In a trilogy based on the life of Saint Hilda, Seattle writer Nicola Griffith reveals how one woman's influence shaped the world
Novels set in Britain before the Norman Conquest tend to be fantasies. They often take off from the Arthurian legends and sometimes are not very grounded in historical reality. By contrast, “Hild” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), by Seattle writer Nicola Griffith, is a realistic portrayal of life in Northern England in the seventh century. At the same time, it’s as exciting as any fantasy novel. In fact, “Hild” was nominated for the 2013 Nebula Award for best science fiction and fantasy novel. That’s not surprising, as Griffith, originally from England, is a well-known science fiction and mystery writer.
“Hild” is the first volume in a projected trilogy based on the life of Saint Hilda, a woman who ended up as an advisor to Frankish kings in the later part of her life and who founded Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire. Little is known about her early history but Griffith constructs a remarkable and unusual life from the available evidence. She makes the Hild a kind of seer from a very early age, a role that’s created for her by her widowed mother to help her survive the political and dynastic struggles for control of the island of Britain.
Griffith talked about why Saint Hilda’s story is significant.
How did you get started writing about Saint Hilda?
It began when I was born, because I was born in the same place that I think this woman was born, what was then Elwood and is now Yorkshire.
Or it began when I first went to Whitby Abbey. It turned me inside-out like a sock; I stepped across the threshold of the ruined abbey and realized that history was made by real people who were having a bad day when they moved those stones or were scheming about something or maybe they wished it wouldn’t rain today: People with real feelings, real hopes, real dreams. This abbey had been founded by a woman, Saint Hilda, and I went off to find out about her, but nobody’d ever written about her before and so I had to write the book to find out.
Where did you get her character?
She’s now known as a saint. And she was born in what used to be called the Dark Ages. We all have these myths about the Dark Ages, toothless peasants groveling in the fields and wearing sackcloth, women being shackled and having their babies every year once they’re 14. I thought, how did a woman from this time get to be the kind of saint who’s remembered 1,400 years later?
Saints are not nice people. I don’t think they can afford to be sweet as pie or they wouldn’t become famous. You don’t get to be a saint without being famous. So I had to figure out: How would a woman from those times and those circumstances become famous?
To do that I had to build this world and put this child inside and grow her, basically, as if she was in a terrarium, and just see what happened. Every time she got to do something that was impossible in those times, I would have to start again and every time she did something that was just too nice, I would have to back up.
For example, in one version of the book, she was about 12, 15, and learned to use a sword. I like books where people whack each other’s heads off with swords. But it just wouldn’t do. In that day and age, women would not have been allowed to use a sword. They would have been allowed to do all kinds of other things, but swordplay — this was a life’s work. You had to train seriously, and you had to be a working part of a team. So I had to throw that away and found this idea of her using a stock [a large, heavy, straight stick] instead.
And she found a way to train, with her half-brother
Right. Just not with a sword.
And her half-brother?
He’s completely invented. She had to have a companion that she would trust.
Are there parts of her that you share?
Obviously, I’m not six feet tall. I’m not hugely physically able, because I have MS, but I was very physical when I was a kid, climbing trees, watching animals. I was much less of an observer than Hilda. She might be smarter than I am.
And you leave it ambiguous whether she’s really prescient or not.
She’s not. She’s just very lucky so far. But we’re only a third of the way through her story.
It’s unclear to me moving forward whether at some point she’ll stop believing in her own publicity. I think she’ll have an epiphany of some kind. I have to figure out when, how or where it will lead. She’s going to have to have, no pun intended, a kind of “come to Jesus” moment. She will change. Everything will be ripped away, and then everything will change. And then what kind of equilibrium she comes back to I don’t know yet.
When Hild was a child, her culture was pagan; her whole society became Christian when she was a young woman. What was the effect of that?
It had some good effects and many bad effects. The whole Pauline Christian approach was very misogynistic, and women suffered because of it. It’s ironic because women, children, slaves — the underprivileged — took to Christianity big time because there’s this whole myth that the meek will be strong and the poor will be rich and everything will be upside-down. So the underprivileged took to that, and they got screwed.
