Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones series will thoroughly enjoy Nicola Griffith’s epic historical novel Hild. Based on the early life of Saint Hilda of Whitby, Hild takes place in seventh century Britain, when Rome’s “new god” was replacing the old gods of the pagans. With her seemingly supernatural talents of perception and prediction, the young noblewomen Hild becomes King Edwin’s seer, and thus one of the most powerful people on the island. While she helps Edwin consolidate his kingdom, there’s a lot of sword fighting and sex. It’s fun stuff.
The Coffin Factory liked Hild so much we asked Nicola Griffith a few questions about the novel.
The Coffin Factory: How and why did you become interested in Saint Hilda of Whitby, and seventh century England?
Nicola Griffith: In my early twenties I was living in Hull, a depressed (and depressing) city in East Yorkshire. And one spring I needed to get out, get away for a few days. I hiked north up the coast, to a town called Whitby.
I’d read Dracula so I was expecting the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up the cliff. I was expecting the great ruin of an abbey against the skyline. I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
When I crossed the threshold of that ruin it felt as though history was fisting up through the turf, and through me. It turned me inside out like a sock. Here’s a photo of me at Whitby Abbey looking gobsmacked—taken a few years later, but I felt just the same. I realized that history was made by real people. People with their own dreams and disappointments and dailyness. Those stone pillars lying tumbled about in the grass had been cut by real people—at the direction of real people. People just like you or me. People who laugh and eat and shiver, and change their minds and lose their tempers and wish maybe it wouldn’t rain today. People who have no clue that the thing they do in a moment of boredom or fear or love will set in motion history-making events.
I fell in love with Whitby. I went back every year, sometimes twice year. I walked the coastline. I roamed the moors. I spent hours at the abbey, sitting on those stones, reading the tourist brochures, imagining how it might have been.
Bit by bit I learnt that the abbey had been founded by a woman called Hild. That Hild had encouraged—perhaps commanded is a better word—the creation of the very first piece of English literature (Old English, in the Northumbrian dialect), a poem called Cædmon’s Hymn. That 1350 years ago (664 CE) she hosted and facilitated a meeting, the Synod of Whitby, which was a major turning point in English history. (It was essentially a debate in which two rival factions of the Christian church—the so-called Celtic group who looked to Iona for leadership, and those who took direction from Rome—competed for the endorsement of the King of Northumbria. He chose the Romans. The whole isle followed suit relatively swiftly.)
This woman had obviously been a towering figure. But there was no biography. No scholarly monograph. Not even a novel. The only reason we even know she existed is a mention in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—the foundational text of English history—written over a century after she was born.
She must have been extraordinary. She’s born fourteen hundred years ago, in what used to be called the Dark Ages, when might was right and kings were basically warlords, as the second daughter of a widow, probably hunted and homeless, and certainly illiterate. Yet she ends a powerful advisor to statesmen-kings, founder of Whitby Abbey, midwife to English literature, and host/facilitator of a meeting that changed the world.
How did she do that? We have no clue. I wrote this book to find out.
I started by reading everything about the seventh century I could lay my hands on—poetry, food, linguistics, archaeology, ethnology, textile production, jewellery, flora and fauna, even the weather. I researched for fifteen years. My thinking was that if I got the world exactly right, and grew Hild inside, the result would be a character very close to who Hild might have been.
As I’ve said, she was extraordinary—singular, really. But for this experiment to work, she had to be singular within the constraints of her time. Because real people are always constrained, by sex, class, age, physical ability, and more. We find ways around our constraints to some degree or other. So does Hild.
I did my utmost to not contravene what is known to be known. Every single thing that happens in this novel could have happened—though I admit I stretched probability here and there. Because that’s what fiction does, it dials up the intensity.
For me, great fiction is utterly immersive. I wanted Hild to be thrilling, emotionally and intellectually. I wanted it to brim with new ideas and the elegiac poetry of epics like Beowulf, and, underneath, run with the wild magic of the landscape. When it comes right down to it, Hild’s landscape is the living heart of the book. I was born and bred in Yorkshire—in Elmet and Deira where Hild lived. I probably threw sticks in the same rivers, climbed the same kind of trees, maybe lay on the same hillside and watched the same stars, wondering, like Hild, what they were and where they came from.
