The narrator of Nicola Griffith’s Hild (2013, FSG) is its subject, the English St. Hilda of Whitby, one of the Church’s patron saints of learning and culture.
The tale of her life begins when she’s barely three years old, and concludes while she’s still a young woman, about to marry the warrior with whom she grew up. By then, she’s only recently baptised, not yet an abbess, and certainly not a canonized saint. (It's a pleasure to encounter a female saint canonized for something other than being subjected to protracted torture and death.) But already she's an advisor and counselor to kings -- a precarious position in the early years of the Christian conversion of multitudes of cut-throat, treacherous, ambitious Anglo-Saxon kings striving to become overking of all the rival domains, one of whom is Hild’s uncle, King Edwin.
Despite some gruesome scenes of battle and torture, it’s a lovely novel, because it’s a book about seeing. Through the eyes of Hild, who, in early childhood, becomes seer for Edwin, we see a beautiful land still touched only lightly by the effect of human transformation. She has the capacity, perhaps inherited from her mother, to notice and recall what most eyes slide over.
Though her relationship with her mother is often uneasy and uncomfortable, whenever they are together she drills Hild in honing her capacity to see and remember. Equally important, her mother shows Hild how to shape what she sees into word-stories that will sway a king’s thinking, thereby keeping herself and those she cares for safe from a capricious ruler perpetually suspicious of conspiracy. Pondering everything she sees, she seeks to find the significance in the behaviors of weather and seasons, trade and agriculture, and people and animals from the smallest to the largest.
In the way that women who are married to unite kingdoms are called peace weavers, Hild is a pattern weaver. She creates original patterns on her loom in the weaving house, which not every woman can do -- i.e. not everyone has her imaginative power to re-create materially what she sees first in her mind. The place of weaving in seventh-century women's lives is part of Hild’s thematic matrix, as it describes how the women of this time and place weave relationships among each other, for themselves as individuals and within the larger weaving patterns that include family alliances -- at least for women who are of high enough status to have places at the fortress-courts from which powerful men exert dominance, extract tribute and launch their wars.
In the society this novel describes, a woman’s female relatives are her primary security. Even if they dislike each other, mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, and cousins will never repudiate each other, because they don’t dare. When posted as a stranger to another court, if a lady's retinue contained a member of an ally's weave, she would find a place ready-made for her within that member's weave.
Of nearly equal importance in this social system is a formally recognized companionship between two young girls called gemæcce (pronounced something like yem-ATCH-ee). This pair bond is decided upon, or consented to, by mother, lady, queen, or other influential woman. Typically, this pair bond will be with someone the girl grew up with, whose own female relatives have ties to her relatives. The gemæcce partnership is for life, is nearly as important as who is chosen to marry the girls, and sometimes supersedes their relationships with the men. Hild's gemæcce is a charming young person named Begu, who is her polar opposite, with different valuable qualities; for instance, Begu gets Hild to play, she can make her laugh.
Though they cannot enter into a gemæcce pairing with women of the higher ranks, the weave of female allies in this seventh-century world can include women of lower status and even an enslaved woman. For a seer, to whom information is essential, these women are invaluable sources as well as a web through which the seer can transmit ideas and information she wishes to be widely spread.
Women are not warriors in this time, but are permitted to learn how to fight if they want to. For some women, knowing how to fight is necessary because a king going to war wants his seer at his side. If a battle goes against the king, the seer needs to be able to defend herself.
The book's research is meticulous. More to the point, the author understood her research so well that she weaves a fine, taut pattern of the past in the form of an historical novel. It's beautifully written, sentence by sentence. It's also skillfully composed: tension where it's needed; action that rises and falls in appropriately timed phrases; at times suffering, disease and death; other times women get giggling drunk together; in another phrase a vision is dreamed into water rippling over leaves. Though the characters are like all human beings who have ever lived and who live now -- they compete for power, they fall in love, they enjoy their food and drink -- it's a world very different from this one.
Hild is a splendid way to submerge, particularly in the season of the Winter Solstice and the Yule log.