Hild as Butcherbird

Image description: Oil-painting-like image of a seventh-century warrior staring directly at the observer, blue-green eyes narrowed and looking as though she’ll ride right over you.

Over on Gemæcce, my research blog, I’ve been doing a series of posts on Hild’s bynames. In Hild, she has four. (Actually six, if you count Light of the World and King’s Fist—but they’re more titles than epithets. And then there are the two she adds in Menewood—but I’ll get to those closer to publication next year.) Butcherbird is the name she acquired as a teenager after she impaled bandits on stakes across the Aire Gap to deter further incursions into Elmet from Craven.

Last year I talked about that byname, a reference to the common English name for the grey shrike—which also impales prey, hanging mouse pups, bees, lizards and so on thorns and fences. But I was never happy with the illustration I used, probably because I was trying to making one sketch do two things—represent a grey shrike and a red shrike—and it ended up stiff and weird and not at all representative of the threat of such a predator (bird or woman). So now I’ve had another go, approaching representation from a different perspective.

Hild as Butcherbird

First, I tried with Hild herself. I went to DALL-E, a platform that uses machine learning to generate images, and told it to create an oil painting based on my image.1 “Oil painting of seventh-century Anglo-Saxon warrior with blue-green eyes based on images of Nicola Griffith.” What I got back wasn’t great. My face, like most people’s, is asymmetrical—but what I got back was seriously wonky. And her hair was flowing blonde tresses (it must have found one of those rare images of me with long hair2), and her mouth was not only crooked but bow-shaped (shudder). So then I uploaded one of my author photos, added “looking formidable” to the prompt, and tried again. Still wonky, still blonde, still bow-shaped mouth, but now at least beginning to look like someone who a) might have survived birth and b) you wouldn’t want to cross.

I took it through Photoshop and then worked on it with Procreate (the two programmes have different strengths) and started to get something not too embarrassing. And here it is. It’s extremely rough, and if I were going to use it for anything serious I’d do a lot more work—she not bony enough; I’d rather her hair was at least braided out of the way; she should be dirtier, and bloody—but for the purpose of this post this sketched-in outline of changes is good enough.

Butcherbird shield

Second, I tried to create the shield the Butcherbird’s Hounds carry. At the beginning of Menewood we get to see this usually-hidden shield (briefly), a sight that’s supposed to terrify her opponents with its crude cruelty—chalk-white paint splashed directly onto raw planks and daubed with bloody red—and suggest what might happen to them if they lose.

This one I did the old-fashioned way, no machine-learning involved, going for something you might get if you used a stick wrapped in cloth to smear on the paint. I wanted it to be blunt and brutal—no subtlety involved. It’s a threat and a warning.

Shield of the Butcherbird

Image description: A seventh-century shield with sewn leather rim and bronze boss, painted stark white directly onto the planking, and daubed with a bloody red image of a man impaled on a stake.

So now I’m happy: these images capture what it might feel like to face the Butcherbird when she’s coming for you—probably the last things you would ever see.

1 Why me? Not because I think I look like Hild but because that way I could be sure I was’t ripping off anyone else’s imagery or likeness. (Go read about some of the ethical grey areas surrounding AI/machine-learning image generation. I plan to err on the side of caution.) Also I have blue-green eyes.

2 I’ve no idea how—even I can’t find one online. But, eh, just for you, here’s one and here’s another.