Nicola Griffith remembers the moment when her infatuation with Hilda of Whitby began. She was in her 20s, living in Yorkshire: She climbed the steps to the ruins of Whitby Abbey, high on a cliff overlooking the North Sea.
“I went across the threshold, and the earth moved under my feet,” Griffith, a Seattle author, recalled of that windswept spot. She dived into its history and found that the original abbey, long destroyed, had been run by a woman — St. Hilda, of 7th-century England. Who was she? How did she rise to such a position in a man’s world, and a brutal world at that?
An award-winning science-fiction writer, Griffith found that almost nothing was known about Hilda, or Hild, as the Anglo Saxons called her. Little was written about her, other than a few lines from the Venerable Bede, who chronicled England’s conversion to Christianity.
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Sometimes a blank canvas begs to be filled in. Though she wrote other books, Griffith’s fascination with Hild endured. Griffith’s new novel,
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 560 pages, $27), has just been published. It’s a luminous portrayal of a bright young woman in a brutal age, which Griffith, now 53, brings to vivid, pulsing life.
In Griffith’s telling, the young Hild is no saint. A king’s niece, Hild becomes a seer, learns to read and write when most can’t, and loves both men and women. She has a deadly way with a stave (Griffith, a former self-defense instructor, put aside that career after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis). She lives in a world alien to us, but Griffith makes it real.
Griffith answered some questions recently about Hild and about how she re-created the world of 7th-century England:
You immerse the reader in Hild’s world. What was the role of Christianity in Britain at this time?
A: When Hild was born, no one in her world was Christian. All the people around her would have believed in a variety of gods, though we’re not sure what the Germanic /Teutonic pantheon was.
She was baptized (into Christianity) when she was 13. … The coming of Christianity for Hild wasn’t just about God, it was about power and literacy.
Q: What was your own religious upbringing?
Very Catholic … I went to what you might call a convent school, and was there (in the Catholic system) until I was 17. … I stopped believing in God when I was 10. There was too much contradiction in this mysterious thing called faith.
Q: But Hild does have a sort of faith.
A: So do I — in nature, and in the goodness of people, though some people do very bad things. … I’m a big believer in testing things. Science is like religion, in that you have to be filled with a sense of wonder. You have to have that for a writer, too.
Q: You’re known for your science-fiction and mystery novels. How did you research this story? There’s so much folklore, mythology, history and even technology in this book.
A: I would keep learning and keep asking, inquiring on particular subjects — harps versus lyres? — until the minute I made a decision. Once I made a decision, I would say, that’s enough (check out Griffith’s research blog at gemaecca.blogspot.com).
Q: You portray the natural world in 7th-century England as wild and beautiful, though man had already changed things. How much of the natural world remains in northern England?
You can still go on the moors and see nothing except an ancient Roman road, and heather, and sheep. Most of England, everywhere you go you see the hand of humankind, though that would have been true in Hild’s time.
One of the things that broke my heart was when I came across a book, “The Birds of Yorkshire,” which had to be 100 years old. I thought, “Oh, they aren’t here anymore.” You can’t casually knock over a nest and take the eggs for your collection — that might be half the breeding pairs of a species.
Q: How do you re-create the language from an era when so little was written down?
In terms of culture and how it all worked, the material evidence can tell you a lot. I read all the extant Anglo-Saxon poetry I could find. It’s this wonderful heroic culture, kind of elegiac. … At the same time they had these rude, crude riddles, double entendres, slapping each other on the back, waggling their eyebrows.
Q: What was the hardest thing about creating the character of Hild?
The hardest thing was wrestling with issues of gender and gender restrictions. All the myths we’ve been fed are that women were chattel, that they were subservient.
I wanted to write a good historical novel as well as a novel of character. I wanted Hild to be exciting. If she just sits around weeping all the time, how was that exciting?
I thought, if she was a seer and had a smart mother, she could find a way around those restrictions, just as we do today. She was as human as anyone else. She found a way. She couldn’t use a sword, but she could use a staff. She could punch someone in the throat.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to www.tvw.org/shows/well-read for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.