants use physical means to kill, torture, and dominate corporeal beings. Furthermore, the Ringwraiths have to ride horses (or other beasts) and can be killed with forged weapons, and Sauron not only inhabits a fortress but can wear a ring. Kisor suggests a logical resolution to this paradox via the “twilight” world where not only dark shadows such as Ringwraiths but also Light Elves and perhaps Gandalf himself walk. Thus, what seems to be incorporeality is actually corporeality “in another dimension where sensory experience and bodily manifestation work differently” (28).

“Part II: The Body and the Spirit” pairs two essays that address Tolkien’s presentation of the body (hröa) and soul (fëa). First, Matthew Dickerson demonstrates the relationship between them as it applies to physical health, environmental responsibility, and warfare. The opening section demonstrating that Tolkien was “a devout Catholic” and “not a materialist” (68) is probably not needed, as this fact is widely recognized. However, the larger section on the balance between hröa and fëa needed for good health of all kinds is illuminating. As Eowyn’s spirit needs to heal along with her body before she can recover from the Battle of Pelennor Fields, the Shire must be cured of Sharkey’s domination before it can become healthy and fertile again. Dickerson sees war as necessary (in Tolkien) for Pauline and Miltonic reasons: free beings must choose a side. Thus, spiritual health, demonstrated by “the choosing of good” (76) will require physical fighting for God against Satan.

Next, Jolanta Komornicka takes on the troubling issue of whether orcs have souls and free will and are therefore redeemable. Komornicka makes use of Tolkien’s notes and letters as well as The Silmarillion and LOTR, revealing that Tolkien was as troubled as we are by the nature of orcs. He changed his mind repeatedly on their origin (tortured elves, degraded men, or both?) and never completely settled on how their bodily reproduction would work. He implies that they would breed like anything else, but we see no orc-women or orc-children. As Komornicka points out, they have blood but no bloodlines, societies but no families (90-91). Ultimately, she makes a provocative but well-reasoned argument that orcs are (at least theoretically) redeemable, as men and elves are corruptible.

“Part III: The Discursive Body” contains two essays that consider Tolkien’s uses of physical description to represent abstractions. In the first, Robin Anne Reid presents a stylistic analysis of Tolkien’s descriptions of Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, Eowyn, and Shelob. She details “how often the female character was the subject of the clauses in sections focusing on her” (102), as well as how often this subject was represented by name (or pronoun), clothes, or body parts. She reports how often the nouns, adjectives, and processes associated with each connect to light or dark. Then she reports how often the verbs are “relational,” “mental,” “behavioral,” “material,” “existential,” and even “meteorological.” Concluding with a “queer reading of Eowyn” (100), essentially a reader-response analysis, Reid argues that the “grammar of the text” (107), mostly the action verbs associated with Eowyn, explain her appeal to female readers. Quantifiable data are rare in the study of literature, and Reid has performed an important service by showing how such data may be acquired. However, before scholars can judge what the data mean, more will need to be collected regarding a broader range of characters, including males. I look forward to the results.

Next, Gergely Nagy considers how Sauron is represented in language. This essay invites comparison with Kisor’s essay, and the two disagree on a key point: Nagy sees Sauron in LOTR as “disembodied” (121). However, Nagy is interested in Sauron’s embodiment/disembodiment in connection with his place in the larger mythology. Nagy’s best point is that Sauron wants to control minds and meanings but finds that he can control only bodies (122). Ultimately, Nagy concludes that Sauron’s physical dimension is inseparable from his function in the text. Other characters may represent abstractions, but they also presumably have a physical presence beyond their symbolic value. Sauron, however, is physically represented only in terms of his Ring, his fortress, and his shadow (130). The disembodiment is not necessarily a safe assumption (as Kisor shows), but the larger point about the connection between the physical reality and the symbolic one advances the discussion helpfully.

“Part IV: The Body and the Source Material” is appropriately placed at the end, as it considers the effect of Tolkien’s medieval sources on the issues raised by the earlier sections. The first, by James Williamson, concerns Tolkien’s descriptions of women and therefore invites comparison with Reid, with whom Williamson substantially agrees. In fact, it would be interesting to see whether Reid’s statistical findings support Williamson’s argument, which is that “the female body in The Lord of the Rings is emblematic rather than biological” (134). Using Lúthien as a point of comparison, Williamson examines the physical descriptions of the four major female characters in LOTR (Goldberry, Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn). Finding Lúthien emblematic of nature, he finds each LOTR woman to symbolize some aspect of nature: time, fertility, growth, rebirth, etc. Again, to know what this finding reveals, we would have to see it applied to a broader range of characters. Williamson further argues that women in many of Tolkien’s sources are described in emblematic ways. His claim that female characters in Beowulf are “virtually non-existent” (148) is puzzling given the importance of Wealhtheow and Grendel’s mother, but his larger point may well be borne out by future analysis.

