The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is a historical novel set in 1066 “Angland.” Most history buffs recognize this year as the Norman Invasion of England by William the Conqueror, or rather, Duc Guillame of Normandy or “the bastard,” as the readers will encounter him in the pages of The Wake.
The story follows one Buccmaster of Holland, an egotistical man who repeatedly reminds us that he is a “socman with three oxgangs.” This notable achievement may seem obscure to the modern reader, but thankfully, Kingsnorth has provided a glossary and some historical notes at the back of the book. (Hint: an oxgang is a measure of land.)
Buccmaster is of the old ways, worshipping Wodan and Ing and Frigg, working his land, beating his wife, and disparaging his sons and laborers. He is the tough kind of man one would imagine encountering in 1066, a grandson of the Danes who invaded Angland themselves. But what makes Buccmaster an interesting narrator is his relationship with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith, a mythic blacksmith whose kidnapping and subsequent brutal retribution and escape gives Buccmaster courage to fight back against the French invaders. Weland Smith gives advice, insults him, and goads him into action on more than one occasion–the inner voice we all have, minus the graphic backstory.
But the triumph and originality of this novel is not the characters, rather the language itself. This books is not written in modern English, but rather a modified version of Old English, which the author calls “a shadow tongue.” This renders the book as slow reading for those of us who likely devour words at too quick of a pace. In some ways, these speedbumps frustrated me, but in the end, luxuriating in this brutal, no-win world with the Buccmaster was a delight. Due to the presence of the “shadow tongue,” there was no need of the typical tricks of historical fiction: no lengthy descriptions of ox-carts or how to make leather shoes. The simplicity of the relationships between people, hierarchies and land are laid bare. Returning to my own world with computers, cars, and trans-continental family structures seemed complicated and almost confusing in comparison.
One of the reasons I found this shadow tongue to be so effective is that it shapes not only the narrative, but requires the mind to read in an accent. As an American, I have only vague notions of the various accents that live in England. To read a book written like this conjures up a very specific accent, not just in the shape of which words being used, but in the rhythm of the line.
When we had seen this man before he had been proud he had been strong in his raedels and tales. an old man yes but he had the strength what all men moste haf if they is to hold others to them.
Kingsnorth notes that he uses only letters of the alphabet that would be used at that time (for instance, there is no “k” to be found in the text), but he also eschews capitalization and punctuation.
This brings up another aspect of this unique style that echoes the dark mythic quality lurking in the book. If this was written in modern English, I doubt it would have allowed the e.e. cummings-esque use of whitespace when Buccmaster argues with the disembodied voice of Weland Smith:
now does thu see
where has thu been I has been callan
it is not for thu to call
who is thu
thu named me
but I cannot see
Angland before England
As the story continues, loping along as Buccmaster collects a band of mostly well-intentioned men to fight the French invaders, Buccmaster drops more hints of his past, bathed in the brine of his bravado. The plot of this story isn’t complex, nor particularly important. For no matter what Buccmaster does, this was a tragic tale before it started. We all know what happened after the Norman invasion of 1066. The ruling class spoke French, while the lower classes spoke English. The Buccmaster’s version of “Angland” and what it meant to be an Englishman was a myth in of itself, as some of his comrades point out in the novel. Buccmaster was descended from Danish invaders who settled there, pushing out the Iceni natives, who had already fought and then intermarried with the Romans centuries before that. Buccmaster has created an “Englishness” that is unique only to his village, and, because of his distaste for Christianity, unique only to those that cling to the old ways. The parallels to modern nationalism are striking.
But in Buccmaster’s world of swords and fire, women have no place. His only love, his sister, is dead, but it isn’t until the end of the book that we find out what happened to her. His father is evil, and again, at the end of the book why Buccmaster refuses to speak of him. His wife, Odelyn, receives some lip service, but it is clear that while Buccmaster claims to love her, she is a responsibility and a dependent, not unlike his sons.
The world is against him, and in the early days of the book, before the invasion, when his farm is in need of harvesting, Buccmaster’s bravado is funny, almost endearing. We’ve all known a person or two who is puffed up on his own importance, and they are harmless. But after the invaders come, and Buccmaster becomes a leader of the resistance, his bravado and faith in the old ways come to darker and darker turns. Like the men of his camp, you wonder where he is going, if he is sane, and if you can trust anything he says.
Buccmaster bears witness to the destruction and occupation of his home, playing out the very fear that plagues us still. This phobia is what drives the Zombie Apocalypse entertainment of the last few years, all of the post-nuclear war fiction. As a larger community, we understand how interconnected we are, and how that makes us inter-dependent. To shut off the ability to build together means we no longer get technology like cars, space shuttles, or iPhones. One person can no longer “know” how to do his or her job when so much of the work relies on technology built on the shoulders of our ancestors. Ripping away that rug is terrifying, because we don’t really know where our water comes from. Are we really that much more informed about our lives than Buccmaster, who relies on stories from nearby villages for news?
How much bravado is required to get out of bed every day, to know that you are a “great man,” able to do good in the world after your world has been burnt to the ground? We all need a trick sometimes, and Buccmaster needs someone to think he is not “weac” like a “wifman.” (Though he did seem to appreciate his wifman when none of the men could figure out how to smoke and salt pork, as that was women’s work.)
But what Buccmaster lacks in humility, he makes up for with dark eloquence:
the wilde will be tacan from these fenns and the wilde will be tacan from in me for in efry man there is the wind and the water and his worc until he is tacan is to cepe the wild lands from the tamers
Ultimately, this is a tale not far off from our current Apocalyptic fiction craze. But, in some ways this is very different from the other books in the genre, because this war did happen, unsettling not just the people of England, but later shaping the conquest of the world. Kingsnorth appends the book with a note that 70% of the land in England is still owned by less than 1%, many of them descendants of those same Norman invaders. Hundreds of years later, the monarchy/government who conquered lands across the ocean, so the sun never set on the British Empire, was also run by the descendants of those same invaders. From the perspective of the Normans, this is a success story. From Buccmaster’s, it is the ultimate tragedy, an event that wiped out his way of life.
The Wake won a number of awards, and can be found in local libraries and bookstores. I strongly recommend seeking it out.