Hild is three years old when the book opens. Even at that point, Hild’s worldview – as the “light of the world” her mother believes she was born to be – is different. When her father, the King of Elmet, is poisoned, her family goes to live with her uncle, Edwin of Northumbria, destined to become overking of the Anglisc through any means necessary. Hild becomes the king’s seer, and her family is effectively placed at Edwin’s mercy.
Against the backdrop of a violent world that is dramatically evolving from paganism to Christianity, Hild grows into young womanhood. She is a warrior and a leader, wielding a sword as well as any of Edwin’s men. She is likely a sensitive – but more than this, perhaps; she is completely in tune with the natural world, matching cause with effect, being instinctively aware of her physical surroundings. She kills enemies without compassion, yet she is able to see a veritable wasteland and envision making it into an oasis for her people, to whom she is loyal. In many ways, she is an equal with any man of her time.
Even after Hild receives baptism, more as a method of ensuring Edwin the Anglisc crown than in a display of religious fervor, she is more naturalist than Christian. The birds, the waters, the skies – these are her apostles. Indeed, in Griffth’s book, Christ has precious little sway over Hild, and there is virtually no warning that we are being introduced to a woman who will become a revered saint.
Clearly, Griffith has done a mammoth amount of research into the early Middle Ages. Filled with complex relationships, Griffith’s narrative flows like a river; Hild’s thoughts and deeds are expressed in pitch-perfect tone, in prose approaching poetry. Anyone expecting to open up this book and read a dry fictionalized biography about St. Hilda of Whitby is going to be sorely disappointed. Unexpected, perhaps, but utterly brilliant.
Farrar Straus & Giroux
Early Medieval (to 1337)