In the tradition of Mary Renault, Sigrid Undset and, more recently, Hilary Mantel, novelist Nicola Griffith recreates the past in Hild, a lively look at the girl who would become Saint Hilda of Whitby, one of the key figures of early Christianity.

Hild was born in 614, the niece of one of England’s most powerful tribal kings. Little is known about her early life, though the story is that her mother was told in a dream that she would give birth to the light of the world. Hild was part of the king’s court when the entire household was baptized as Christians in 627. Twenty years later, she became the abbess of one of the most notable religious communities in Europe, counselor to kings and a teacher of bishops.

The novel begins with the death of Hild’s father when she was three, and ends when she is 19, well before she became an abbess. Griffith’s young Hild is perceptive, canny and thoughtful. Fulfilling the prophecy of her birth, she becomes a seer and advisor to her uncle. She is quick to understand the value of literacy, the impact of trade routes and the power behind the new religion. Her observations of the natural world lead her to understand what motivates those around her. She forms relationships easily with the common folk, developing networks of loyal followers.

Medieval England was a complex landscape of warring dynasties and vicious politics, and is probably less familiar to the reader than the court of Henry VIII or even Alexander the Great’s Macedonia. Griffith has clearly immersed herself in this world to bring it to life for the reader—the politics, languages, occupations as well as the food, dress and drink—and this extensive research occasionally threatens to overtake the characters. But the details are engrossing, and her depiction of a young woman whose actions would change history is a compelling one.

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