Saturday, July 2, 2011

All about Hild

Bamburgh Castle, by Norman MacKillop, used by permission

I am officially two-thirds of the way through the first rewrite of my epic novel of Hild of Whitby.

I don't use the word epic lightly. The first draft of this book weighed in at 976 pages and 202,000 words. And it's just Part One of three.

For those who haven't already heard me talk about this book a million times, Hild lived in the north of England in the 7th century. Not much is known about this fascinating woman, and all of it from Bede. Here's what's known to be known. (My speculations and outright inventions will be in parentheses.)

Hild was born c. 614, after her mother had had a dream about her bringing light to the land. (This sounds like a good ploy from a homeless, widowed pregnant woman: don't hurt me, what I carry is important!) Her father was Hereric, of the royal house of Deira (possibly son of Æthelric, king of Deira 599-604, that is, until Æthelfrith of Bernicia killed him and yoked Bernicia and Deira together to make Northumbria). Hereric was killed at the court of Ceredig, king of Elmet just before Hild's birth. (Poison, very possibly, as a result of bribes and/or threats against Ceredig from Æthelfrith). Her mother was Breguswith, family unknown (but I'm thinking possibly she was a sister of Rædwald, king of East Anglia. Or a leftwise relative of the king of Kent--I'm still dithering.) Her older sister was Hereswith, who married Æthelric, son of Eni--who was brother of King Rædwald--and brother to King Anna. Æthelric was briefly co-king, with Sigiberht, before dying, at which point Anna took the throne.

Hild, along with many of Edwin's household, was baptised by Paulinus c. 627 in York. She then disappears from the record until 647, when after a year in East Anglia she's about to take ship for Gaul to join the widowed Hereswith in an abbey (Bede says Chelles--but Chelles wasn't founded until Balthild took the veil, so I think probably Faramoutiers). It's at this point Aidan, bishop of Lindisfarne (essentially the go-to God Guy for Northumbria), invited from Iona at the behest of Oswald, who is currently king, recruits her to his church, and Hild heads back north. There she spends a year on a plot of land on the Wear (I've never been wholly convinced of this location, but I don't have alternative suggestions, where she is essentially being deprogrammed--stripped of worldliness--and retrained as an abbess). Then she is sent to Hartlepool to restore order (Heiu, the previous boss, goes off and founds another house--in/near Tadcaster?). At Hackness Hild does a cracking job and is given a bigger, better abbey, Whitby/Streanæshalch (which she may or may not have founded). Oswald's brother, Oswiu, now king, sends his infant oblate daughter, Æfflæd, to Whitby.

At Whitby, Hild trains five bishops, and hosts, in 664, the great Synod where Oswiu rules in favour of Roman practise. (I see Hild as the host and facilitator of the discussion that changed Britain.) After Oswiu's death, his widow Eanflæd (Æfflæd's mother) joins the abbey.

Hild is known as 'mother' and is a consultant to kings and princes. (They seek her advice. They follow it. She has enormous political influence.) She persuades Cædmon, a cowherd, to write the first vernacular poem (the first ever written in the English language as opposed to Latin). She dies November 17th 680, attended by the usual hagiographic visions of her soul ascending to heaven, and is declared a saint almost immediately. (She was probably buried at Whitby, and then had her remains translated to Glastonbury some time later.)

The seventh century was a time of vast change, and Hild was in the thick of it at every turn. She was pivotal to the formation of what we now call England. Yet as far as I know, no one has written a novel about her.

It's such a huge story that I've had to break it into three, which, coincidentally (coincidence? I think not...), break into the three ages of woman: maid, matron, crone. Though Hild being Hild, and me being me, that's, er, not exactly how it pans out.

The tricky part is explaining this book to people. It's epic, but it doesn't do the separated-by-time-and-space multi-point-of-view narration of epics like Lord of the Rings or George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire cycle. Also, there's no magic. Though there is a lot of wonder and wildness, glory and battles--both the intimate and the sword-to-sword variety.

It's also a story for adults told, initially, from the POV of a girl. (Part One follows Hild from the age of three to nineteen, at which point she disappears from the historical record until she's thirty-three.) Only she twice royal, and her mother raises her as a prophet and seer.

So here are just a few ways I've tried to describe this book:

  • An intimate novel of character painted on an epic canvas.
  • The story of a girl who grew up to change the world.
  • Like George R.R. Martin, only without dragons or shapechangers or spells and it could have happened.
  • A sweeping family saga set fourteen hundred years ago.
  • A tale of dread and glory, humanity and survival.
  • (For academics only) An ethnography of the seventh century.

So, anyway, I'm now two-thirds of the way through my first rewrite of part one. I'm down to 928 pages and 190,000 words. I imagine I'll lose more as I go.

I'm excited.

Kelley's latest Clarion West write-a-thon piece, "Mercy," is up:

I won’t I won’t I won’t go mad, Mercy told herself as she fled the apartment clutching her messenger bag, her keys, one sneaker and a nectarine. But her hands were shaking so hard that the keys jangled like chattering metal teeth oh god Eric’s teeth his TEETH –

Forget the elevator. She took the stairs.

By the bottom of the five flights, she had got some of her steel back; enough to stop, take three deep breaths, and crane her neck to study the stairwell above her. No thump thump thump of pursuit. No head over the rail, grinning gleeful, Found you! with those teeth – [more]

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