Written by Nicola Griffith
For me a good novel is one that draws me in and puts me right there, right then, with the characters: I walk where they walk, feel what they feel. I live their lives, just for a little while, and come back increased.
That’s what I set out to do for readers of Hild.
I discovered Hild in my early twenties. I was living in Hull. Desperate for a few days escape I hiked north up the coast, to Whitby. I’d read (and seen) Dracula so I was expecting the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great gothic ruin of an abbey at the top. I hadn’t expected what happened next.
When I crossed the threshold of that ruin it felt as though history fisted up through the turf, through me, and turned me inside out like a sock.
History, I realised, was real. Made by real people. People with their own dreams and disappointments and dailyness. People who fear and laugh and eat and shiver and change their minds and look at the stars and lose their tempers and wish it wouldn’t rain today. People who have no clue that the thing they do in a moment of boredom or fear or love might set in motion a series of history-making events.
As a result of that epiphany I fell in love with Whitby. I went back as often as I could. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, imagining how it might have been, long ago.
I found out that the abbey had been founded by a woman called Hild. That Hild was instrumental in the creation of the very first piece of English literature, Cædmon’s Hymn. That in 664 CE she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, that was a major turning point in British history. But I couldn’t find out anything about Hild herself.
Hild changed history, she has schools and colleges named after her, but there’s no biography, no scholarly monograph, no novel. The only reason we even know she existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People–written over a century after her birth.
What Bede tells us about the period of Hild’s life that I cover in my novel–until she’s 19–can be summed up in one short paragraph. She’s born around 614 CE after her mother has a dream about her unborn child being a jewel that brings light to the land. Hild’s father, a prince of the royal house of Deira, is poisoned in exile in the kingdom of Elmet. Her older sister marries a nephew of the king of East Anglia. When Hild is about 13, she is converted and baptised in York–along with the rest of the household of her uncle Edwin, king of Northumbria. Then Hild disappears from the record until she’s 33.
That’s it. We don’t know where she was born exactly–though I’m guessing Elmet. We have no idea what she looked like, what she was good at, whether she married or had children.
But she must have been extraordinary. Think about it. Fourteen hundred years ago, what used to be called the Dark Ages: might is right; kings are basically warlords. Hild begins as the second daughter of a widow, probably hunted and homeless, certainly illiterate, and ends a powerful advisor to statesmen-kings, founder of Whitby Abbey, midwife to English literature, and host/facilitator of a meeting that changed the course of history.
How did she do that?
We don’t know. I wrote this book to find out. I built the seventh century from scratch and grew Hild inside.
To stand any chance of getting Hild right, I had to get the world right. I researched for fifteen years. I read everything–poetry, ethnology and archaeology, the production of food, jewellery and textiles, historical data on flora and fauna and even the weather.
Forget the myths of the miserable middle ages. Hild was part of the Anglo-Saxon elite. Her world was a vivid, multi-ethnic place drenched with colour, intrigue and violence. She would have had access to luxuries like spice and sapphires, glass cups and finely woven clothes. (Think: the treasures of Sutton Hoo, the Staffordshire Hoard.) Royal men in this warrior culture died young; I can’t think of any kings of early Northumbria who died in their beds. For royal women, of course, childbirth was the prime cause of mortality, but material remains indicate they didn’t marry and start to have children until they were older. They were much more than dynastic machines. They ran everything, except armies; their logistic skills made the difference between survival and triumph.
In addition to Hild’s elite status I gave her three attributes always useful among the power elite: she’s tall, she’s smart, and her mother is both subtle and ambitious.
My Hild is a striking figure. Niece of the all-powerful king, tall, multi-lingual, rumoured to be uncanny, a seer–a rumour engineered and reinforced by her mother but maintained by Hild’s constant attention to detail and appalling risk-taking. She lives in constant danger: always having to give predictions that will both please the king and prove correct. One slip and she’s dead.
Hild is extraordinary. Singular. But singular within the constraints of her time. Real people are always constrained, in every era, by status, gender, race, religion, and so on. But many of us today find ways around those constraints, and so does Hild.
I did my utmost to not contravene what is known to be known. Every single thing in Hild could have happened, though I admit I stretched probability here and there. That’s what fiction does: it turns up the heat. I wanted Hild to be an intense experience, ringing with the poetry of epics like Beowulf, alive with the wild magic of the landscape like the novels of Sutcliff or Treece.
Hild’s landscape is the living heart of this book. I was born and bred in Yorkshire, in Elmet and Deira where Hild lived. I probably threw sticks in the same rivers, climbed the same kind of trees, perhaps lay on the same hillside and watched the same stars, wondering what they were and where they came from.
I wrote this book to find out. Not just who Hild was but how her world smelled and sounded fourteen hundred years ago. That’s what I want for readers, that’s what I want for you: to live Hild’s life as deeply as your own. To reach the end, close the book, nod, and think, Yes, that’s how it was…
Hild by Nicola Griffith is published by Blackfriars later in July 2014.