Until the mid-twentieth century, scholars regarded the Old English epic Beowulf as a work of fantasy. This was not just because it was a story with sea-monsters, trolls and a dragon in it, but also because the material world it described was far richer, elaborate and more colourful than the Anglo-Saxon world that had been uncovered by archaeology. The Beowulf-Poet describes richly decorated helmets, jewelled belts and swords, huge painted halls and warriors decked in arm rings and riches. Given that the Anglo-Saxon England in which the poet was writing seemed to consist of little more than thatched huts with dirt floors, these descriptions seemed fanciful.
Then, in 1939, the great burial mound at Sutton Hoo was excavated and conceptions of both Anglo-Saxon England and Beowulf changed. Far from being fantasy, the Beowulf-Poet was evoking the richness and splendour of Germanic nobility with great accuracy. He was probably writing around 1000 AD and his story, complete with its trolls and dragons, was set in the misty almost-prehistory of fifth century Denmark. But the finds in the seventh century grave at Sutton Hoo showed that the materail culture described in the poem was very real. The intricate workmanship of the helmet, shield-mounts, brooches, belt fittings and purse lid in the grave put the descriptions in the poem into an archaeological context and showed early Medieval England was a far brighter and more wealthy and sophisticated place than had been previously believed.
The Sutton Hoo ship burial was most likely that of Raedwald of East Anglia (d. 624 AD), whose death changed the balance of power amongst the rival Anglo-Saxon and Welsh kingdoms of seventh century Britain. As "Bretwalda", Raedwald was the nominal senior over-king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and on his death this status passed to Edwin of Northumbria. In Nicola Griffith's novel Hild, her heroine is the teen-aged "seer" to Edwin, her uncle, and the news of the death of Raedwald realigns the network of alliances and rivalries that makes up her world:
"Raedwald is dead!"
Hild stood very still. Raedwald. Overking ofall the Angles, who had helped Edwin kill Aethelfrith and drive the Idings into exile. Sulky Eorpwald, Raedwald's second son, who had been too young to fight at Edwin's side. Eorpwald, who would step into the kingship of the East Angles - but Edwin would inherit the mantle of overking, the most powerful Angle in Britain.
Hild saw immediately what this meant for them."
Like the Beowulf-Poet, Griffith evokes a world that is hard, harsh, rich and elaborate. Edwin's royal hall at Yeavering is brought to life with descriptions with more than a touch of Hrothgar's Heorot in Beowulf. The kings warriors - the gesithas of his retinue and the core of his warband - glitter with arm rings, rich belt fittings and ring-hilted swords. And Edwin wears a garnet ring that evokes the rich garnet decorations from Sutton Hoo. There a no trolls and dragons (though there are dangers and terrors enough in Hild's world), but this novel is has the worlds of both Beowulf and Sutton Hoo as its backdrop and its recreation of this culture is intricate and effective as a result.
|Replica of the Sutton Hoo Helmet|
Weaving and Peaceweavers
One of the best things about Griffith's novel is that this is a woman's view of a very male world. If recreating Anglo-Saxon England is difficult, recreating the lives of women in this society is harder still, given that they are often absent from sources that deal more with wars, royal dynasties and church politics. Griffith has done an excellent job of showing us the way Anglo-Saxon women and their British slaves and underclass lived and worked. And a lot of that work centred around weaving. Griffith's blog "Gemaecca" describes how she worked out the details of the role of women in early English society. And one entry shows how careful her research was and how much it helped shape her story. She describes receiving her copy of Penelope Walton Rogers' Cloth And Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England, AD 450-700 while she was already in the course of writing Hild:
I don't normally continue to research once I've begun the the work of actually committing fiction (facts, until they're fully assimilated, tend to sit in great undigested lumps in my imaginative path) but I had to have this book. It took a week or so to arrive and then I promptly devoured it. It not only derailed my imaginative process, it blew the whole thing off its tracks.
Walton Roger's book made it clear just how central weaving and other forms of textile production was to women's lives in the period - about 65% of Anglo-Saxon women's time was spent making textiles. A writer who did not care as much as Griffith about getting the details right would simply ignore this, but Griffith was determined to create her world properly.
