Review of The Song of Hild by Vibeke Vasbo, translated by Gaye Kynoch

Human sacrifice; the belief in wights; Latin. Anglo-Saxon England may seem like a time far removed from our own, but in The Song of Hild, Rachel Fennell encounters a novelised world that, in its treatment of women, remains uncomfortably close to home. 

It is 633 A.D and the Northumbrian king, Edwin, has fallen in battle. With her husband held captive by King Penda of Mercia, and enemy forces closing in, Edwin’s heavily pregnant daughter-in-law, Hildeburh, flees for her life. But when her travelling companions are raped and slaughtered, Hild finds herself the sole survivor. Frightened, alone, and in labour, she crawls into a cave and gives birth to twin boys, Hundfrid and Wilbrord.

Book cover of The Song of HildThus begins The Song of Hild, a novel based on the extraordinary life of Saint Hild: mother, wife, queen, and eventual Abbess of Whitby. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous and shifting political and religious landscape of seventh century Anglo-Saxon England, Hild must navigate the difficult and often brutal world of men in order to ensure the survival of her children and herself. Social and racial tensions across the land are only exacerbated by the rise of Christianity in a deeply pagan country, but it is Hild’s unwavering faith in the new religion that gives her something to cling to in the darkest moments of her life – of which there are many.

Vasbo does not shy away from depicting the cruel reality of life in a realm of kings and conquest. Women suffer rape, domestic abuse, and accusations of witchcraft. Children are bartered in marriage, used as political hostages to ensure the compliance of neighbouring kingdoms, or murdered. War brutalises human feeling, yet it is a constant presence in the narrative, one that shapes nations, lives, and the stories the characters tell each other. But in a sprawling saga about men and their battle for land, money, and even salvation, it is left to the women to realise that they have been telling the wrong stories all along:

‘War and battle and blood- that’s all they’re ever about!’ said Freawaru. ‘And shining helmets and garnet-studded swords and pillaged loot and kiss my arse! We ought to stop singing them.’

In many ways this is a story about the art of storytelling and the narratives we do and do not tell, believe or reject. In a meticulously researched novel stuffed full of men, historical or otherwise, however, it is the story of Hild and the women around her which shines through. Women are peace-weavers, healers, leaders of their communities, and integral to the spread of Christianity. The book is at its strongest, though, in detailing the smaller delights these women enjoy, whether it is their joy in learning Latin, the pleasure of sex, or the new and complex patterns they choose to weave when creating a garment. The language is lush and unhurried and Vasbo clearly relishes the opportunity to world-build a place that is at once so different and yet so similar to our own time. Elephants and apricots are equally as exotic and strange, human sacrifice is practiced, and wights replace babies with changelings, but many of the challenges and dangers Hild and the other women in the novel face such as childbirth, violence, and misogyny are still problems we grapple with today.

This is a dense tale, in a period of history unfamiliar to many. As Hild traverses the land meeting a historical who’s who of kings, monks, bishops, poets, and saints, the huge roster of characters can be difficult to keep track of. Royal families marry and intermarry across generations, leading to moments of comical complication:

To Hild’s surprise, Ebba didn’t see her as the former wife of her brother’s slayer, nor as the daughter of the son of the brother of her father Aedelfred’s slayer. She saw her as daughter of the son of the brother of her mother Acha, and thus they came from the same family line.

But at its heart is a powerful story of love, forgiveness, and survival. Hild is a saint with flaws, but in her faults we see her humanity and her compassion. Though separated from us by thirteen centuries, her song of joy in peace and tolerance between men still resounds powerfully today.

The Song of Hild, by Vibeke Vasbo, was first published in Denmark in 1991. It has now been translated into English by Gaye Kynoch, and is published in the UK by Sacristy Press, RRP £12.99. 

About Rachel Fennell

Rachel Fennell profile pictureRachel Fennell is a PhD student in the Department of English Studies. Her current research investigates representations of the Sleeping Beauty motif, considering the cultural and medical implications of the comatose woman in conjunction with Medieval and Early Modern imaginative fictions. She tweets as @FeministFennell.

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