The status of women seems better in pagan Anglish society than it would be in later centuries.
Those of high status had high status; those of low status had equally low status. Women and men who worked in the fields got treated dreadfully by everybody and didn’t have time to treat each other badly or well. They just had to get on with their lives the best they could.
What about the Celtic peoples? They seem to be right on the bottom.
Actually, if you look at the genome of a so-called Anglo-Saxon person and a so-called Celtic person, they’re the same. They’re just different cultural approaches, and so one generation could call themselves Anglo-Saxon, but their parents might not. It’s just that they affiliated, and they started using the language and the culture.
You must have done a lot of research.
I read probably thousands of books and academic journals. There’s lots and lots of work in little tiny things, like the shape of the coins and how many of this coin would make that many coins and how much did this chest weigh. I could be horribly wrong, but at least I had a go at it. I talked to a numismatist at a big coin museum. I said, “What do you think about this [issue]?” and he said, “We don’t know,” and I said, “Fair enough, then I get to make stuff up.” But I always had a reason.
It was always connected to [some] other thing I had worked out, like, how far can a horse go in a day? How much would it eat? So, would you need one spare horse or two? And how would that change the journey time?
The book reminded me of “Game of Thrones” because of all the brutality and violence, but it wasn’t so unrelenting.
Have you seen that T-shirt with the picture of the dinosaur eating a flower: “All my friends are dead”? Whenever I think of “Game of Thrones,” I think of that picture. And that’s not true in “Hild.” There’s much more joy. And a lot more satisfactions and just everyday contentments. Lots of people die. There’s nothing I can do about that: It’s history. If it says in history so-and-so died, then they’re going to die. I’m really sorry, but they do. But Hild lives to a ripe old age and — this isn’t a spoiler because it’s part of the historical record — [her close friend] Begu lives to a ripe old age. There are other people who’ll die pretty quick in part 2.
Do you see this as explaining where England came from?
Absolutely. It’s where I was born, and I wanted to talk about what makes it what it is. I’ve been living in this country for nearly 25 years, and I still think of England as home. When I get off the plane, I am in the countryside and I smell that smell and I hear certain sets of birds and part of me just goes, “Ahh.” It’s not just that; it’s the fact that people obey the rules in a particular way, and they grumble in a particular way. And they talk about the weather in a particular way.
One of the reasons I moved here is what Seattle has in common with England. People will queue — they’ll form lines, yay, and they’ll go to the crossing instead of just walking across the road, and traffic doesn’t honk; they’ll usually wait patiently. Those are some very English things; also: good tea, good coffee, good chocolate.
But I have remembered your question, which is where England came from. The more I look at life, the more I want to know where I think I came from. I want to know about this woman. I want to know about her impact on who I am, where I came from, where my family comes from, how the country is. This is the most challenging, frightening, exhilarating project ever because you could make an argument that Hild was instrumental in how England formed.
Could you expand on that?
She was instrumental in reconciling so-called Celtic Christianity with Roman [Catholic] Christianity. She hosted and facilitated the big meeting, where the two sides came together and hashed it out. The Romans “won” but she helped people keep talking afterwards.
She taught five bishops. A woman who was from a time when there was no literacy. [She taught] Latin, reading, writing, and if you follow those bishops’ careers, they themselves were instrumental in the kind of education that talks to the person, not just, “Here’s the received wisdom of the elders,” but “What do you see, what do you think?” That’s one of the reasons she’s so revered, especially by women, in terms of education — she really hung on to the light. She made it possible for women to be educated and articulate and have agency and power and political heft.
She was an advisor to kings and princes, even though she was this woman in an abbey. People traveled from all over to talk to her, and she would advise them and if you look at the way laws were written and countries worked at that time, she was hugely influential. And then you look at how it was the Anglish — the Anglo-Saxons — formed their laws, their attitudes. The way England formed was instrumental in democracy as we know it, which means she was instrumental in the way America is, which means she changed the world.