Nicola Griffith’s foray into historical fiction, Hild, has been hugely successful. The book won a Lammy and was a finalist for a bunch of other major awards, including the Nebula, Otherwise and Campbell. (Yes, that Campbell which is an award for science fiction novels). Given that the book only covered the early years of the life of Hild of Whitby, a sequel was pretty much inevitable. Of course, with the amount of research that Griffith puts into these books, it wasn’t going to come quickly. However, Menewood is officially due on October 3rd. Griffith kindly sent me an ARC to look at.

This is history, so some things about Hild’s life are way beyond the statue of limitations for spoilers. When we left her, she was riding high as a valued advisor to her uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria. Also she had just got married to her childhood friend, Cian, and the two of them had their own estates to run in Elmet (the area around modern day Leeds). However, anyone with access to Wikipedia will know that Edwin’s reign was cut short thanks to an attack by King Penda of Mercia, backed up by the vicious Cadwallon of Gwynedd. Hild must have survived, and Menewood sets out to tell the story of those turbulent years.

Just like Hild, Menewood is real. These days it is a suburb of Leeds, just to the east of Headingly, where Griffith grew up. (The modern name is spelled Meanwood, which is far less glamorous.) One of the things that shines through in the book is the sense of place. You get the impression that Griffith has walked the many locations featured in the novel, or at least surveyed them on Google Earth, and taken as keen an interest in their geography as her hero does.

The thing you have to do when your country is laid waste by foreign invaders is rebuild, pretty much from scratch. In early mediaeval England that means skills in farming and a whole bunch of associated crafts such as housebuilding, metalworking and brewing. Hild can’t do all of these things (she’s not a Heinlein hero), but Griffith gives her good people management skills. Building a village is much like building a company. You want the right people in the right jobs. In order to write this, Griffith has had to find out how all these things were done in Hild’s time. That’s a whole lot of research, which I’m sure will delight her readers. Nevertheless, the book never feels infodumpy.

Having rebuilt, the next step is to secure peace, by making sure that the enemy will never be able to invade you again. Penda, it seems, is not much of a problem. His strategy seems to be one of patience and caution. He keeps Mercia safe, not by conquering neighboring kingdoms, which might cause him to overstretch, but by attacking and destabilizing them, then moving on. Having done for Edwin, he’s turning his sights on the Angles, amongst whom Hild’s sister, Hereswith, is likely to become queen. That, I suspect, will be the focus of the next book in the series. (Edwin was an ally of Rædwald, the most likely occupant of the grave at Sutton Hoo.)

Cadwallon is another matter. He’s not interested in being a king. He’d much prefer to be a terrifying warlord who takes his men where he wants, kills who he wants, and takes their gold. Bede tells us that he was an awful person, and someone who Bede says is bad, even for the British, must be very bad indeed.

I used the word, ‘British’, there because many of the inhabitants of the ex-Roman province of Britannia still regard themselves as citizens of the country they called Prydain before the Romans arrived. They speak a language that is recognizably a precursor of modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Hild’s people call them Wealh (Welsh) – foreigners. The newcomers are from many parts of the Germanic world and do not yet call themselves Saxons, but the British call them Saes (Saesneg, Sassenach), which also means foreigners.

Hild is at pains to make her people tolerant of ethnic differences. She tells them that they are Elmetsæte first, regardless of what god they worship or language they speak. This sems entirely fitting, both for her later career as a diplomat, and for the fact that the author is a Yorkshire lass with the fine Welsh name of Gruffydd.

Having laid waste to modern Yorkshire, Cadwallon heads north to the Roman wall and beyond, murdering and plundering as he goes. Bede tells us that he met a sticky end in the north at the hands of one Oswald, a cousin of Hild whose family fell foul of Edwin and ended up hiding out in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riada in the West of Scotland. How this came to pass is a mystery, and one that Griffith sets out to explain.

A word of advice. If you are into wargaming, do not take on Griffith. She has an excellent eye for strategy and tactics, and will beat you hollow.

The final element of the book is Hild’s personal journey. She is not yet at the point of embracing Christianity and becoming a saint, and that part of her life may make a fascinating fourth volume. Currently she’s still happy to embrace any faith, be it worship of Woden, or any of the varieties of Christian worship vying for dominance, as long as it works for her. But she still has a lot to learn. To rebuild her community she needs to become a woman of the people, which is hard for someone raised as royalty. I’m pleased to see that she ends up treating her former body slave, Gwaldus, much better than she did in the first book.

By the way, Gwladus is a British woman from Somerset, so I have a soft spot for her. Griffith gives her own pronunciation guide in the book, but I’m here to tell you that Gladys is not a bad modern Welsh version of the name.

I should note that the book takes an entirely realistic attitude to early mediaeval sexuality. Many characters are enthusiastically bisexual, and no one fetishizes virginity. The small number of fanatical Christians probably disapprove, but no one pays them any mind. That will change, and I look forward to seeing how Hild reacts to it.

Hild also knows that she can’t be king. In a warrior society like hers, strong men always end up in charge, and a woman on the throne simply marks your kingdom out as a target for neighbouring kings. Besides, being king is an awful job. You have to keep killing people in order to stay on the throne, and Hild doesn’t want to do that. There are a number of characters who use more traditionally feminine paths to power, most notably Langwredd, the British princess whose lands lie north of the wall. Griffith, being who she is, has Hild do things very differently, and it is fascinating to observe.

Talking of powerful women those of you who follow the resurrected Time Team may know that they recently excavated an early mediaeval graveyard in East Anglia, and in particular the grave of a high status Christian woman. They don’t know who she is, or why she was buried there, but the dates would work for it being Hereswith. Some of the grave goods are from Frankia (the land of the Franks in modern-day France). Bede says that she entered a monastery there to live out her days, but the Abbey he says she went to wasn’t founded until after her death, and anyway he doesn’t explicitly say she died there. She may have come home when her son, Ealdwulf, became king of the Angles. I should note that the woman in the grave is very short and petite, which is very unlike the tall, imposing Hild, but Hild’s stature is a Griffith invention.

The book is long – over 700 pages in PDF – but very much worth your time, especially if you have any interest in early mediaeval Britain. I expect it to be hugely popular with historical fiction readers, and with a bunch of my historian friends. I note that Dr. Griffith was a guest speaker at the prestigious International Mediaeval Congress this year (which just happened to be in Leeds this year).

Menewood is not fantasy. It does include a brief appearance from someone who might have inspired a famous legend, but that’s hardly a key part of the story. It is much more important to note that Hild’s people, and her enemies, are all convinced that she can do magic because she is very smart and notices things that most people would miss. Griffith doesn’t write the book as magic realism, but she could easily have done so. Don’t let the lack of magic put you off reading it. It is a far better evocation of that period of British history than most fantasy novels I’ve read.

Of course you don’t need me to tell you this. In a few months time the mainstream media will be full of praise for Menewood. I’ll just pick up a hardcover to put next to my copy of Hild and wait patiently for book 3.

book cover
Title: Menewood
By: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US UK
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