Jennifer Culver’s essay deals extensively with Tolkien’s medieval sources, specifically with the motif of gift-giving in Anglo-Saxon culture. Culver argues that people in Tolkien’s legendarium can serve as gifts and that the giving of gifts extends the lord’s influence or “reach” (158). This argument is most persuasive as regards Sauron, whose ring-giving has clearly had the effect Culver describes. It also works well with Galadriel, gift-giver extraordinaire. However, some applications seem a bit forced. For example, while Gollum does hope to receive the Ring when he gives Shelob the “gift” of Frodo and Sam (166), he does not exactly envision a formal exchange. He knows that Shelob does not care about anything beyond her appetite and will throw away his precious with the rest of the inedible parts. Furthermore, self-sacrifices, such as the one Aragorn is willing to make, are standard fare in Anglo-Saxon literature and are often obligations incurred by acceptance of a gift. Whether that makes a body a gift in Tolkien or his source material is a question that would require extensive argument on its own, and Culver does not have room here to do more than assert it. This, then, is another project that could be taken up later.

Concluding this section is Vacarro’s argument about Tolkien’s use of descriptive detail in The Hobbit. This essay may offer the most sensible explanation for Tolkien’s use of abstract, symbolic language: it contributes to a “‘high’ and epic style” (170), whereas physical detail creates a low, naturalistic style and may produce farce as well as realism. While the question of whether Tolkien describes men and women differently is still open (an essay about The Hobbit would not be the place to address it), Vacarro observes that “the physicality of Elrond is withdrawn behind a veil of heroic similes” including “kind as summer” (175), suggesting that genre may be a better predictor than gender. As to source material, Vacarro departs from the usual suspects to consider Tolkien’s creation of his own sources. As he asserted that “the shadow” of The Silmarillion “was deep on the later parts of The Hobbit” (qtd. 162), it seems reasonable to suppose that its higher style as well as characters and motifs found their way into The Hobbit.

Overall, The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium is a valuable volume, providing illuminating analysis and pointing the way to areas deserving further research. The broad topic of corporeality, as well the related issues of gender and diction, merits attention, and this book contributes much to filling in the gaps.

Leigh Smith
East Stroudsburg University

July 6, 2014

Hebert: Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter

Jill M. Hebert. Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter. Arthurian and Courtly Cultures. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Reviewed by Misty Schieberle (

Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter celebrates the ambiguity, inconsistency, and resistance to patriarchal control in literary representations of Morgan and Morgan-like figures. As Hebert explains in her introduction, for her, “the term ‘shapeshifter’ is both a denotative and a connotative term signaling Morgan’s ability to change ‘shape,’ to evade being shaped by others, and to manipulate the shape of others such as the knights with whom she interacts” (5). Thus, the book’s focus also shifts, depending on the texts under consideration. The book ambitiously surveys Morgan le Fay’s appearances from early Latin chronicles and medieval literature through the Early Modern, Romantic, and Victorian eras to finally explore Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, and selected contemporary fiction. It will be a useful reference for students and Morgan enthusiasts for its sheer ability to synthesize so much prior scholarship and provide intertextual readings of a wide range of Arthurian literature.

The project is necessarily broad in scope to trace general similarities and common issues, with an eye to reconsidering the binaries of “good” and “evil,” with regard to Morgan’s character. Readers who are searching for evidence of Morgan as a potentially positive character who challenges patriarchy or instructs Arthur will find much material to enliven their perspective; skeptics, however, may require more convincing because often coverage takes precedent over textual detail and context. Nevertheless, readers should find Hebert’s account a useful narrative of how authors and readers of various centuries viewed Morgan’s relationship to Arthur, her access to power and challenges to stereotypes of women (and the discomfort she caused many male writers), and her character itself, including the perhaps surprising self-doubt that plagues her in more recent works.

