Hold onto your hats, this one is going to be long. (If you’re a glutton for punishment feel free to check out Hild roundup #1 and Hild roundup #2. One day, when things steady down a bit, I’ll consolidate things but today is not that day.)
Hild launched just three days ago and the reviews are so fabulous I can hardly stand it. I’ll start with those, in no particular order.
“With gorgeously supple prose, Griffith tells the story of Hild, the seventh-century woman who would come to be revered as Saint Hilda. Hild is, according to her ambitious and canny mother, “the light of the world,” destined to lead the Yffings into prosperity as the king’s seer. But her only magic is that of observations, of reading cycles and patterns of behavior, be they in weather, landscapes, or people. Step by step, thought by thought, we are introduced to Hild’s development and deployment as adviser to Edwin Overking at a time of enormous social change, as petty kingdoms clash and merge like tectonic plates. […] Hild is a book as loving as it is fierce, brilliant and accomplished. To read it felt like a privilege and a gift.”
(With follow-up blog post by El-Mohtar, here, that is definitely worth reading.)
Conversion Starter, Jenny Davidson
“In it’s ambition and intelligence, Hild might best be compared to Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. Griffith does not have the extraordinary ability displayed in Wolf Hall to render densely populated political rivalries as vividly and concretely as one might describe the relationships between three or four members of a family…but she has other gifts Mantel doesn’t, especially that sharp eye for what happens to plants and animals (especially birds) over the course of the seasons, as well as an understated and just-lyrical-enough prose style that delights the reader locally without ever distracting from the forward movements of character and plot.”
(No link to this, because it’s print.)
The Idle Woman
“This was a rare thing: a book I came to on the strength of its subject, knowing nothing about its author, hoping that it would be a amusing read – only to find myself simply blown away by the quality of the writing. And I’m not easy to impress. […] Richly-described, sensitive and very far from being conventional, this is a real treat for anyone interested in this period – or anyone who loves lush, evocative language and the poetic resonance of ancient words – gesith; gemæcce; hægtes. Griffith has done a fabulous job and I hope she might turn to more historical fiction in the future, rather than the sci-fi and crime which I understand she’s focused on so far. She certainly has a gift for it. Do get your hands on a copy if you can – settle back and savour it – and come and tell me what you think. I do hope you enjoy it. And why wouldn’t you? Here is the gleam of arm-rings, brooches and torcs; the fellowship of mead and songs; and the echoes of heroic grandeur in an age which is already coming to an end:
We ride in service to a dream from the gods. If our dreamer’s horse fails, you will give her yours. If her food runs low, you will give your own. She will light our way. And now we ride.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“Midway through Nicola Griffith’s splendid Medieval novel Hild is a scene of hedge-construction. […] This scene can stand for the novel itself, and for its genre of historical fiction. Supporting the narrative are bare facts: names, dates, battles, kings. Between those dead stakes the novelist transplants green shoots, bits of lived experience that link the historical moment to the present. She then lops and bends and weaves these shoots — the smell of horses, the sound of crows, the stirring of desire — to make a pattern that is not only beautiful but also meaningful.”
The Other Side of the Brain
“Nicola Griffith’s Hild: A Novel is something rare. It’s a historical fantasy, but it’s not a magical adventure, a bodice-ripper, a military drama, or even a political thriller. It’s not the kind of book you dive into and finish a day later and forget almost immediately. Hild is a whole world with a taste and texture of its own. It lingers. […] Hild herself: A girl in and of the past, navigating a complex and patriarchal world. Griffith hasn’t caved to the strong-woman-defies-patriarchy-and-becomes-a-legit-knight tendencies of fantasy with female leads (although, admittedly, Hild does learn to use a staff). Hild gains power and influence for herself and her family, but not by hacking up bad guys and teaching everyone about equal rights for women. Instead, her weapon is her intelligence. She also isn’t motivated by some personal horror-story—she isn’t strong because she was “broken first,” she’s strong because she has natural ambitions and hopes of her own. She changes the world not because she’s man-like, but because she’s human-like.”
The New Republic
“Over the past three years, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy-meets-Tudors books have taken the publishing world by storm. The fifth installation, published in 2011, had the highest first-day sales of any fiction book that year, and the most recent season of the HBO adaptation was the network’s second-most popular of all time. We have the CW’s hilarious teen-soap version of Mary Queen of Scots, Reign; before that, there were The Tudors and The Borgias. Hilary Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her novels about Thomas Cromwell, which are currently being made into a BBC TV series. And now we have a new entrant into the canon: Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild.
Hild, which takes place in seventh-century Britain, is based on the historic figure now known as St. Hilda, who helped to convert Britain to Christianity. The novel uses her scant biography (about half a page in a Christian history) to weave together an epic bildungsroman. We follow young Hild from the death of her father to her early career as a seer for King Edwin of Northumbria and her eventual evolution into a political actor in her own right. Griffith explains Hild’s mystical powers as a combination of attentiveness and keen intelligence, and limits the discussion of wights and witches to Hild’s less perceptive peers. It is a tasteful work of historical fiction, artfully dramatizing real events to recreate Hild’s seventh-century world.”
(A mixed review.)
The language in Hild seems carefully wrought to evoke the period and setting of seventh-century Britain. Was Old English an inspiration in writing this book?
I’m grinning at the notion of “carefully” and “writing this book.”
Yes, Old English was foundational for me. Especially the poetry. I read the surviving poems, in several translations and in the original (though my OE is rubbish). It’s stirring–heroic, alliterative, elegiac. But I’m not sure how representative it is of Hild’s era. It’s written, rather than being oral, which means it came to us through the double filter of Latinised, Christian scribes.
