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Why Is Pop Culture So Obsessed With the Middle Ages?

It is time, at long last, for me to admit publicly a dark secret that has haunted me since adolescence. In high school, I worked at a Renaissance Faire. Every weekend I woke up, put on my corset, and sold sherbet stuffed into oranges from a cart outside of a jousting arena.

I’m aware that Renaissance Faires have long been objects of ridicule, but I loved every moment of that job. I loved that each day was different, as actors improvised stories and even lowly Italian ice girls could occasionally join in on the action. I loved trading in the pettiness of daily teenage life for a world where I could feel brave and alluring, ruled not by lunchroom politics but by the clean, straightforward logic of the sword. And now, 15 years later, America seems to have jumped on the bandwagon as well. While I once huddled alone with The Mists of Avalon, the 1983 revisionist Arthurian legend, the ersatz Middle Ages have perhaps never loomed so large in the pop cultural imagination.  

 Over the past three years, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy-meets-Tudors books have taken the publishing world by storm. The fifth installation, published in 2011, had the highest first-day sales of any fiction book that year, and the most recent season of the HBO adaptation was the network’s second-most popular of all time. We have the CW’s hilarious teen-soap version of Mary Queen of Scots, Reign; before that, there were the Showtime dramas The Tudors and The Borgias. Hilary Mantel has won two Man Booker prizes for her novels about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which are currently being made into a BBC TV series. And now we have a new entrant into the canon: Nicola Griffith’s novel Hild.

Hild, which takes place in seventh-century Britain, is based on the historic figure now known as St. Hilda, who helped to convert Britain to Christianity. (A quick definition of terms: It is generally agreed that the Middle Ages extend from the 5th to the 15th century, bookended by Thomas Cromwell and then passing into the Renaissance.) The novel uses her scant biography (about half a page in a Christian history) to weave together an epic bildungsroman. We follow young Hild from the death of her father to her early career as a seer for King Edwin of Northumbria and her eventual evolution into a political actor in her own right. Griffith explains Hild’s mystical powers as a combination of attentiveness and keen intelligence, and limits the discussion of wights and witches to Hild’s less perceptive peers. It is a tasteful work of historical fiction, artfully dramatizing real events to recreate Hild’s seventh-century world.

Much like Martin in his fantastical Ice and Fire books, Griffith is fond of long descriptions of pastoral England’s ancient oaks and mossy hillsides, not to mention the cheeses, fresh-baked breads, and meads of the hall feasts. The book stretches to nearly 600 pages that contain plenty of battles, allegiances forged and broken, and a few sexual encounters. The illicit streak running through the book is the incestuous romantic tension at the heart of the story. (Incest, for some reason, is a common thread in medieval fiction. Game of Thrones gives us twins and lovers Jamie and Cersei, while much of the drama in The Mists of Avalon streams from another half-brother, half-sister coupling.) There's an air of inevitability around these couplings, a sense of “we had to"—as though the rigid societal rules of the Middle Ages, in limiting personal choice, also freed us to act as we secretly wished we could.

But as faithful as the setting and the plot points feel, the book's accuracy can't redeem its stilted narrative. Griffith provides detailed information on the political maneuvering of warring factions without bringing those factions to life, creating moments of confusing exposition. (It doesn’t help that names in early Middle Ages Britain were repetitive and lineal, meaning that Ceadwulf, Ceadfryth, and Ceadwin make up one indistinguishable family, not to mention Oeric and Osric, as well as not one but two Saxfryths.) Griffith avails herself of period vocabulary, a common device, but here it sometimes becomes irritatingly indiscriminate. Lords are thegns, elite warriors gesiths, which is all fine and well, but how evocative, really, is a “milch” cow?

Then there’s the problem of Hild. A seer, a killer, a silent observer with seemingly supernatural powers, she constantly bemoans how unlikeable and frightening most people find her. But to the reader, Hild is likeable—too much so. She seems never to act rashly, barring a short-lived bout of adolescent sexual angst (quickly alleviated by a curvaceous slave girl). Her “flaws,” when they appear, include traits such as meting out overly harsh punishments to raping, murdering bandits. We see flashes of the emotions she restrains, but never a flash of true humanity. She is noble, dignified, thoughtful; she doesn’t childishly engage her enemies, even though she is a child herself.

But despite the saintliness of its protagonist, Hild is not without its pleasures. The Romans—here called redcrests—are gone, influence is up for grabs, and Christian priests are still duking it out with the pagans for control. Will King Edwin remain in power? What is Hild’s devious mother—one of the more interesting characters in the book—plotting? Why is Hild hopping into bed with a dirty peasant? While not exactly a page-turner, the book’s narrative momentum chugs pleasantly along. The book is well researched, and Griffith even provides a map, a pronunciation guide, and a glossary to help make sense of the text.

But she leans too heavily on historical reality, expecting it to breathe life into the characters that inhabit it. There’s plenty of the unremarkable, day-to-day action that distinguishes modern medieval fiction from epic predecessors such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which stirred up interest in the Middle Ages back in the 19th century. Hild does her share of eating and weaving and daydreaming and watching birds (so much bird watching!), which gives a sense of the rhythm of daily life. But she also does less agonizing and rebelling and pondering than the modern reader might expect. “Fate goes ever as it will,” these characters often say, and the defeatism creeps into the book: we know, ultimately, that Hild will found her abbey, and the novel lets her mosey in that direction without any serious doubts about where she will end up.

This is the magic and the curse of historical fiction: we always know how it will end. The Tudors and Wolf Hall must ultimately come to roughly the same place, but the writer can hope to make the reader forget those foregone conclusions, at least for a little while. That is one reason the Middle Ages appeal to us so strongly in its various fictional incarnations. It is close enough that we know the whats, but far enough removed that the whys can still make us wonder. Today, of course, our culture is mediated by technology that most people don't fully understand and can't fully control. The Middle Ages were simpler and more straightforward. Back then, we're told, you could just chop someone’s head off and be done with it. The world of Hild is a kind of violent, drunken antidote to the digital age, a form of wish fulfillment for the Office Space set. Old and new fans of the genre will appreciate its feast scenes, the intrigue in the queen’s chambers, and the idyllic vision of early Britain. But this book, and any sequels that may or may not be planned, would do well to linger less on recreating seventh-century England and focus more on excavating Hild’s humanity from beneath the centuries.

Cara Parks is a freelance writer who has written for Slate, the New York Times, and Aeon.