The first chapter examines selections from four Latin sources – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, Etienne de Rouen’s Draco Normannicus, and, very briefly, both De Instructione Principis and Speculum Ecclesiae by Gerald of Wales. Hebert challenges the scholarly consensus that Morgan is represented as a caring, wholesome figure in these works, before the later romances constructed her as a malicious force. She also addresses Celtic goddess figures, primarily the Morrigan, whose ambiguity and complex character she identifies as an influence on early Latin sources. Then she asserts that in each Latin text, the positive descriptions of Morgan as healer or loving sister are undermined by various possible interpretations of certain surrounding textual elements. These assertions often turn on interpretations of single words or phrases, for example, when the Vita uses a Latin word (medicamen) that might mean both antidote and poison to describe Morgan’s “healing” (29), or when the Draco’s reference to Arthur’s fatalia iura is taken as a link to Morgan as fay (32). Still, such readings encourage the reader to reinvestigate the text and reconsider the possibilities for Morgan’s character.

Chapter two treats episodes that feature Morgan in the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycle and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it also connects Morgan to loathly lady and fairy mistress narratives including Thomas of Chestre’s Launfal, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Parzival. Given that many of these narratives occur at least partially in the forest rather than in a courtly setting, this exploration leads to one of Hebert’s most persuasive arguments: knights’ experiences in the forest require them to reevaluate courtly social norms and expand their realm of knowledge. Women and the notion of knightly submission to women’s knowledge are central to this educational experience, and Hebert finds parallels to Morgan in all the women who advance a knight’s education.

The third chapter examines Malory’s Arthur through the lens of Geoffrey de Charny’s early fourteenth-century chivalric manuals and argues that Morgan’s character calls attention to the imperfections that make Arthur an unworthy king (70). Ambitiously, Hebert reads Morgan as “Arthur’s backbone” and as a political counselor who tries to force her brother to deal with private issues such as Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair and knights’ disloyalty (72). To do so, Hebert must gloss the Accolon and 'poisoned mantle' episodes as instructive for Arthur and not meant to do genuine harm, which is a difficult task, since characters’ intents are elusive in Malory. Hebert attributes Morgan’s failure as such a counselor to Arthur’s willful ignorance and repression of her lessons, not to the fact that her attempts are manifested through oblique tests that men can dismiss all too easily as trivial or malicious, rather than through direct speech or counsel. Yet the notion that Malory means to critique the court or chivalric values through Morgan is ultimately persuasive, as is the reading of Excalibur’s scabbard (Latin: vagina) as representing the court’s underestimation of women’s potential to help or harm the court.

Chapter four explores the widest range of material yet, some of which only feature echoes of Morgan, constituting what Hebert calls “presence-in-absence”: Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590s); Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1884); Pre-Raphaelite art; literary works by minor authors Benedict Naubert (1826), Mrs. T. K. Hervey (1863), Diana Craik (1853), and Madison J. Cawein (1889); the folk ballad “Thomas the Rhymer” (1802); and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859-1885). Although Morgan does not appear in the Faerie Queene, Hebert argues that Spenser, indebted to Malory, distributes Morgan’s abilities across the negative characters Argante, Acrasia, Duessa, and Malecasta. Hebert then shifts to the Romantic and Victorian eras, considering social views of the fallen woman and the Angel of the House archetype. In this light, a Morgan character proves problematic for the various writers who attempt to reduce her complexity and impose restrictions on her. Hebert’s reading of Tennyson’s Vivien as an ignored advisor recalls her reading of Malory’s Morgan and suggests that Vivien fails because she is a woman and not trusted by men. This is at least partially true, but, of course, Tennyson also shows Vivien openly lying and manipulating the truth (as in her two different versions of her parents’ deaths), indicating that her gender may not be the only problem with her character. The chapter is especially noteworthy for its treatment of the less canonical writers, such as Hervey, whose Guenevere impressively defends Morgan against men’s misrepresentations in a show of women’s solidarity, and Craik, who offers a more conservative defense, while more familiar or traditional depictions provide a broader literary context.

The final chapter addresses Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee (1889), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (1982), J. Robert King’s Le Morte d’Avalon (2003), and Nancy Springer’s young adult novel I Am Morgan le Fay (2001), with a general focus on feminine power. For Hebert, Twain’s Hank Morgan and Morgan le Fay share similar values, but she is also someone he must displace as he gains power. Analysis of Bradley’s Mists complicates the notion of power due to the “overlapping power structures of masculine, Christian, and Celtic priestess society” (12), and Hebert convincingly challenges the notion of Mists as a feminist revision. Rather, she demonstrates how that view is undermined by the many moments of doubt and insecurity Morgan experiences that lead to destruction instead of success. The two more recent novels, though for different audiences, equally show a Morgan filled with self-doubt whose rebellion causes only destruction, which prompts Hebert to rightfully express concern that the still-dominant message delivered is that a talented woman’s challenges to patriarchy can result only in personal and social tragedy.

