THE Council of Whitby, in 633, is one of the landmarks of the history of the Church in England. Its decision to accept the Roman form of the tonsure — and, indeed, the dating of Easter which was followed on the Continent — secured the survival of the English Church as part of universal Christendom.
At the centre of these events, so the story is told, is Hilda of Whitby, remembered in the Church of England calendar on 19 November. Her story is often reduced to her leadership of a double monastery, and the much beloved tale of how she taught tongue-tied Caedmon to sing in praise of God the Creator. But what happened before that?
The Song of Hild was a bestseller in Denmark, and is now available for the first time in English. I found it a healthy antidote for those who like their Celtic Christianity cosy and fluffy. What we have here is a world that is not cosy and fluffy by any stretch of the imagination. Life in seventh-century England is shaped by rival kingdoms at war with each other, where living and dying do not come easy, where men die in battle and women in childbirth, where women are raped and villages pillaged. And it is a time when it still has to be proven that the new God, that of the Christians, is indeed worth following, where the old customs compete with new Christian practices.
The Song of Hild is no book for the fainthearted. The opening scene graphically describes the later abbess giving birth to twins alone in a field. And there is no childbirth without blood. Later, we find her debating not with the theologians at Whitby, but demanding wergeld for a girl who has been raped and brutally killed.
The main character of this novel is, indeed, flesh and blood. And she does not just give birth; this saint has sex, and plenty of it. For some, this may be difficult to stomach; for others, it may suggest that what is now a comfortably established Church in post-Christendom had very different origins, and we could ask questions about what the forces are that the Christian faith has to contend with today. Graphic descriptions of a beloved saint imagined as a human being are never told for the sake of iconoclasm, but the author uses extrapolation to show that behind every saint there is a human being with a complex life story.
Copyright Annamaria AnhaltVibeke Vasbo, the author of THE Danish bestseller Hildas Sang (translated as The Song of Hild)
The Song of Hild is by no means a biography of Hild. There are many characters, places, and sub-narratives, which are skilfully woven together. The publisher has helpfully provided a list of the main characters and places, which makes it easier to navigate through the complex story of these turbulent times.
Vasbo is a great storyteller. Try, for example, King Edwin and his chief priest, Coifi, debating whether they should accept the God of the Christians. Or the chapter “There was a little mouse”, which describes Hild’s supper with King Penda, the heathen king accused of having murdered her first husband and the father of her sons, whose death is yet unavenged. Penda, whom she marries, is her destiny: a king who remains unconvinced of his wife’s religion and prefers to follow the old ways.
The complex story of Hild’s and Penda’s relationship is central to the book, and symbolic of the tension between the old faith and the new; but also of Hild’s struggle between her position as queen, wife, and mother, and her other calling in the service of God: the woman who sits at the feet of Paulinus and Aidan, and leads her monastery with shrewdness and wisdom.
Hild’s life changes when her husband, Penda, takes a second wife. The relationship between the two women, both Christian, rightfully married to the king and rightfully jealous of the other, is skilfully observed, and illustrates what it means to live in a time where Christianity is clearly part of life, but does not yet shape all aspects of life, personal and political.
The Song of Hild is a work of historical fiction. Is it a work of Christian fiction? There is no indication that it was intentionally conceived as such. And what makes Christian fiction Christian? There are clearly echoes of the Bible, not only in the Psalms, which are central to Hild’s life of faith, but also more subtly: for example, in the manner of her first husband’s death at the hands of Penda.
At the heart of The Song of Hild, however, is not only the beloved tale of long-lost and longingly remembered — or, perhaps, romanticised — Celtic Christianity, but the question what it means for England to be a Christian country, then and now, and how hard-won this was — something, perhaps, we should not let go of lightly.
Dr Natalie K. Watson is a writer, editor, and theologian who lives in Peterborough.
The Song of Hild by Vibeke Vasbo, translated by Gaye Kynoch, is published by Sacristy Press at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-910519-86-8.
THE SONG OF HILD — SOME QUESTIONS
- That Jesus loves people is described as “shocking”. Why is this the case?
- Does the spread of Christianity as it is represented by Vasbo contribute to the spread of peace, or contribute to ongoing violence, in seventh-century Britain?
- What difficulties do baptised people in the novel have in letting go of superstition?
- “No one could grasp that kind of timespan.” Why do the inhabitants of Britain have such difficulty with the concept of the passage of time?
- In what ways is the violence in The Song of Hild represented as a male trait? Are there exceptions to these gender roles?
- “Where sex enters, sense leaves.” Does the novel show this to be true?
- “We have to render the gospel in terms they can understand.” In what ways do church leaders amend the Bible’s teachings for the society they find?
- What different sorts of leaders appear in The Song of Hild? Which do you think are good?
- What concerns does Abbess Hild have about the way in which religious education was delivered in Britain?
- What does Hild get from her faith in Jesus over the course of the novel? Is it always a comfort?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 February, we will print extra information about our next book. This is The Librarian by Salley Vickers. It is published by Penguin Books at £8.99 (£8.10); 978-0-241-33023-4.
At the age of 24, in 1958, Sylvia Blackwell moves from Swindon to the small Wiltshire town of East Mole. She is there to become the children’s librarian in the local library, but finds herself increasingly entangled in the complex small-town politics and prejudices of the post-war era. This is particularly so after she begins an affair with the married Dr Bell. The Librarian is about human nature and relationships, social mobility, and the politics of education. It is most especially about the importance of reading books, and finishes with a list of “Recommended reading from East Mole Library”.
Born in Liverpool in 1948 to committed socialist parents, Salley Vickers won a scholarship to St Paul’s Girls’ School, and later read English at Newnham College, Cambridge. She taught English Literature at Stanford, Oxford, and the Open University, and worked as a psychoanalyst for the NHS, before turning to writing full-time. Including her first, Miss Garnet’s Angel, she has written more than ten novels, and continues to lecture widely. Much of her work focuses on the interrelations of religion, psychology, and the arts. Vickers lives in London and Cambridge, and has two adult sons and two grandchildren.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
March: The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes
April: With the End in Mind by Kathryn Mannix