Katniss Everdeen notwithstanding, female heroes in fiction are still as rare as a decent meal in District 12. Now into that void steps the title character of Nicola Griffith’s terrific new novel, “Hild,” a fictionalized version of St. Hilda of Whitby.
Though she’s only 3 when the book begins — a little 7th-century Anglo-Saxon princess playing at the edge of a wood — Hild’s fate was set in the womb. Her pregnant mother dreamed the baby would be “the light of the world,” a beacon for their people. But first there will be disruption. Her father, a prince, will be murdered; she and her mother and sister must flee their royal estate. They settle at the court of her uncle Edwin, an ambitious rising king who is quickly convinced that Hild will be his seer. This has less to do with any uncanny ability on the part of the girl than with her quick-witted, self-preserving mother, Breguswith of Kent.
Breguswith is crafty, in both senses: She is an accomplished weaver and herbalist, which gives her standing among the women of the court, but she is also a supreme manipulator, scrutinizing the warp and weft of royal intrigue and shaping it to her ends. She teaches Hild to gather and understand information, weave it into a plot and then persuade the king to act on it based on what she says she sees in her dreams or in the flight of birds. Hild even learns to read before nearly anyone else, thanks to the Irish priest who serves as her teacher.
Though her success in prognostication quickly brings Hild power and wealth, it also brings fear. Many assume she is a witch; others find the strikingly tall, silent girl deeply strange. Early in the book, her sister taunts her: “That stupid dream — the light of the world! Ha! That was when she still thought you might come out a boy!” Indeed, gender remains the main question of Hild’s life. Men in her royal caste are warriors; women are peaceweavers (so-called because they are married off to other powerful families to ensure alliances). But Hild demands to be different. “I want to learn, to wander and ask and think and listen . . . like a priest or a prince,” she tells the king.
To be a hero, she cannot be a woman. So what does that mean? From her mother, she learns that “women make and men break.” Hild melds the two: She becomes “a woman, but one who killed,” who heads into battle like a man. Griffith implicitly compares her to the freemartins that wander the royal estates: calves born female but with male characteristics gleaned in utero from twin brothers.
This is not to say that Hild considers womanhood undesirable. The women in the book — when not dying in childbirth — live in a surprisingly cozy sisterhood, a rich culture of weaving, milking, brewing and sharing beds (platonic and otherwise). It’s a world Hild misses when riding with the men: “She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been warm. Couldn’t remember even when she’d eaten something hot. Her jaws were powerful from chewing fire-smoked meat and waybread dunked in freezing water. . . . She sat tall, an enamel copy of a ten-year-old girl, hard and cold.”
Griffith has taken what little is known of the life of St. Hilda and imagined a vibrant, if brutal, world. Her descriptions are inventive and vivid, making “Hild” a pleasure to sink into. (A glossary and family tree that accompany the text provide welcome help with the Old English terms and unfamiliar names.)
By the end of the book, despite (or because of?) her strangeness, Hild seems to have gotten everything she wants. In a sense, she fulfills her destiny once more, as a shining example of a hero undefined by the strictures of gender. Our male heroes are going to be jealous.
Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer.
By Nicola Griffith
Farrar Straus Giroux. 546 pp. $27