The Song of Hild tells the story of the seventh-century saint and abbess of Whitby. Most of the novel is about the period of her life where the historical record is silent (after her baptism at 13 and before she became an abbess) so the author has been free to weave her own story of how she came to be influential in the church across Europe.
The story begins when Hild, born into one royal household, married into another, is subject to an ambush following her husband’s surrender in battle. Heavily pregnant and in fear of her life, she gives birth in a cave and then has to survive on land left ravaged by an army. However an opportunity arises for her to save herself. She shows great courage and resourcefulness in a desperate situation, a pattern played out throughout her life.
The Hild of the novel is worldly, reflective, sensual and strong. She is driven at times by belief, at others by expediency, at others still by her own needs and emotions. The author has struck that difficult balance of portraying characters who have very different values and beliefs to today, but whose emotions and dilemmas are nuanced in a way we can identify with.
This is often played out in Hild’s dialogues with Penda, a pagan king. She argues that war destroys lives and that people should live in peace. For him, war equates with survival and providing for his people. Without war, they would be defeated and killed.
The Song of Hild has a large cast of characters (perhaps too large) though there is a helpful list on the publisher’s website. The author does ease you in by telling some of Hild’s story, then going into the backstory, before returning to events in Hild’s life.
At the heart of the novel is the effect of conflict on women. Royal marriages were often used to form alliances, but the constant state of war between neighbouring kingdoms meant that the killer of your husband and sons might be your own father or brother. Religion for such women offered autonomy and escape.
The novel is a reminder that for Anglo-Saxons at this time, Christianity is a new religion. For many people, their religion reflects that of their leader. Converting is a political statement as much as a religious one, though in a period of conflict and instability, both might be considered an act of faith.
Although Hild is committed to Christianity, her upbringing and her emotions lead her to waver. She struggles when she is drawn to vengeance over forgiveness, riches over poverty. At times of crisis she reverts to pagan beliefs, just as people today who consider themselves atheists might find themselves turning for help to the god of their childhood.
Hild’s decision to become a missionary with Aidan of Lindisfarne is portrayed as a combination of faith and pragmatism. The latter part of the book shows how women, influential in Celtic Christianity as exemplified by Aidan, are gradually marginalised by the more connected, politically aware churchmen who are in contact with the church in Rome and Gaul.
This is a long, complex book, bubbling with detail and interest. It explores religion, the lives of women, the nature of power, and makes the thoughts of people who lived centuries ago feel immediate and vivid.
A note on formats – the paperback has a very small font so if this is an issue for you, I would go for the ebook.
Enjoyed this? For a different perspective on Anglo-Saxon women, take a look at my review of The Circle of Ceridwen by Octavia Ralph