ljgoldstein (ljgoldstein) wrote in theinferior4,

Dispatches from the Seventh Century: Hild, by Nicola Griffith

You might think that a novel about an obscure English saint from the Dark Ages would be fairly boring, but you'd be wrong.  For one thing, there's the character of Hild herself.  I can't describe her any better than Griffith does in the "Author's Note":  "… clearly she was extraordinary.  In a time of warlords and kings, when might was right, she began as the second daughter of a homeless widow … and ended up a powerful adviser to statesmen-kings and teacher of five bishops."

So how did she do it?  According to Griffith she became a seer to Edwin, the overking of the Anglisc, when she was just seven years old.  The novel is not a fantasy; Hild receives no visions, hears no voices telling the future.  Instead she observes the world around her very closely, and discovers how to see patterns in its fabric.  Later she learns how to read and receives letters from all over the island, and, since most other people are illiterate, she can get the latest news before anyone else.

And, to use a modern idiom, she cultivates her image.  She sets herself apart: the people think her unearthly, uncanny; they make up songs about her.  She looks directly at the powerful, the kings and priests and knights who give the orders in her world, something that would have been unthinkable for a woman unless that woman had power as well.  She learns how to manipulate people, how to interpret omens to get the outcome she wants -- learns especially from her mother, a cold woman who could have given Machiavelli lessons.

There might be a little too much about how separate she feels, how exceptional she is.  Fortunately this is leavened by those times she can spend with her friends, Cian, a boy she's raised with who becomes a knight, and Begu, a girl who becomes her gemæcce, part of a formally recognized female friendship.  She can be herself with them, playing and gossiping and learning how use a sword and shield.

The other thing that makes Hild a terrific read is the prose, which is gorgeous.  Griffith seems to know this world as well as her character does, and her descriptions are so minutely observed that you almost feel she's reporting back from seventh-century England.  I could quote parts of this book all day: "In York, birds were eating the last of the hornbeam nuts, the hazelnuts had been gathered, and the ash between the north pasture and the east fields pollarded.  Everywhere smoke rose into the hard blue sky: fragrant ash from the hearth, keeping them warm; applewood smouldering under the butchered pig, turning it to bacon; thorn-brush coals roasting hazelnuts."

Or: "Long-legged birds speared shellfish, and women with sacks collected coal and driftwood, dodging the surf that ran up over the sand like the froth in a milkmaid's pail.  The sky showed as blue as twice-dyed linen.  The sea was restless, glinting like napped flint."  Look at the alliteration: "Long-legged"; "collected coal"; "surf" and "sand" and "sky."  Look at the near-rhymes: "ran" and "sand"; "twice-dyed"; "glinting" and "flint."  Look at the startling similes: "as blue as twice-dyed linen"; "glinting like napped flint."  It's as close as you can get to poetry in prose.

Hild is about the adventures and incidents of a life, so it doesn't have the kind of plot you'd find in a traditional work of fiction.  And it's the first in a series, so it doesn't have a traditional ending either.  This is the sort of thing that bothers some people -- but if it doesn't bother you, then I recommend this book highly.
Tags: hild, nicola griffith
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