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 many of us claim, this is where we came from.
Hild is a remarkable novel due to the character upon which it centers. Hilda of Whitby (later to be canonized as Saint Hilda) was a real person, born in 614. But it is also remarkable because the life glimpsed in these pages is based on what we believe it to have been, to the best of our ability to know. Even though Hild 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 her daughter’s uncanny ability 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 as a child, 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.”
Yes, this is a novel of conquest and arms, but 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 one in the midst of upheaval and uncertainty. A woman who must not only believe in her own worth, but also understand the beliefs and failings of those around her, and use what she sees to protect herself and those she loves. With the aid of a few key players around her, including 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.
There is little romance here. Yes, 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 still, it is life, and therefore precious and fought for.
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. 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. 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.