How did the prominent seventh century abbess Saint Hilda of Whitby, advisor of kings, rise to prominence from a relatively obscure position in the court of her great-uncle Edwin, the ruler of what is now Yorkshire? That’s the question Nicola Griffith seeks (partially) to answer in her 2013 novel Hild, which follows the title character from her very early childhood in her father’s home to her eventual, inevitable political marriage. In between, she learns to use her considerable powers of observation and deduction to gain status in Edwin’s court, pushing against the boundaries and restrictions placed on women in her society to obtain a reputation as a seer and witch.
Although it’s pretty resolutely not fantastical – Hild is read as magical by her contemporaries only because she’s surrounded by men who cannot or will not contemplate the patterns at work in the world around them – it certainly seems to have been received as fantasy-adjacent by a number of audiences: as well as featuring in the Strange Horizons book club in 2015, it was nominated for the Nebula and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and is a Tiptree Honor book. One of the reasons for this, I’d suggest, is that it plunges readers into the unfamiliar world that is seventh century England in a way that’s very similar to how some high fantasy writers plunge their readers into their secondary worlds. Griffith doesn’t spend any time holding our hands or, really, explaining the convoluted sociopolitical landscape her characters find themselves in; instead, she expects us to pick up concepts and language as we go. The reading protocols that are useful in interpreting Hild are the ones that are useful in interpreting high fantasy texts.
What’s this fantastic sensibility in service of? Hild is a slow, patient text, very interested in the texture of early medieval life, in accordance with its heroine’s penchant for quiet, intense observation. Griffith has invented or extrapolated much of this detail, owing to a lack of evidence, textual or material, about this period, which is, I suppose, another way that Hild is like a fantasy epic: the world here has been deliberately built to reflect the author’s aesthetic preoccupations, rather than accurately representing a historical reality, and yet at the same time it’s invested in concealing its constructedness. It wants you to inhabit its world fully, along with its protagonist, taking in all that vital sensory detail that allows her to predict what’s going to happen next. A good example of Griffith’s construction of her novel’s world is what she calls the gemaecce: taken from the Old English term gemaecca, meaning “one of a pair, companion, mate”, the term in Griffith’s novel denotes a close, almost familial pairing between two women. This invention allows Griffith to explore how Hild benefits from relationships with people of different genders, and to dig into the helplessness and isolation that her society inflicts upon women. Because I, like most readers, know very little about social structures in seventh century Britain, I didn’t realise this was made up until I read Griffith’s author’s note at the back of the book: I think the text relies on this knowledge gap in quite a lot of cases for its verisimilitude.
The overall effect, anyway, of this fantastic approach to historical fiction is, for me at least, a sense of estrangement: the text has none of the coziness I associate with traditional historical fiction. Rather, in treating the past like a fantasy world, it conveys the alienness of that past. We know so little about seventh century Britain that it might as well be a fantasy world. And also: seventh century Britain is so distant from us in every way – chronologically, culturally – as to be virtually unrecognisable anyway. The past, as L.P. Hartley said, is a different country. Except, not just a different country: a different world.
Which is not to say that the themes Hild is working with are wholly unfamiliar: like all texts, it is responding primarily to the occupations of the moment. I’ve talked a little already about its examination of female power and its limits; it’s also interested in sexuality, casting Hild as bisexual and her society as one that cares not so much about who people sleep with as who they are married to. This reading of early medieval sexual politics is as much a fantasy as the concept of gemaecce, as Griffith again admits at the end of the book:
“there’s no evidence for anything, sexually, in early seventh-century northern Britain. Nothing. No material culture and no text.”
The motivation for this invention is similarly obvious: Griffith is engaged, as many authors of historical fiction and historical SFF are at the moment, in rewriting the marginalised into history, challenging established hegemonic narratives that seek to erase the existence of (in this case) women and queer folk. And, again, we can see how the gap in common knowledge about the seventh century both plays into the seeming verisimilitude of Griffith’s setting and obscures its constructedness. That sense of alienation, of distance from the past, is a manufactured thing; by which I mean it’s manufactured to bring prominence to concerns that seventh century people may not have thought about at all. (I mean: if there is no textual or material evidence about sexuality in this period, perhaps that’s an indication that it just wasn’t a point of contention or interest?)
So: does Hild provide a convincing origin story for Hilda of Whitby? I’m not sure. Certainly it is a compelling portrait of an extraordinary woman seizing what power she can in a rigidly patriarchal society against a rapidly shifting sociocultural background riven by internecine political conflicts. It’s a novel that, to me, rewards and demands patient attention, rather than something to race through and admire the shape of. But its sensibilities – its prizing of rational deduction, its interest in matters of sex – are a little too modern to ring quite true. It’ll be interesting to see what the long-awaited sequel, Menewood, brings.