Thankfully for readers like me, who are not particularly interested in any of those things – although I do now know a lot more about seventh century politics than I ever imagined possible – ‘Hild’ is also a compelling novel about women and power and survival.
The story starts when Hild is just a child, but a very special child. One of royal birth and uncanny powers. Before she is born, her mother dreams her destiny into being: this child will be light of world, an adviser to kings and a leader of people.
We follow her, her half-brother Cian and friend Begu, as they grow up and join the royal court, where at any time the King’s anger could mean the death of one of his advisers. He has absolute power. And yet Hild has power too, as the King’s seer. Where her power comes from, how she uses it and what she has to sacrifice to keep it are the questions I found most fascinating about this book.
Hild’s wisdom comes because she is observant, continually seeking out the pattern in things. She is always watchful, even among those she loves and trusts most, and remains unmarried for as long as she can. She becomes only woman among the King’s advisors, a vulnerable position.
Hild’s physicality matches her role. She is tall and a skilled rider. She is strong and unsqueamish in battle. But, quietly, Griffith shows the toll that so much violence has on Hild’s mind and sense of herself. Her choices are limited and often costly.
There are other sources of power in the book, which Hild learns to use to her own advantage to keep herself and her loved ones safe. The rise of the Church is one, and with it the magic of the written word which few – apart from Hild – learn to master. Marriage is another: it determines alliances between kingdoms, but who you share your bed with – man or a woman – seems to matter very little.
Confession time. For pages of this novel, I had no idea what was going on. I gave up trying to remember which king was which, who was friend or foe, or even who was still alive. I skimmed over the painstakingly-researched Old Anglisc words – only finding the glossary too late. Not as observant as Hild, I missed a lot of the subtleties and could have done without much of the detail. But the character carried me through.
Hild, later St Hilda of Whitby, really existed, although history records very little about her. And Griffith has breathed her into life.
Hild – I salute you. A woman of wit, sense and intelligence. A woman of power in a man’s world. We need more stories like yours.