Would you be exasperated by words like gemæcce?

HILD by Nicola Griffith is a luminous novel about St Hilda of Whitby (circa 614-17 November 680.)

The novel begins in around 617, when Hild is a three-year-old child, learning about the sudden death of her father (by poison.) Hild’s family suffers a huge loss of status with this death, her mother becoming a young widow with two daughters under the age of ten. (Hild’s older sister Hereswith is about eight years old in 617.) 

Eventually Hild’s family attaches themselves to the court of King Edwin of Northumbria (586-633.) There, Hild attracts the notice of the king and his court by performing a feat of endurance. Her task is to serve ale to the men, the sort of thing any noblewoman would do. But the ale cup is extremely heavy, and the task involves walking up and down the tables, heavy cup brimming full of ale in both hands, presenting it first to the king to drink then to all of his noblemen in order of precedence. 

The king is so impressed, he decides to test her by giving her one of his heavy bracelets to use as a crown. Hild is to repeat her task with the “crown” on her head without spilling drop. 

By some miracle she acquits herself perfectly, an amazing feat for a seven-year-old child.

St. Hilda monument detail in
Whitby. Note ammonites at feet.

One essential quality an author must have if writing about a time when life was much slower, is to have gorgeous prose. Ms. Griffith’s novel brought to mind Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest, which drew me in by its dreamy prose. Author Nicola Griffith deploys the same technique and as I was listening to the audio version I was also mesmerized by the voice of Pearl Hewitt. 

But there is one big problem with Hild, that is not evident in Daughter, and that is Ms. Griffith’s use of words that no-one has heard of before (unless one is a scholar of Anglo-Saxon.) Early on, I was pulled out of my fictive dream by words such as gesith, siff-saff, and gemæcce. I was so bothered by my not knowing what these words meant, I took time out to look them up on the internet, not realizing that Ms Griffiths had provided a glossary.

But IMHO, a glossary is NOT enough. There are much better ways of handling foreign words than just dropping them in the text and expecting the reader to cope. A very easy fix is to put the translation next to the word. 

Instead of writing ~

“and the score of sworn warrior gesiths would get magnificent baldrics for their swords,”

Ms Griffiths would have been better served by writing ~ 

“and the score of sworn warrior gesiths, noble companions of their dead lord, would get more magnificent baldrics, belts, for their swords.” 

(Italics and Strike-Through show my changes.)

As for a word like gemæcce or a name like Cian, I strongly recommend the author to help with the pronunciation by changing the spelling. 

That way gemæcce becomes Yematchee and Cian becomes Keyarn

Yes, I know it is not how the Anglo-Saxons wrote it, but given that spelling in those times was entirely at the whims of the local priest, I really don’t think that should be an issue. Especially for 21st-century people who speak modern English and will NOT pronounce G as if it is a Y, nor C as if it is a K. Four stars. 

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