The Weave of Her Web
By Miriam R. Kramer
Hild, by Nicola Griffith, is an unusual historical novel, a book of both action and observation about the tangled and complex mixture of people, places, and the Dark Ages in areas that now compose Great Britain and Ireland. (Griffith writes in modern prose, but provides a short, easy glossary at the end of the book for Old English words she uses frequently.) Set in the seventh century, it describes Hild, a real woman born circa 1614 whose father, a member of a royal Anglisc (pertaining to the Angles) dynasty called the Yffings, has been poisoned to negate him as a threat to king Edwin Yffing, her uncle. At three years old, Hild knows nothing but playing with her best friend, a seven-year-old boy named Cian, son of her mother’s gesæcce (a bonded female weaving partner). Cian, with his lust for swords and action, wants to become a gesith (a warrior). Watching the glory of nature is Hild’s favorite pastime, but her ambitious, mother Breguswith, has other plans, calling her “The Light of the World,” and engineering her to become a famous seer and prophet of that time.
Who reads novels about seventh-century Britain? Not very many twenty-first century readers. Yet historical fiction shows us a fascinating character in Hild: a woman who gained and held real power over the king as a pre-teen prophet after losing it at age three, and a grown woman whose love and sense of responsibility toward friends and relatives did not prevent her ruthlessness. Her fierce, strong character exhibits powers of leadership that make kings listen and male warriors respect and follow her. Her love of the outdoors makes her one who appreciates mystery and sees relationships between seemingly unrelated plants and animals, an intuitive genius whose mother raised her to be one. Her romantic relationships reveal her as an adult of deep feeling, experimentation, and integrity.
Telling the very young Hild a prophetic dream that her stomach glowed like a jewel before she was born, thereby prophesying a daughter who would light the world, Breguswith begins to train her for a difficult, complicated destiny. Only someone as clever and observant as her tough, preternaturally disciplined daughter could handle this life path from her complicated mother. As she watches and learns, the unscrupulous, cunning Breguswith, a master weaver in a court that values such talents in royal women, uses her people skills to navigate the royal court and King Edwin, bringing both Hild and her other daughter, Hereswith, into the realm of subtle power struggles that result in positions of power for each royal daugher.
Trained by her mother to hear gossip and notice all activities at court and in her world of royal figures and common wealh (foreigners), Hild draws on unusual powers of intuition that are also supported by her spare activities as a naturalist who observes repetitions: the way fish lay eggs, how jackdaws fly, the shrieks of the peregrine falcons that only occur during certain seasons. Also, she associates these differing natural habits with the shifting of the royal court during different seasons. The king’s court moves five or six times during the year in current Northern England, re-establishing its dominance in each place at each season.
Hild, lonely and longing for a permanent home, learns the natural and people patterns of each place. As her mother maneuvers her closer to the king, Hild begins to learn how to advise him, and eventually speak to him of portents and natural omens with authority. These ideas come to her through the talk she cultivates in a detached way and the natural patterns she sees so clearly in her head. Her intuition, based on the ideas that flood her, brings her closer to the king, an irritable, indecisive, power-hungry man intent on establishing dominance at any cost. He takes her as a counselor with his men on royal missions, despite her status as a twelve-year-old and the only female in his retinue. She becomes wealthy in her own right through his patronage.
The unusually mature Hild also begins to see the world through the female eyes of a weaver, with the warp and the weft each representing the various courts and the multiple other factors that change the course of their actions. The book Hild is also about supposedly powerless women weaving patterns, subtly changing the course of history through careful tugs and changes introduced in the cloth of history. Griffith writes beautifully in general, but particularly about nature’s conscious or unconscious design through Hild’s awestruck vision. Some paragraphs are exquisite, when Hild climbs trees or lays down near streams, observing stoats and hares and birds in their nests, looking and finding similarities in the regularity of petals in different flowers, for example, and seemingly unrelated aspects of nature. They balance the bloodier scenes of battle and action, where the unusually tall, strong Hild leads her gesiths and takes her large seax (knife) and tall wooden staff to fight bandits and join the king in making war, despite her ensuing nightmares from bloody combat.
Hild’s careful habits of listening to the talk of the court and commoners also help her predict actions by the other kingdoms. A flood of Romish priests has begun to dominate many royal courts and baptize former followers of pagan gods. This weft in her warp causes difficulties. She looks at them askance and cannot always triumph by tugging threads. With a few exceptions, she finds her own king’s bishop, Paulinus, like other men, a very ambitious man with nothing holy to recommend him other than his cant and frenetic action to build churches and baptize unwilling folk to help him become archbishop. Hild undergoes baptism to keep her influence at court, and learns to read and write. She urges others to do so as well, since she realizes that the network of priests infiltrating her island’s tapestry can send clear messages easily and thus gain power over illiterate folk.
Though seeing Romish Christianity flooding the isle, Hild keeps her thoughts separate, free as a hawk soaring on a thermal, spotting a vole in the fields and swooping to make a kill when the moment is perfect. Her own eerie status as a seer makes her sometimes seem like a sorcerer to Christianity-soaked Paulinus, royals and commoners. So she must tread a careful line to appease them without endangering her own precarious closeness to the king, which waxes and wanes, leaving her watchful and constantly aware of him and his queen for clues.
Author Nicola Griffith was drawn to this woman in history because of the power she held at a time when women were disposed of in marriage and relegated, even in royal courts, to weaving in pairs and traditional female tasks while they attempted to have sons first and daughters second. While Hild weaves, collects medicinal plants, births babies, and shares in female duties, she navigates the world of fierce warriors and powerful men just as easily. She gains respect and reciprocal romantic love during her journeys among these men. Those who like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and even Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies may be interested in this uncommonly well-written and lovely novel. That being said, Hild is a character that stands alone. While keeping cynicism mostly at bay, she boldly exhibits decisiveness, gorgeously simple decision-making, necessary wariness, and the wonder of one who loves the mystery of the world around her.