The Makers of Britain
Nicola Griffith reflects on the literary ancestors of her forthcoming novel ‘Hild’
When I was nine, the library I went to divided books not by age-appropriateness but by shelf height. If I could reach it, I could read it. The books I remember most, the ones I fell in love with—the ones I could reach—were very much realist novels, but set in the long ago. My favourites were those about the so-called Dark Ages. The period spanning the fifth to tenth centuries—now known as the Early Medieval Age, Sub-Roman Britain, or Late Antiquity depending on your academic focus—was a time of massive change. Its peoples—overlapping tribes, nations, cultures, and polities—witnessed the kind of rapid and violent upheaval now often considered unique to the twenty-first century.
Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece wrote about this period for both adults and children, swapping back and forth from book to book. I’m not sure I knew the difference. I am sure I didn’t care. I gobbled them up indiscriminately.
Two particular novels marked me deeply. They focused on the Matter of Britain, that is, King Arthur. They chose to draw Arthur as a real man, a Roman Briton, a war leader of the fifth century fighting to hold aloft the guttering flame of Roman culture—literature, the rule of law—against the darkness represented by the barbarian hordes.
Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (1959) won the Carnegie Medal. Its early themes might be New Adult—Aquila has to make a life-changing choice, to decide for himself where his loyalties lie—but then, in my opinion, we enter wholly adult territory. Aquila’s sister, Flavia, is raped and abducted by Saxons. Aquila becomes a Jutish thrall for three years. When the Jutes join the Saxons, Flavia helps her brother escape but chooses to remain behind with her now-husband and young son—to become, effectively, Saxon. Aquila joins the Romano-British resistance in the fight against both the indigenous barbarian Celts and the invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. This resistance is led by Ambrosius and his young nephew, Artos.
Aquila must wrestle with hate and aging, forgiveness and mortality, change and loss. To be one of the lantern bearers—to hold the light aloft long enough for something in the barbarians to catch light—is never a simple choice. Sutcliff shows us Aquila’s world, makes us feel his worry and his struggle.
What strikes me most now about Sutcliff’s work are two things. The first is her verbs. A bat didn’t fly, it “darted by, pricking the dusk with its needle-thin hunting cry.” And twilight doesn’t fall, it “comes lapping up the valley.” Nature is an active part of the characters’ world; it influences people and their choices. The second is how oddly hands-off she is about the body, particularly sex. We see and hear it, but we don’t taste it or feel it on our skin. When it comes to sex and food and injury, we think, we understand, we accept alongside the characters, but we don’t hunger or burn, we don’t writhe and yearn. Her people are more concerned with ideals: truth, or justice, or the defense of civilization from the barbarian. Their goals, their morality, rarely waver.
Henry Treece’s The Great Captains (1956) is different. Treece was a poet. His focus was more on the individual than on the wider society. His Artos is a grim farmer getting through life the best he knows how in the midst of great change. He wasn’t born a leader and he doesn’t particularly want to be one—he wants to plough his fields in peace. He is motivated by physical survival. Treece’s world is visceral. His swords are heavy and dull, his cloaks stink of sheep’s grease, his fires smoke badly and go out in the rain. His hero is an ordinary man whose persistence and doggedness keep him alive. He has to fight, internally and externally, to find and then maintain his moral compass in the chaos.
My character, Hild, was born fourteen hundred years ago, in a time of illiterate warlords and petty fiefdoms. Might equaled right. By the time she died she was a counselor to kings—heads of literate proto-states with the rudiments of a legal code—and the teacher of five bishops. Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece showed me how to she might have survived, even led, that transformation.
And so, to make Hild, I went back to where I came from. I stole Sutcliff’s love and encyclopedic knowledge of nature, her active verbs, her sense of great human movements and the struggle of light versus dark. From Treece I took his poet’s sensibility and firm grounding in the body. From both I borrowed the oldest themes of all: growth and change and becoming oneself and relying on one’s own internal compass.
Nicola Griffith is a native of Yorkshire, England, where she earned her beer money teaching women’s self-defense, fronting a band, and arm-wrestling in bars. In 1993 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her novels are Ammonite, Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, and Always. Her writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. Her awards include the Tiptree, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, the Premio Italia, and the Lambda Literary Award (six times)—most recently for her memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party. Griffith lives with her partner, the writer Kelley Eskridge, in Seattle, Washington. You can find Nicola online at nicolagriffith.com and @nicolaz. FSG will publish Hild on Nov. 12, 2013.