So I wrote this book to find out what that world was like 1400 years ago, as well as to find out who Hild was. My aim is for readers to live Hild’s life as deeply as their own. To reach the end, close the book, and think, Yes, that’s how it was.
The Coffin Factory: Perhaps my favorite aspect of the novel is the clash between the old pagan religion and the expanding Roman Christianity. Can you explain why Christianity was able to take over England? And what do you think was lost once the old gods were abandoned?
Nicola Griffith: Religion is, by definition, organized. My guess is that Christians had a better organization than the priesthood of the Germanic pantheon. (I’m making the assumption here that there was such a pantheon, and that it had a priesthood. What we know for sure on the subject could be sprayed on a thumbtack.) For the intermediaries/interpreters of people’s belief system to operate in lockstep with the secular hierarchy would have increased the power of both. And Christianity has additional utility: the written word. (Anglo-Saxons were essentially illiterate. Runes were the mystical language of the priesthood, but we don’t know much about how, or to what extent, they were used.) Writing is essentially extra-somatic information delivery. Imagine how that changed the world. Written laws (which eventually led to the Rule of Law, and land ownership). Written communication (superb control of the message, literal (cough) and metaphorical). Written doctrine (enshrining the church’s hold more firmly). And so on.
Kings are many things but they’re not stupid. After his personal magnetism, the ability to motivate other men to die for him, a seventh-century king’s primary skill was logistics (trade, war). From the moment the secular elite understood the power that would be at their disposal if they harnessed Christianity, it was all over.
The church fathers (that is, the executives on the ground) were not stupid, either. They aimed to persuade not only the elite, but the downtrodden. The original message of the man who came to be known as Christ was designed to appeal to the meek. It did. And Anglo-Saxon noble women (who were most definitely not weak), were seduced with offers of their own personal fiefdoms: abbeys.
With the advent of Roman Christianity, the old gods didn’t have much to offer most people. So what was lost? Maybe all kinds of terrible beliefs we know nothing about. It could be that the gods of Old England were less misogynistic than the god of the Roman Christians, but maybe they were worse. I doubt we’ll ever know.
The Coffin Factory: Much of Hild’s life isn’t known; specifically from her baptism in 627 until 647, when she became a nun. Where did you get the idea for her sexual adventures—especially her being a lesbian?
Nicola Griffith: Bede never refers to Hild as a virgin (as he does other abbesses of the period). Neither does he mention her husband nor discuss a huge chunk—twenty years—of her life. It’s easy to assume he didn’t approve of who or whatever she was doing during that time.
Now, this could mean that she married a pagan king who doesn’t match Bede’s notions of a suitable husband, who doesn’t fit the thrust of his polemic. For a while I seriously pondered Penda as her husband. But I needed something little more…unexpected. So I chose the path I did.
I’m guessing Bede would not have approved.
But let me point out that in this novel Hild is bisexual, not lesbian (not that she would have recognized this label). Given that in the north of England sex was not frowned upon until the Roman church really gained traction (long after Hild’s youth), if she was bisexual there would no cultural or religious reason not to indulge. (To judge by their poetry, Anglo-Saxons were a lusty lot.) There were many political reasons to be careful, of course, which are taken due note of.
For those who are interested in possible attitudes in Britain towards same-sex behavior, read this piece I wrote a couple of years ago. It’s about Ireland, not England, and a century later, but it’s all I could find. There’s very little written about women from this time; almost nothing about sexuality.
The Coffin Factory: Hild lives a long life after your novel ends, founding the convent in Whitby and another monastery nearby. Are you planning to write more about her later life? If not, why did you end the book before Hild became the famous Saint Hilda?
Nicola Griffith: I’d planned to write one big book about Hild, cradle to grave (she died when she was sixty-six). But when I had a 100,000 words and she was only twelve I threw that plan out.
Now the plan is to write the next stage of her life. That is, until she rejoins Bede’s narrative at age thirty-three. Then we’ll see.