Nicola Griffith’s widely-acclaimed novel, HILD, deserves the reputation it has as a masterpiece. Like any great masterpiece, it is checkered with close details like the refraction of light that seems to break sticks in a pond, along with the grand sweep of courts and kings and early medieval warfare. The main character is going to be a saint, someday, but is only a child when we first meet her. She is also living in a world where paganism is still the proper order of things. Her father is a king, but killed and she and her mother and sister and kin are running for their lives to the court of another king, Hild’s uncle. Hild’s mother had a dream vision of her second daughter as a seer, the light of the world. She raises her daughter to fulfill this potential. One of the most interesting aspects of the early novel involve how the mentors and role models around Hild – Fursey, Onnen, and her mother, among others – both recognize and believe in Hild’s natural talents while still working to shape her mind and teach her how to survive in the royal courts at the dawn of what we refer to as the Middle Ages. As years turn, the child grows into herself and watches those she loves grow around her.
This is a violent world, and embracing the violence is key to Hild’s survival. She is gifted a slaughtering knife at one point, and wears this proudly, uses it proudly. She travels with the king’s war band, and though she does not fight in battle against the larger, stronger men, she will walk among the mortally wounded and bring them a merciful death. The manner of keeping and holding power in this world means raids, slaves, and loyal warriors in great number who drink and dine and train in the hall of the king. In this world, a woman is not seen as a source of great power, except as she is able to marry and bear children. The author reveals the great cunning and strength of women who thrived in these dangerous courts, despite their lesser status. Hild’s kinswoman, Onnen, even manages to take over a rich king’s house, in a way, carrying his keys and seeing her son enter into a position of power and authority as the step-son of the king. She conquers a court without a weapon, without a single loyal warrior. Women are the center of this great work, and how they guide and direct and move mountains and scheme and hope and love and also die.
When encountering a masterpiece, one can examine artistic choices the author made – correct ones! One can examine them as an author selects the best method to present her world. In one sense, by choosing to be a close point of view inside Hild’s head, as narrator, elements of the plot are lessened in intensity. When Hild explains that her gambit is dangerous and the king threatens her life if she is wrong, we know she will succeed because she is the narrator of her own story. When we learn assassins may come for her, because she is the narrator of her own story, we know they do not succeed. It lessens the anxiety and intensity of what life in that world must have been like. Nicola Griffith absolutely made the right choice for her text, however, because the trade off was an insider’s perspective on what it all means, and how the world feels, and how the pieces of all the schemes come together. She trades out the surprises of a focus on plot and adventure for the deep, insightful narration that anchors the book and makes it truly unforgettable. A lesser version of this story would be interested in the narrow escapes and sudden twists of story. Instead, we are granted access to a mind that moves the story, and feels the story, and shares it.
I highly recommend this fine novel, as have many others before me.