"[T]heir weaving and sewing (and sowing, and harvesting and retting and scutching and beating and spinning and dyeing and weaving and...) wasn't just some boring gendered task designed to keep women occupied, it was vital to survival and quality of life. But if a woman is spending two thirds of her waking life working on textile production, how do I make her life exciting and particular"
Griffith decided that since many textile production tasks required two women to work together, these partnerships may have been formalised. So in the novel, the teenaged Hild chooses her friend Begu to be her "gemaecca", or weaving companion - an Old English word that Griffith chose for her imagined relationship. This may or may not be how things worked, but its details like this that create the rich world of the novel and set it apart from historical fiction where the history is mere set dressing. In Griffith's hands the archaeological and historical detail is integral to the work.
This means that the colour, weave and cut of cloaks, clothing and blankets are noted by Griffith's young protagonist because she would have been intimately familiar with their production. And these fine details are also useful markers for the reader to help understand the social status, wealth and even ethnic origin of the novel's characters. A wealh-style cloak marks its wearer as British rather than "Anglisc". A simple weave on a dress marks its owner as poor while elaborate tablet-woven decorations on a warrior's tunic shows him to be high status, and so on.
Griffith's idea of all women having a formal "gemaecca" relationship with their weaving partner may be invented, but the relationships between women are one of the novel's great strengths. Hild's formidable, controlling and manipulative mother Breguswith is the one who sets her daughter on the path to becoming King Edwin's seer, and Hild's emotional struggle to get some independence from her often domineering mother is a narrative arc that make this novel very much a feminine bildungsroman. Hild's friend and "gemaecca" Begu is chatty, cheerful and trival, serving as a contrast to Hild, who is sober, serious and, at times, quite grim. And Hild's beautiful British body-servant Gwladus illustrates the confusion that comes with puberty and burgeoning sexuality, when she becomes Hild's first lover.
Given that Griffith is herself a lesbian, this aspect of the story may feel for some readers an anachronistic indulgence on the author's part. But it works as part of the narrative and, once again, Griffith has done her homework. A reference to "playful mating with another woman" in the Book of Leinster and some other snippets from medieval works indicates at least some tolerance for female same sex relationships in the early Middle Ages. Whether pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon society was quite as relaxed about these things as is depicted in Hild is an open question. Tacitus made it clear that male same sex relations were regarded as a capital crime in ancient Germanic society, with the penalty being burial alive. But perhaps discreet female coupling was tolerated the way Griffith depicts.
Beowulf also depicts another form of "weaving": Hrothgar's queen, Wealhtheow is described as a "freothuwebbe" - a "peace weaver". Whether this was a technical term or just a poetic description is not clear, but she and several other women in the Old English corpus seem to have fulfilled an important political function - a marriage that seals an alliance or heals a feud between two tribes or kingdoms. So in Hild we see Edwin marry Aethelburh of Kent, linking the northernmost and southernmost Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and bringing pagan Northumbria into the orbit of Latin Christianity. And later Hild sees her sister Hereswith marry Aethelric of East Anglia, bringing it into alliance with Northumbria against the rising power of the Mercians. Women as weavers, women as hostesses in the ritual of the feast hall, women as instruments in political alliance and women as seers all appear in this novel, which makes a change from historical novels where women are barely seen or stand at stage left. Here they are central, not peripheral. It's the battles and council meetings that often occur off stage in Hild (though not always), while conversations in the dairy, while gathering herbs or while spinning and weaving drive the novel forwards.
Pagans and Christians
The rather wild and grim pagan seer Hild is destined later in her life to become Saint Hilda of Whitby, one of the most revered and influential of the Anglo-Saxon saints. But for most of Hild the eponymous character is very much a pagan and her conversion is as much a matter of practicality. Medieval religion is usually handled extremely badly in historical fiction. Past depictions have emphasised a syrupy idealised "Age of Faith", with pious and benevolent Christians leading earnest but misguided pagans onto the paths of righteousness. More recently we've tended to see the modern Hollywood clichés, where churchmen are crazed fanatics, corrupt frauds or - at best - jolly Friar Tuck types. The pagans tend to range from modern sceptics in tunics or, worse, dewy New Age romanticised cartoons.
