When I saw Nicola Griffith’s Hild pop up on the BGL catalog, I wondered if it was that Hild, mover and shaker in the Northumbria of the 600s, abbess of the double monastery of Whitby (double meaning it contained both monks and nuns), patron of the cowherd-poet CAedmon and host of the epochal synod of 664 or thereabouts, where the Roman monks, with their bald-spot tonsure, downed the Irish with their receding-hairline tonsure in the biggest ecclesiastical rumble of the age.
Yes, it is indeed that Hild; the book is a historical novel, though it does not cover her whole life, in fact doesn’t cover any of the things I remembered about her from my long-ago reading of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—it seems there is a sequel in the works. My previous acquaintance with Griffith was as a science-fiction writer, but really it’s not such a big stretch from SF to historical fiction, since both take an alien skeleton supplied by academic research and fill it out into a world using whatever the author feels are the exportable qualities of human nature. Hild actually has a lot in common with Griffith’s recent SF novel Slow River: both feature an aristocratic young woman with extraordinary gifts who also does menial work, both heroines find themselves fairly permanent outsiders and both have creepy moms, both novels explore an arcane subject in intense detail (waste disposal in SR, textile manufacture in H).
What I experienced in reading hild is probably similar to what other people experience when flipping through an old high-school yearbook, as I encountered familiar faces and places from long-ago grad-school days. Hey, isn’t that the Sutton Hoo ship-burial site? Rmember how Wulfstan used to take Godgifu to make out behind the prow? There’s the photo of the geoguth troop—the Boars had the best shield-wall in the state that year. That was some assembly where we had the big argument over Christianity and that one guy talked about the sparrow flying in at one end of the hall and out at the other, and whether the new religion could tell us what happened to it.
I think that, in the real world, these are pretty obscure references—I would guess that most educated Americans know a lot more about Westeros and the Free Cities than early-medieval Northumbria. My own knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture is pretty weak on the domestic arts, and I found myself at first intrigued by the lore of weaving and dairy-farming and folk medicine, then, after 400 pages or so, increasingly weary of it. I suspect I may not be alone.
Hild’s mother trains her in the arts of a wise-woman: the virtues of plants, how to make predictions from nature, how to manipulate powerful men. Hild’s name means ‘battle,’ and, like so many other young women of fantasy, from GRR Martin to Ellen Kushner, she spends a hell of a lot of time practicing martial arts. Combined with her giantess’s stature and habit of suppressing all emotion, this kickassitude causes her to seem somewhat un-ladylike to most people. I can see how that would be, but I was surprised not to find much reference to the tradition of uncanny bettle-women in Anglo-Saxon and related cultures These valkyries or shield-maidens or whatever could be called upon as adis or arbiters in battle (the word valkyrie means ‘chooser of corpses’), and I imagine that they might be a way for people to assimilate a butch warrior-lady like Hild. Perhaps this is implicit in the book, since she does acquire a little troop of followers who regard her as a combined leader and good-luck charm.
My favorite instance of the battle-woman idea in Old English comes not in any epic but in a domestic charm, to keep bees from swarming. You are supposed to throw some gravel over them (is this really a good idea??) and say:
Sitte ge, sīgewīf,
sīgað tō eorðan,
næfre ge wilde
tō wuda fleogan,
beō ge swā gemindige
swā bið manna gehwilc,
metes and ēðeles
Sit down, victory-women, sink to earth;
Never fly off wild to the woods.
Be as mindful of my good
as any person is of food and home.
Presumably it is their sting that makes the bees seem armed, but anyway you can’t help liking a culture that thinks of bees as victory-women.