I read a fair amount of old Welsh/British poetry, too, because Britain in Hild’s time was a seriously multi-ethnic place. Scholars argue whether that poetry was originally written in Hild’s time or centuries later, but it, too, is stirring and heroic, proud in a slightly different register.
I took the poetry, stuffed it into the black box of my writing brain, and let it ferment. And then I quailed. I was terrified of screwing it up. In the end I did what any good Anglo-Saxon would: I got drunk, laughed in the face of fear, and charged. So while the thinking beforehand and the editing afterwards were carefully considered, the writing itself was more like riding a bull.
UK Lesbian Fiction
Historical fiction is on a high at the moment, with Mantel’sCromwell novels winning two Bookers, and many other authors – including LesFic favourites Manda Scott, Stella Duffy and Jeannette Winterson – turning their hand to history. Why the increase in popularity?
Adrienne Rich said, “We must use what we have to invent what we desire.” (What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics) That’s what I’m doing with Hild: I’m inventing what I desire. I desire a vision of the world in which the woman I had imagined (after years of research) might have existed, in which she might have been able to live her life as a human being: as subject not object. I wanted to believe that the Hild I imagined was possible. To look at where we come from–the past–and believe we could have survived there as ourselves. By making Hild possible, I wanted to recast what people today think might be possible and so make it possible. In other words, I’m recolonising the past. Recasting it. Retelling it. And by so doing, I’m recreating the present and so steering the future.
(This one is long and juicy.)
Basically, Griffith is “trying to look at different ways in which women could have power and agency.” As a seer, Hild has a substantial amount of influence over King Edwin’s decisions. History suggests that in later life, Hild sought power in the church, but the book ends with Hild as a young woman, long before that point. (Griffith plans to continue the story in at least one more volume.) It’s not entirely clear from this novel to what degree Hild’s actual spiritual beliefs will play in her decision to enter the church. […] “Religion is an organization. Religious is a political thing. Personal belief is personal,” Griffith says. Hild is simply seeking knowledge and power through the channels available to her. “Today, [Hild would grow]…up to be a scientist.”
What’s your latest obsession?
Trying to keep up with inter-library loans! After a multi-year pause–I’ve discovered that while actually writing a novel research not only delays the work but endangers it; it makes me uncertain–I’ve just gone totally berserk and ordered countless academic texts I’ve had my eye on for a while. Sadly, ILL doesn’t allow loan renewal, so the books are piling up and time is running out. And still I see something in The Medieval Review and think, “Well, now, that looks interesting…”
THINGS I’VE WRITTEN
(In which I talk about the playlist I used to write Hild. You’ll also find a link to most of the list on Spotify.)
Finding a way into a novel is like wandering in the wood late at night; sometimes what feels like a path is just a gap in the trees. Music is an emotional signpost. But it has to be pointing the right way, otherwise you end up in a bog, at the edge of precipice or floating backwards down the river.
When I write I can play only music as familiar as my heartbeat–stuff I can harmonise with, pound out the beat to, soar upon without fully engaging. Otherwise I listen with the word-making part of my brain and I’m distracted. So these are all old songs. Some are older than me. I always played them in the same order, so my subconscious mind always knew what was coming next. But I started the playlist in different places, depending on what the writing required that day. Hild begins from the perspective of a frightened toddler, goes on to the glory of childhood certainty, then the tension and laugh-out-loud brilliance of first sex, the restless risk-taking of young-adulthood, the exhilaration of political power.
Music is a thing of the whole body, not just the ears. So when I write I can’t bear to listen to music through headphones or earbuds. I need real speakers, complete with enormous sub woofer. (Probably also for that reason, I insist on WAV files, not MP3s.) When I think there’s no one around I crank it until the house trembles, feel the bass pushing my belly like a hand, the hum of cello like a bottle of bees in my long bones.
I built three playlists: WeirdHild, OtherHild, and MainHild. I swapped from one to the other with Hild’s mood. But as I moved into the last third of the first draft, and throughout subsequent rewrites, MainHild vanquished the others utterly.
It’s selections from MainHild I’ll talk about today…”
(An essay in which I address the question lots of people keep asking.)
More than one review of Hild has characterised me as an sf/f writer who has left the fold to try my hand at this historical fiction thing. I’m not convinced I’ve left anything. If I have, I haven’t stepped very far.
When I first started reading I found no essential difference between Greek mythology and the Iliad, Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas. The Lord of the Rings,The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Eagle of the Ninth all spoke to me with the same voice: the long ago, wreathed in mist and magic. My first attempt at fiction (I was eight or nine) was a tale of a hero with no name—though naturally his sword has a name, and his horse, and dog. I’ve no idea if there would have been any fantastic element or not because I abandoned it after the first page. A brooding atmosphere, it turned out, wasn’t enough to sustain a story…
Just before I started work on Hild, I wrote “You’ve been warned,” a blog post in which I vowed that with my next novel I would run my software on your hardware. “I will control what you think and feel, put you right there, right then…give you a life you’ve never had, change the one you live. For a while, when you’re lost in my book, you will be somewhere, somewhen, someone else.” It was my dagger in the table, a public challenge—to myself. You see, I’d been aiming for Hild for a long time, and I was terrified…
Work in Progress
(In which I talk about how I used language, and Hild used various tongues–Old English, British, Irish, Latin–to achieve her aims.)Words matter. They’re like icebergs; nine-tenths of their meaning lies beneath the surface. But that hidden meaning has mass, it has momentum. A single word can crush your pretty sentence, or paragraph or even scene, like tin.
This is a piece of absolute fun. You’ll discover that Hild is like Arya, Hild is like Bran, Hild is like Tyrion…
Here’s a profile of me in Amazing Stories, in Spanish, by Laura Ponce