Nicola Griffith’s HILD manages at once to have all the sweep of The Lord of the Rings and all the interiority of The Bell Jar. It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Set in a war-torn 6th century England, the book follows Hild, a girl at the court of Edwin, overking of the Anglisc. Hild is trained by her mother to be Edwin’s seer, and the narrative follows Hild through childhood to adulthood as she adopts that role and uses it to keep herself and her loved ones safe in uncertain times. In the background, England changes as Christianity spreads across the island.
There is so much to rave about in this book. The characters are drawn with an immense amount of depth—most notably Hild, but this extends to virtually everyone who appears on the page. More than that, the characters’ relationships to each others are written with a depth that is remarkable. The web of interactions between the characters is intricate in a way that adds texture to the book, enriches it, instead of ever feeling confusing or distracting.
I was most fascinated by Hild’s triangulated relationship to her mother, Breguswith, her role as the king’s seer, and the way this role seemed to, for lack of a better word, queer her gender within the confines of her society. Hild’s capability as a seer is posited externally as a kind of magic, but neither Hild herself or Breguswith seems to regard it as such. Rather, Hild is just exceptionally observant and astute—something which Breguswith actively cultivates in her from a very young age.
Her role as seer—the mystique it brings, the isolation the mystique brings with it—helps Hild gather information. It makes her clear-headed. By design she is less distracted by personal social obligations. Her position as a seer keeps her family and loved ones safe. But it also means that she is alone. For much of her childhood and adolescence, she is almost completely alone. She is given a kind of elusive voice and freedom, but a peculiar cost, and the tension it causes between her and her mother, who carved this role out for her, was beautifully written. Those few times that Hild begins to invest in her own personal life, in her own self, and let her get distracted are the exact times she misses something. Those are the times she fails to make a ‘prediction’, that something surprises her. Hild is very quick to course correct—she tries to detach, to become the seer again, but it hurts her to do it.
Part of that elusive freedom is that Hild inhabits both feminine and masculine roles throughout the book—she is called a freemartin (defined in the book’s glossary as “a female calf masculinized in the womb by its male twin”) more than once, often disparagingly. She refers to herself as both sword and skirt, which is both literal and symbolic given that she fights with a huge knife. She weaves with the women, and then she takes a band of warriors out to clear bandits in a section of the book that is graphic and haunting and chilling and leaves her with the nickname the Butcher-bird. Hild, because she has always inhabited both and neither gender sphere, has always been a liminal creature of odd gender, seems to watch others’ reactions to her gendered movements with a detachment. She seems to have little yearning to anchor herself to one point or another. But then again, Breguswith has bred into Hild detachment from such an early age that detachment is Hild’s go-to. Hild has never really been allowed to want.
There is also, in Griffith’s writing, an immersiveness of a very foreign world. The trick is that it’s a world that once existed but one incredibly different than what we live in now. Things we take for granted, like the rapture of hearing music for the first time, or the sheer political power of being the only faction on an entire island who is literate.
I have so much more to say about this book. I loved it. I loved reading it, and I look forward to a year or two or three from now when I can’t remember all the details and it’s time to read it again.