As this book illustrates, Morgan’s character is complex, elusive, and ever-shifting, and Hebert achieves a monumental task in bringing together such a variety of sources. One of the book’s impressive features is Hebert’s widespread reading in both Arthurian literature, including Welsh, French, and German texts that she references in addition to her main texts, and scholarship. She cites a wide array of sources, including folklore studies, feminist readings, historical analyses, art history, and academic and trade books from early 1900s to present publications, even unpublished dissertations and B.A. theses. Hebert clearly challenges some consensus views, but the impulse to cover so many texts frequently leaves little room for extensive analysis. As a result, Hebert’s survey is often insightful but sometimes uneven. For instance, she elides the many variations among the English 'loathly lady' tales, without considering whether the lady has control over her own shapeshifting (as in Chaucer) or not (as occurs more typically), which would complicate the questions regarding both female power and whether the fay analogue in the story is the loathly lady or the stepmother who enchanted her. Hebert thus opens suggestive avenues for interpretation, but the number and variety of texts covered prevents her from fully engaging more developed intertextual readings.

Even though at times I found myself desiring more details, Morgan le Fay, Shapeshifter regularly inspired me to want to turn to the texts or delve into the issues and questions Hebert raises. I have no doubt that the book will spark further investigations into the character of Morgan and her changing status during various eras of Arthurian literature.

Misty Schieberle
University of Kansas

Griffith: Hild

Nicola Griffith. Hild. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.

Review by: Hilary Fox (

Most Anglo-Saxonists know St. Hild of Whitby, who presides over her pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, as a teacher, administrator, and midwife of early English Christianity. The Hild of Nicola Griffith’s novel of the same name is not the energetic, saintly mother to monks and nuns described by her venerable biographer; instead, she is the Hild of the thirty-three years before the habit, who is most decidedly not a saint but still embodies the energy and determination that Bede, in his few paragraphs on her, can only hint at.

As Griffith points out in her notes, and as Anglo-Saxonists also know, little is known about Hild’s life prior to her foundation of Whitby. According to Bede, she is the daughter of Hereric, nephew to Edwin of Northumbria, and his wife Breguswith. When Hild and her sister Hereswith were still girls, Hereric died by poison; his death sent his widow and two daughters to Edwin’s court, where eventually thirteen-year-old Hild was baptized along with the rest of Edwin’s house by Paulinus of York. Hild’s childhood and adolescence are the focus of Griffith’s novel, which sets out not to reaffirm Bede’s hagiography, but to question it, in order to find out the source of Hild’s reputation as counselor to kings and prelates. Griffith finds it not in Breguswith’s vision of her daughter as the light of the world, but in Hild’s ability to read patterns and the necessity of exploiting every resource at hand—mental, physical, spiritual—in the service of survival.

Breguswith’s vision of a visionary daughter is the centerpiece of Bede’s portrayal of Hild’s exemplary piety and influence. One night, in the course of a dream that seems to portend Hereric’s death, Breguswith discovers a bright necklace beneath her robe, shining so brightly its light spreads throughout Britain. In Hild, however, her daughter’s light is not the light of steadfast faith that guides lesser mortals on the path to Heaven: it is a light carefully crafted to turn keen insight into prophecy, prophecy into counsel, and counsel into survival for two women, Breguswith and her handmaiden, Onnen, as well as their children: Hild, Hereswith, and the sisters’ half-brother by Hereric, Cian. Indeed, despite its frequent invocations of prophecy and second sight, and the elves and sidhe that lurk on the margins of superstition, Hild is devoted not to fantasy or the supernatural as such, but to how women make practical use of the uncanny to secure their place in a world hedged about by men and violence.