Griffith manages to avoid the worst of these caricatures, though she skates close to a couple of them. The most sympathetic Christian character is the Irish priest Fursey, (very) loosely based on the seventh century Irish saint of the same name. He is something of a guide to the young Hild and a companion to a child who is both solitary by nature but also afflicted by loneliness. He is also instrumental in teaching her to read - a skill that she sees will give her an edge in the politics of the time and understands will transform her world. Like all the characters in the novel, he has his own agenda, but he is a kindly figure in an often threatening world.
At the other end of the scale is Paulinus, also called "the Crow". The historical Saint Paulinus of York was sent by Pope Gregory as part of the Gregorian mission to the kingdoms of England. In the novel he accompanies Edwin's queen AEthelburg from Kent and he remains an alien figure in a world of Celtic and Germanic tribal tradition. He and his retinue of Catholic clergy strive for dominance in religious affairs in Edwin's court; first with the pagan priesthood led by Cofi, the priest of Woden, and then with the local rival Celtic church, which looks to Ireland rather than Rome.
One thing Griffith gets very right is the idea that that conversion was a political and communal affair, not a matter of private conscience or personal piety. As Northumbria's orbit swings south and links with Kent and then Frankia become stronger, the influence of the Catholic faith gets stronger and Paulinus increase in power. Earlier we see Hild take part in the dedication of a new ritual enclosure for the cult of Woden - a hallucinogen-fuelled, primal, tribal celebration of the ancestral myth:
Then she stood in the heart of the enclosure. A massive carved totem reached up and up into the now -inky night sky. A shadowy crowd now thronged the space - not only her mother, her cousins Oswine and Osryth, but all those who had gone before: her father and his father and his, and back to Wilfgisl the Wide and his father Westerfalca .... back farther to Swebdaeg and Sigegar .... to Waedag and - embodied in the great totem - Woden himself.
Later, as power swings away from Cofi and the pagan priests and Paulinus' priests establish a church in an old Roman basilica in York, Hild hears a choir sing Catholic style plainchant for the first time:
The music, when it came, with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.
She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.
It was cool music, inhuman, the song the stars might sing. .... The music soared. Hild soared with it.
In these two passages we see the relative attractions of the two competing faiths. The pagan faith is old and deeply rooted in family and ancestry and tribal myth. The Christian competitor is alien, but also compelling, glamorous and mysterious. Later Hild is baptised, not out of any personal conviction but because she was part of Edwin's household. Her approach to the baptism ceremony is one of someone who doesn't question the power of magic curious about the efficacy of this new magical ritual and, in the end, a little let down by its anti-climax. And the whole affair is tinged with an appropriate mix of pragmatism and lingering pagan belief: the spot in the river was chosen because it was not too still, since water sprites liked still water, but not so swift-flowing that someone might get swept away.
Hild's attitude to her new faith is much the same. She is well aware of the practical advantages it gives her king but also, sometimes precariously, maintains her status as Edwin's seer even though Paulinus sees her as a rival and a threat. In the Sutton Hoo treasure we see a similar hedging of the pagan old against the Christian new. There in amongst the weapons, finery and feasting gear of a Germanic warrior king ready to sail into the next world are two silver baptismal spoons with the inscriptions "Saul" and "Paul": a sign of an unbeliever's transition into belief.
The Next Episode
As mentioned earlier, this is a bildungsroman - the story of a young person's journey into adulthood. We meet Hild as a precocious three year old, alone with her mother and sister in a dangerous world. By the end of the novel she has survived and won high status. Like many teenagers she has struggled with parental expectations, tried on several personae, rebelled and then ultimately come to terms with her adult path. The novel ends on a high note, but it's clear that there is at least another book's worth of story in the recreation of Hild that Griffith has produced. Given her clear and atmospheric style, her authentic eye for detail and delicate evocation of characters, any follow up will be welcome. Historical fiction needs more novels like Hild.