I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for Hild and welcome to Nicola, with thanks for her guest post below.
Published 24 July 2014, Blackfriars
A literary triumph – an epic historical novel that brings the Dark Ages into the light
‘You are a prophet and seer with the brightest mind in an age. Your blood is that of the man who should have been king …That’s what the king and his lords see. And they will kill you, one day.’
Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, often and violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.
Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.
Hild brings a beautiful, brutal world—and one of its most fascinating, pivotal figures, the girl who would become St. Hilda of Whitby—to mesmerising, unforgettable life.
10 Things about Hild, the woman
– by Nicola Griffith
My novel follows the early life of Hild, also known as St. Hilda of Whitby. She was born at the beginning of the seventh century, fourteen hundred years ago. What little we know about this fascinating woman is from the Venerable Bede—a monk writing fifty years after Hild’s death. So he might have talked to people who had memories of Hild but he himself would not have known her.
Here’s what he tells us about the first half of her life (my speculation in brackets).
Hild was born c. 614 CE, after her mother had had a dream about unborn child bringing light to the land (this sounds like a good ploy from a homeless, widowed pregnant woman: don’t hurt me, what I carry is important!). Father: Hereric, of the royal house of Deira (possibly son of Æthelric, king of Deira 599-604), killed at the court of Ceredig, king of Elmet just before Hild’s birth. Mother: Breguswith, family unknown. (But if she married someone important enough to be assassinated she would have been royal. And clearly she was clever.) Older sister: Hereswith, who married Æthelric, son of Eni—who was brother of King Rædwald of East Anglia—and brother to King Anna. (Æthelric, perhaps also known as Egric, was briefly co-king, with Sigiberht, before Anna took the throne.) Hild, along with many of her uncle’s household—Edwin, King of Northumbria—was converted to Christianity and baptised by Paulinus c. 627 in York. She then disappears from the record until 647 when she is 33.
That’s it. That’s all we know about her first 33 years. There are no book-length biographies, no extant Life, not even a juicy novel about her. But the more I thought about Hild the more I wanted to know.
The only was to find out was to recreate the seventh century, put Hild inside, and watch her grow. To grow her properly I had to get her world right. So I spent fifteen years researching everything I can find about the early seventh century—language, poetry, the politics of conversion, food, arms and armour, textile production, flora and fauna, metalworking, health, even the weather.
Here are ten basic things Bede doesn’t tell us but I determined on my own.
1. What Hild looked like. I made her tall for the simple reason that tall people get more respect. Also, the better fed one’s family is, the taller you tend to grow.
2. Her real name. Hild is half a name. Her full name could have been almost anything, but I think the two most likely are Hildeburh and Hildeswith. They follow the alliterative H (Hereric, Hereswith). The -with suffix is extremely likely, given Breguswith and Hereswith, but in the end I just went with the half name. It means ‘battle’. Seems appropriate.
3. The languages she spoke. Hild was probably an accomplished linguist, speaking British (a Celtic tongue; the language from which Welsh is descended), Anglisc (a Northumbrian dialect of Old English), Irish (a different Celtic tongue), and Latin (ecclesiastical Latin). To become a saint she must have been held in high regard by many. Why? She talked to them. She listened. She let them know they had been heard.
4. Who killed Hild’s father. Bede doesn’t tell us but I decided Edwin did it. He wanted to be king, and was busy forming alliances all over the country (they all went wrong, with a vengeance; clearly, he wasn’t a likeable man). So Edwin made it look as though Ceredig king of Elmet poisoned him, and then used the murder as an excuse to drive Ceredig from the forest and annexe Elmet.
5. The name of Hild’s husband. All elite women married. And Bede never refers to her as ‘virgin’. The fact that Bede doesn’t mention Hild’s husband means she married someone beyond the pale–a pagan, or a British or Irish royal, or someone equally unsuitable for as-yet undisclosed reasons. When you get to the end of the book you’ll see how I solved this dilemma.
6. How well she got on with her family. Hereric died and that death left Hild and her mother and her sister at the mercy of the world. I imagine there was a bit of irrational blame there: you bastard, you left us alone! And then the three women would have to had to stick together to face the world. But mothers and daughters don’t often get along so well after puberty. And Hereswith got the good marriage (at least insofar as we know). There again, Hild was the one who got the prophecy about being a light of the world.
7. Her essential personality. Bede tells us that once Hild joined the church she ran her abbeys in orderly fashion, and that everyone called her mother. It makes sense, then, that this was possible because she was reasonable, calm, competent, flexible, able to adjust to the evidence i.e. like a disciplined scientist who sees an odd result and thinks, Huh, that’s odd, let’s find out why… I bet she loved the the inherent mathematics (though she wouldn’t have know that what it was) of the soaring music James the Deacon brought north. I bet she loved Isidore’s attempt to explain and codify the known world in his etymologies (though it’s pretty unlikely she had access to this book; but it’s not impossible, so I think I’ll take some licence in future books). I bet she encountered an abacus at Gipswīc when she accompanied Edwin to East Anglia to sort out Hereswith’s marriage. She lived in constant danger: one slip, one wrong prediction, and she was dead. She must have thrived on risk.
8. Her favourite colour. It might sound trivial but it’s not. Women of those times would spend about 65% of their days on textile production, and when you’re that intimately involved in your own clothes, colour choice is a big deal. Plus there would have been rules–at least customs–about who was allowed to wear what. So what does the granddaughter of a deposed king get to wear? And what colours were possible? (Did they trade for exotic dyes or make it all themselves?)
9. What time of year she was born. I think autumn. Old English poetry reeks of elegy, and autumn is the most elegaic season. I like the notion of making October her particular time.
10. Her hopes and fears. Hild liked being on her own at the edges of things but her whole life was aimed at making a place for herself, literally and figuratively. She wanted to belong.
Nicola Griffith has won a Nebula Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, the World Fantasy Award and six Lambda Literary Awards. A native of Yorkshire – now a dual US/UK citizen – Nicola is a onetime self-defence instructor who turned to writing full-time upon being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1993. She lives with her wife in Seattle.