While Bede’s Hild is destined to become a saint, Griffith’s Hild has wyrd, the “fully-fixed” fate of The Wanderer and Beowulf, fate which “goes as ever it must.” Her wyrd is to function as the agent of her people’s survival, and so she takes on multiple roles in the dangerous court of her uncle: first she is seer, then warrior, then judge, then, in her own word, butcher-bird, leading the slaughter of bandits coming out from the lands of Edwin’s rivals. Like a chameleon, she adapts herself to each role demanded of her; the people of the court and the lands through which she passes see her not as a girl, but as a being occupying some strange, hybrid space between elf, giant, and hag. Paulinus of York, on his mission to convert Edwin, thinks she’ll go up in smoke when she receives the chrism. Almost unnaturally tall and large-built, with red-gold hair and uncanny eyes, Hild’s appearance encourages such speculation, speculation she puts to good use in moments when Edwin’s ferocity, pride, and ill-judgment threatens both his rule and the safety of Hild’s family. Hild’s adaptability is born of necessity; the brightness of her counsel, like the brightness of the seax she carries, is not supernatural, but carefully crafted, the product of conscious deliberation and the knowledge of what will happen if she fails, or proves useless to Edwin’s plans. On occasion, such as when Hild gambles everything to tell Edwin Æthelburh will give birth to a healthy son and heir as a crucial juncture in Northumbrian politics, or when her brother-friend Cian foolishly marries the daughter of one of Edwin’s many rivals, we are reminded that, for all her uncanniness, Hild is only human, and her sight has definite limits. When Hild repeatedly tells herself she is “the light of the world,” the phrase is not so much an invocation of otherworldly power as a reminder of the role her two mothers—Breguswith and necessity—have thrust upon her.

The politics and familial relationships of the novel are a bog to get trapped in, and it’s understandable why one would need a seer to make sense of them. Because of this, one of the strengths of Hild is its insistence on treating its characters—Anglo-Saxon, British, Irish—as men and women intimately versed in the exigencies of political and practical survival. Negotiations for marriage and alliance are as detailed as descriptions of sheep-shearing, dairying, and hunting. The Christians—prominent among them are the future saint Fursey, Paulinus, and James the Deacon—are not the iconic Scripture-bearing figures pointing the way to a bright Christian future, but representatives of a foreign king whose claims to divine aid must be weighed against those of the old faith. The conversion of Edwin’s court is not spiritual, but immensely practical, and is acknowledged as such by almost everyone in attendance. Begu, Hild’s companion, frequently punctures moments of solemnity with hilarious conjectures on the nature of God and the Holy Spirit—and falls asleep on Hild’s shoulder while listening to the conversion sermon.

For those who know their Anglo-Saxon church history, there’s much to delight in the backstories of the men of the Ecclesiastical History. Fursey, Hild’s tutor, is as involved in court intrigues as she is, and has a taste for fine food and drink. James the Deacon, an Italian trapped in the cold north, enjoys wine and leading the choir—a cheerful counterpart to “the Crow,” Hild’s name for the dark, brooding Paulinus. We even have a glimpse of a young Cædmon, still herding cows in the hills above Hild’s home in Mulstanton.

The world in which Hild and her kinswomen move is a world unlike the isolated, insular world most commonly imagined upon hearing the phrase “early Middle Ages” (or worse, “the Dark Ages”). While the focus remains steadfastly on the complicated politics surrounding Edwin’s court, the threads of politics and trade inevitably lead elsewhere: to Ireland, Scotland, across the channel to Francia and even further, to Rome—and, beyond that, hints of the Silk Road and the Spice Islands. Pepper, silk, olive oil, incense, and Rhenish wine have their places alongside the cows, hunting dogs, and sheep, as well as the plants the women gather for cooking and healing. When the women sit weaving, their weaving makes clothes for the court, cloth for trade, and the fabric for marriage, alliance, and diplomacy. Griffith’s research on the archaeology and every day life of the period is extensive, and pays off, as scenes of everyday life become backdrops for Hild’s consideration and meditation on how to guide Edwin down safer paths.

Hild’s powers of observation are also the powers of Griffith’s prose. Most 500+ page novels would drag under the weight of description, but Hild’s ability to “see” the future is her ability to read the present, to identify patterns, to extrapolate, and her insight into her world is our insight into her political maneuvering. But Hild is also a girl of thwarted, desperate passion; her anger, determination, and loneliness are described as acutely as a rare ramble in the woods with her friends. In the moments she’s allowed release—in bed with Gwladus, her slave, or in her sparring sessions with Cian—we are allowed to see the extent to which Hild’s career has forced her into self-discipline, but cannot entirely tame her. In a world where she can allow herself few close friendships, her relationships with Begu and Cian are her touchstones, and are all the more real and affecting for Hild’s otherwise isolated life.

Hild is concerned with what goes on behind the making of hagiography, what gets left out and what is carefully modified in order to paint the icons it does. Griffith’s Hild, like her name, is a girl of battles, not the woman who oversees an influential abbey and serves as mother to her monks and nuns. At the end of the novel, she is still very much a part of the secular world, embarking on her next mission to keep herself, her friends, and her people safe, but we also see the qualities that must lie behind the vigorous abbess of Bede’s few paragraphs, brought brilliantly to life.

Hilary Fox
Wayne State University