Monday, February 9, 2015

The Garden of the Word: A Novel that Lights Up the Dark Ages



            I've had the pleasure of stumbling on another great writer and another great book, "Hild" by Nicola Griffith -- set in seventh century AD England among the Anglisc (or Angles), one of the Northern European tribes that found new homes in the British Isles after driving the inhabitants into the hinterlands. This century is also known as "The Age of Conversion" as the church of Rome made a major effort to bring the island's barbarian kings, and therefore their peoples, into the Christian church.
            Asked in a "Paris Review" interview about the origins of this novel about a seventh century Anglisc woman who became a Roman Catholic saint, Griffith replied, "the more I discovered about the world itself, about the seventh century, the more I wanted to write how it actually was. Not make it fantastical, just really go there, really live there for a while."
            That's exactly how this novel feels. We get to live there too. The book is set during what used to be commonly called "the Dark Ages," though that term appears nowhere in the book or any of the writing about it that I've discovered, so maybe 'dark ages' has become a taboo term for the period's authorities and researchers. Still, the seventh century falls within the period that followed the 'fall' of the Roman Empire and a decline in the civilized institutions and technology that flourished in the Classical period. You don't expect to find scenes recalling debates in the Roman Senate or the philosophical discussions of the School of Athens (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), and neither the ruling classes nor the common folk had much knowledge of those earlier civilizations because almost nobody could read.
            That's what the "dark" in Dark Ages meant: the light of learning had disappeared from the Western world.
            One of the tools that Hild, the child who becomes the high king's seer in a north of England Anglisc kingdom, is the ability to read. She learns it from a priest -- who else could teach her? And it's surely meaningful that Griffith has her heroine raised by her "game of thrones"-playing mother, a brilliant character in her own right, to believe herself "the light of the world." Hild brings light to her world by seeing what others don't; both by seeing the signs and understanding what they mean -- a process Hild thinks of, in another resonant term, as seeing "the pattern." That's what the NSA and all the other spies or "intelligence" agencies try to do today.
            But nothing can beat a truly self-trained mind. That's what Hild possesses and, while writing and reading are valuable tools, literacy doesn't supply the greater part of her knowledge -- the utter absence of books from her world poses a serious limitation. Hild learns, attains knowledge -- and in flashes of insight grasps a pattern that others cannot see -- by closely examining and learning from both the natural and the human worlds around her: her seventh century low-tech, non-literate world. The way of life her people have fashioned by learning how to make use of nature's resource; and the world of nature, its plants and animals and elemental furies, that follow their own laws with little regard for ours.  
            The Britain of this time is a largely wild, harsh, lovely and varied place. Anybody who spends time in our own tamer woods will love what author Griffins does with her hero's 'feel' for the plants, birds, others animals, seasons, and moods of of nature. Hild is a hero who spends time alone in the wild because she loves being there, because she reads the world like a book, and because some part of her knows that contact with the elements will help her "see" what a seer needs to know to give advice to a king and help her people, particularly those closest to her, to survive. Hild can watch the birds and tell what the weather will be -- not tomorrow, but weeks and even seasons ahead. She looks at how high the crows build their nests and knows to expect a hard winter. She watches bees gathering pollen in the summer and tells her farm manager to plant more red flowers. More red flowers means more bees: more honey: more mead.
            Insights like these, not always so pointed or practical, recur throughout the author's account of the ordinary flow of day-to-day life in seventh century England. Hild can look at the fat on a cow or the length of the hair on the sheep to know how happy or prosperous the people who own them are. When she discovers a nest -- she climbs trees with a facility that adds rumors of "flying" to her legend -- holding two baby starlings -- and two doves!, it's a sign, an omen. What that omen means you'll have to read the book to find out (no spoiler here).
            I will give a warning, though. As rewarding as this read is, it took me about a hundred pages to get the hang of it, and then the growth of my understanding was greatly abetted by frequent recurrences to the glossy of "old English" words at its end -- the sort of reader's aid I generally skip over; but foolishly here. I would also encourage readers to look to the author's note at the end to discover what few facts are known about Hild's life from the Christian records and I would recommend looking at the map at its front to understand what a small piece of the British Isles her 'high king' actually controls even while he, and she, and everyone else who matters, tries to figure out what is going on politically, dynastically, and economically in all these other regions of Britain that will affect the balance of power and the security of their own lives. Also, interestingly, what is going on among "the Franks" (trading partners and sometimes meddlers), the Irish (enemies), and even in Rome where the Bishop of Rome is fast becoming the most important player of all in this complex European 'game of houses.'
            People in the seventh century turn out to be much like us, like people everywhere. They're just playing the game with a different deck. And it's fascinating to see what they make of life in the wake of the decline of a vast imperial civilization.