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Episode 329

Early England

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Posted by Mary Ann

I just have to say that I loved “Hild” for a couple of reasons.

The first is what a triumph of imagination this book is. The real person “Hild” is based on, St. Hilda of Whitby, an obscure seventh century saint who the modern world only knows about because the Venerable Bede, a monk who chronicled the events of Britain’s conversion to Christianity, wrote a few lines about her. Nicola Griffith took those few lines and built an entire world around her character, who becomes in Griffith’s telling a strong, sensitive, astute and wiley young woman.

The other thing she did was recreate the world of seventh-century Britain in ways that made me want to jump into the way-back machine and leave immediately. She did METICULOUS research for this story; she would spend days on trying to figure out which instrument a musician in the court of Edwin, the king Hild serves under, might have played – a harp or a lyre? Most people wouldn’t know the difference, but she wanted to get it right. This was a brutal time, but it was also an era when humans connected with the natural world in a way I fear we have left behind forever.

Griffith also very effectively shows how the coming of the Roman version of Christianity to Britain was intertwined with the politics of the age. There were Christians in Britain before the representatives of the Roman church showed up. There were still worshipers of the German/Teutonic gods. But they were swept away in the organized Roman church’s determination to consolidate power in Britain.

Both of these points bring to mind two of my favorite books of all time, Hilary Mantel’s fabulous, fabulous novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”

These two novels, both of which won the Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, are simply some of the best books I have ever read and am pretty sure I will ever read.

Mantel took the historical character of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s political fixer, and turned a person most people think of as a villain into a living, breathing, completely fascinating human being.

In “Wolf Hall” she portrays Cromwell’s family, his upbringing, and the unlikely chain of events that put him, a commoner, at the right hand of the king. In the second book we see Cromwell walking the knife edge of mortality as he orchestrates the undoing of Henry’s wife, Anne Boleyn, who, as you recall, got her wifely job by pushing aside Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife. Thomas Cromwell understands everything about power, but he is a living, breathing human being in Mantel’s telling.

Every single character in these books is a vivid creation. And the world Mantel re-creates – in her case 16th century England, is so vivid with life and color, it makes our modern world, with all its conveniences and technological achievements, seem like a pretty pale place. In “Bring Up the Bodies,” the pace accelerates, as the King becomes progressively more unhinged and Cromwell, who is seen as a person trying to reform England, walks the knife edge while trying to do his will.

Now I’m going to move back to life in Britain, even before Hild, and mention a couple of mystery writers who have used the history of Britain – the very early history – as a backdrop for their books.

The first is a mystery series I have just stumbled on, and I am really enjoying it. The first book is called “Medicus,” and the author is British writer Ruth Downie.

This series features a Roman physician, Gaius Petreius Ruso, has been posted to the far nether reaches of the Roman empire to work as a doctor on in a frontier military town (modern-day Chester, England). Ruso is fleeing a lot of unhappy history by moving to Britain, and he’s not happy to be there – it’s cold! The natives are restless! But as you follow him through the ins and outs of his daily rounds, you get a vivid picture of life in Roman Britain. Ruso is wry, funny and is that classic detective hero; he’s drawn in against his will into some dire situations; he doesn’t exactly relish being a hero, but he is an upright guy.

Another writer who brings the past alive is Peter Tremayne. Peter Tremayne is the pen name of Peter Berresford Ellis, who was a journalist and scholar of Celtic studies before he began writing mystery novels. To date, he’s written 90 books! Though he’s written nonfiction books about the lost world of the Celtics, people adore his Sister Fidelma mysteries.

These books are set in the 7th century, but seventh century Ireland. The main character is Sister Fidelma, a woman who is both a member of a religious community and a legal advocate in the ancient law courts of Ireland. One of the interesting aspects of these books is their illumination of society in Ireland before England conquered it; it had its own sophisticated system of laws. Women had significant rights and status in this system.

Like the Roman doctor, Fidelma’s position puts her in a great place to get into the guts of the centers of power in this society, which is a convenient spot for her when she’s dispatched to solve the mysteries that drive the plots of these books. In these books, as in “Hild,” the conflict between the early version of Christianity in Ireland and the Roman version often occupies center stage.

These books are so popular, they have inspired their own fan club, the International Sister Fidelma Society. I would like to start a similar club for Hild. Can I sign you up?

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, which was a pen name for the linguist-scholar Edith Pargeter. These 21 books, also mysteries, are set in 12th century England during an exceedingly tumultuous time in English history. Brother Cadfael, who was a soldier and a sailor before he became a monk, has a lot of skills that help him navigate the violence and unrest generated by a civil war, as two would-be monarches struggled for England’s crown. Plus, he solves mysteries. Plus, he frequently helps out star-crossed lovers. A stand-up guy. Millions have enjoyed these books, as well as the television programs produced for British TV, starring the great British actor Derek Jacobi.

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