Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First Edition: November 12, 2013
Seventh century Britain: a time when men’s ambitions were larger than their means, when life was simple and hard and brutal. There was beauty, too, but it rarely lasted. Illiterate kings warred, scheming religions undermined each other, people survived and died. This was before chivalry, before knights in shining armor, before courtly love and before saints. This is where those things came from; this is the heritage of many of us, this is where we came from.
Hild is a remarkable novel set in this time; remarkable because of the world in which it is set, and due to the remarkable character upon which it centers. Remarkable because Hild was a real person, born in 614; and because the life glimpsed in these pages is what we believe it to have been, to the best of our ability to know. Even though it reads like some kind of epic fantasy, familiar enough to follow but strange enough in words and deeds to be otherworldly, it is our own past.
Hild is the daughter of tenuous royalty, but her father dies of poison before she is old enough to understand what that means, and her mother must use her wits and wile to remain relevant. A keenly intelligent, observant child (“Quiet mouth and bright mind!” her mother would admonish her), Hild is able to watch the world around her and see the patterns that unfold, both rural and courtly; when Hild’s uncle Edwin is triumphant in the field and positions himself to become not just lord but overlord of their world, her mother uses this uncanny ability to see beyond what is to declare her daughter “a jewel that brings light to the land” – a seer, a foreteller of what will be, a scryer of omens. Soon, Hild is sitting at the right hand of a superstitious, uncertain ruler; a favorite niece, quiet, rarely speaking, with a disconcerting gaze that brings both wonder and fear: the king’s seer. She is seven years old.
The world is hard, especially for women. Even young, Hild accepts this without a need for understanding.
“I know that one!” Hild remembered her mother’s words exactly – the light of the world must remember everything. She repeated them proudly. “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”
But this is not a novel merely of conquest and arms. It is also about a woman’s world, experienced by a remarkable girl who so quickly must think with not just the mind of a woman, but a woman at the midst of upheaval and uncertainty. A woman who must not only believe in her own worth and the worth of what she is able to discern of the world, but also understand the beliefs and failings of those around her, and use what she sees to protect herself and those she loves, both great and humble. With the aid – the machinations – of a few key players around her – her mother, and a hostage Irish priest who teaches her letters and plots – she walks the fine line between being indispensible and being a pawn of forces beyond her control.
And lest we forget, this is an author’s researched conjecture, yet Hild was a real person.
In this novel, we get a glimpse of Britain as it was, when territories were in flux and trade was regionalized and specialized, based on the resources at hand. This place brewed the best mead, that one raised sheep whose wool was superior in fiber, another, at a confluence of waterways, could become a new trading center. The interplay of survival against a king’s tithe, marred by the new religion of the Christ folk who demanded baptism despite belief, where even a queen’s children were vulnerable to disease and politics, and loyalties were demanded yet not to be trusted, where slaves and wealt (newcomers, strangers) and farmers and privileged all ebbed and flowed in an ever moving transition of scrabbled influence and disregard. Where strength was displayed through intricate riches and spectacle, but those hidden away were often the most secure.
We see into creameries and weaving huts (where even the highest royal women were skilled participants), war bans and children’s play. We witness the pull of ancestry and old gods, and the brashness of foreign gods and influence, and we get glimpses into the first rumblings of new thoughts and processes that would centuries later overthrow the ways of countless ages, and become givens in our modern world. Things we take for granted – things as simple to us reading, but in the seventh century, were anything but simple:
“Why did you think I was an aelf?”
Gode, fingering the dense weave, said, “Because you’re taller than the world. Because I watched you sit and open a spell.”
Hild hitched herself up on her elbow. “A spell?”
“You opened it and it leapt into you and possessed you. You didn’t move for an age.”
“Oh. No. That’s a letter. A message. Words from someone far away.”
Gode nodded. “Magic.”
“No.” But it was magic, in a way.
Think of it. To someone who knows nothing of letters, or reading, or letters, would it not seem like magic to watch one unfold a scroll and be taken elsewhere in thought? In another passage, young Hild and her childhood playmate Cian are fascinated with how water refracts and bends submerged images. They stick their unschooled arms into a quiet pond and believe that in the water, their arms are magically broken, and then made whole again when they pull them back out. To us, this is ignorance, but to them, it is a kind of water magic, with sprites lingering nearby to make mischief. And indeed, their lack of understanding does make it magical, in that even in this wonderment they are becoming aware.
In hundreds and hundreds of years, what things do we find unfathomable today will be commonplace, and we will be marveled at in our ignorance? And yet, as with Hild and her world, what hingepoints of our world will be supplanted in the progression of civilization, and then forgotten? This glimpse of what we see as being barbaric allows us to consider that at one point, these sensibilities that we may find savage were simply the underpinnings of daily life.
Mildburh’s churn paddle thumped up and down more slowly as her cream turned to butter.
Hild and Hereswith moved on to the next tray and then the next. They worked smoothly until all the trays were empty. Mildburh turned the butter out of her churn onto a granite slab set in an elm bench, and she began to shape it with wooden paddles.
While Hereswith wiped her arm and pinned her sleeves back on, Hild fetched a lump of grey salt for Mildburh and mortar and pestle to crush it in. She loved the gritty crunch and thump under her hand. It sounded like a cat eating a bird.
There is little romance here; there is beauty and finery, and exquisite skill and workmanship, but so much is vicious and visceral. Graciousness is only a breath away from savagery. Affection and desire are expected yet cutting and disposable. There is a brutality to life, but it is all there is and therefore precious and fought for. And remarkable.
Hild moves somewhat slowly, at the pace at which life was forced to move in the seventh century. We see what shapes Hild, and we marvel at that which she holds inside herself, that which is unique and wholly realized in her own understanding of who she is. Her self-awareness is something many of us yearn for in ourselves. Yet not everything that transpires in the novel is clear, to us or to Hild, which makes her ability to see the patterns that shape her future even more compelling, for we (with all our advancements) cannot come close to seeing them for ourselves. We can only watch her from our far distance, and hope she can take the omens she sees and use them first, for her advantage, and second, for their truth.
Yet this is where we came from. This is amazing. This book is remarkable.