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

July 6, 2014

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