As Nicola Griffith, author of Menewood, second in her Hild series, said in a recent interview, she expects to be writing about this seventh century British saint (the abbess of Whitby in her later years) for the rest of her life. The character of Hild she has created through 20 years of research is unforgettably there on every beautifully written page. She is fully alive along with every other person she meets, every animal and natural process she comes to know, every act of violence she participates in. Menewood, covering just two crucial years of Hild’s life, long before her entry into a religious order, is a staggering achievement of imagination that brings a vast world to life.
While Hild (2013) dramatized a young girl learning about life, the Hild of Menewood, about 20 years old, has mastered every sphere of living in the North of England where Anglisc, British, Irish and Latin and the traditions those languages support are very much alive. It’s a world where kings fight for wealth, for the loyalty of warriors and for control of lands through brutal battles and constant plotting and back-stabbing. In this world Hild is a giant in stature, military prowess, close knowledge of nature and an ability to see the individuality and value in each person. And Griffith makes this world live in us through Hild’s eyes and every other sense. I’ve never felt so completely drawn into the reality of a world so different from our own.
As Menewood opens, Hild is married to the young noble warrior, Cian Broadcloak, assigned by Edwin Overking, to protect a region called Elmet in the old kingdom of Deira, the eastern part of Northumbria where the major fort and town of York were located. Hild has been called a seer since childhood, one who knows everything, but for her the reality is that she sees patterns in things. The patterns of kings fighting for power, of warriors longing for gold and fame, of the changes of seasons and weather, of the movements and habits of animals, of the myriad processes that sustain life in the seventh century, from weaving, to raising and butchering livestock to navigating the perils of life in a royal family. She has integrated all this knowledge in a way that strikes her contemporaries as miraculous, apparently giving her insight into the future. But it is really her keen senses and mind that let nothing slip by.
Early in the story, she is out riding the boundaries of Elmet with a band of young warriors in training when she sees a bird rise in alarm from a thicket. Instantly, she knows that particular bird is fleeing danger, and she senses it is a rival band from the neighboring realm, testing the defenses of Elmet. Much later when she has to plan a battle against a marauding king whose troops outnumber her own, it is her thorough knowledge of terrain and subtle signs of the changes in weather that enable her to create a strategy to overcome the odds against her.
What Hild sees and thinks brings out not just her keen perception but extraordinary empathy and love for the natural and human processes and beings of her world. She doesn’t catalogue vast knowledge, she lives it by entering into the experience of every other being, from a tiny vole risking emergence from the safety of its home to the power calculations of kings. Her insight makes her seem like a seer to those who know her, or simply know of her by reputation, but there is nothing mystical or magical about it. Her being seems to merge in a way with all the varieties of living things, from the innocent to the murderous, from the care a gardener or farmer takes with plants to the skills of a butcher, from the nurturing of children and family to the vicious killing of combat.
With all her natural talents as a leader, Hild does not try to seize kingly power for herself, knowing full well the cycle of war and deadly competition for wealth and power that leads to. Instead she is drawn in two directions. One is the safe retreat of Menewood, a small artfully hidden valley where family and friends can live peacefully, cultivating the soil and raising children. The other is her urge to travel, to find new patterns in the wider world with all the wonder and dangers that contains.
In one moment of this rich narrative, Hild is trying to guess how the writer of a letter felt and reflects on the act of writing itself, at least the relatively crude writing on parchment of the man who had sent it to her.
“Writing was a miracle, yes, but an oddly empty one. A person was a living, breathing moment, a whole world wrapped around the bones that bring out the sound. A letter was more like seeing tracks in the mud on the riverbank. If the footsteps were deep you could tell a story about a big man, or a small man carrying a heavy burden—which could be a dead child or a pot of gold. But it was just a story, a guess. It was not like seeing the man walk in the snow. When you talked to a person right next to you, your understanding of what they were saying,, what they felt, what they meant, changed with every heartbeat, every pause, every breath. You could see what they meant, you could smell it.”Menewood, Kindle advance review copy edition, Location 2620
The wonderful thing about this passage is that, even while Hild is disparaging the ability of writing to capture life in its fullness, Griffith is evoking her life perfectly through this same medium. Yet, I don’t doubt for a moment that I’m living in Hild’s mind and seeing the crude form of writing she was used to.
Hild has a great arc of experience to live through in the two years covered by this novel. The story is structured around two great battles, and we see Hild brought down by the first, her world destroyed, her spirit almost broken. But then she heals and sets about restoring plundered lands, reassembling warriors, rallying the people of Deira. She shows herself to be a great manager of land and people, a natural leader who inspires those around her to have faith again in their future. However, this arc of loss and recovery is no conventional hero’s journey that ends with the slaying of a monster. Instead it poses deep questions about Hild’s future, her hold as such power as she retains and her search for deeper insight into the world around her.
Her whole being is so attuned to all the cadences of life, it seems a small step for her to evolve later in life to a more religious existence, especially as she witnesses the constant destruction and ravaging of a warlord-driven society. But that will obviously be a complex journey since her world presents conflicting faiths and ideas of the sacred, as well as clashes within Christianity between Roman and British forms of worship.
Nicola Griffith captures all of this in Hild’s experience and perceptions of the totality of her world. Griffith says the next novel in this sequence will take Hild to the beginning of the religious life. I hope that book will take a bit less than ten years to appear, but whatever the time, it will be worth waiting for another great chapter in this dazzling fictional life.
My thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for an advance copy of Menewood on which I could base this review, reflecting solely my own opinions.