Picture the scene: an alien world is invaded by a marauding army. There is a battle and the natives are crushed; the incomers then use their vastly superior technology and weaponry to keep them oppressed. Despite this a resistance movement grows amongst the locals people, and heroes begin to emerge who vow to free their lands from the cruel oppressors. It’s a familiar story and one we’ve seen in a variety of contexts, both fiction and non-fiction. It also forms the basis of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, but here it is given a distinct twist by being set ten centuries in the past. The country being invaded is England, and those attacking it are the Normans under the leadership of their king William the Bastard.
The Wake is the story of one man’s reaction to this invasion, and his attempts to fight back. Kingsnorth’s narrator is Buccmaster of Holland, a landowner living in the fens of Lincolnshire. He is a man with some status when we first meet him in early 1066 – he has his own house and land, a family and several servants. Despite this Buccmaster is not an easy man to like, and I find it difficult to call him the book’s hero. As well as beating his wife he is a cruel and overbearing father to his two sons. Buccmaster is also excessively proud of his status, treating everyone else in his village with contempt. He believes very clearly that he was meant for some greater purpose, and as the Norman invasion takes place Buccmaster is thrown headlong into it. Losing everything he has he is forced to become an outlaw, hiding in the woods and eventually leading a band of men in an attempt to push back the invading Normans.
That’s the plot summary at its most basic, and on its own would be enough to intrigue me to read the book. But Kingsnorth does so much more with this rich source material. First, the character of Buccmaster is so intriguing. Reading the book it is hard to like him, and yet he is also incredibly compelling. This is partly down to his burning sense of his own destiny; as readers, we want to see where it will take him, however misguided his actions and his instincts may be. As the book progresses our anxieties about the direction that Buccmaster is taking grows; and the climax when it comes shows that we were right to be afraid.
The success of The Wake is also down to the language that Kingsnorth uses. As he says in a fascinating afterword to the book, ‘I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language… To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.‘ To get around this problem Kingsnorth invents what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a language largely drawn from Old English but with changes in spelling to ensure the book remains readable. His aim all the way through is to ensure that the flow of the book is not interrupted unnecessarily; and in this he succeeds brilliantly. There’s also very little punctuation, and yet I was surprised by how little I missed it. This makes the book a very intimate one, and you hear Buccmaster’s voice as clearly as the ring of a church bell.
It takes a little while to get used to this new language, but it’s surprising how quickly you pick it up. The language has a beautiful simplicity, and descriptions are bold, concentrating on colours and drawing heavily on the natural world that would have been such a key part of Buccmaster’s life. In this passage from near the beginning of the book Buccmaster describes what he sees one morning when leaving his house:
i cum out of my hus early in the daeg the grasses is wet with dew lic hwit silc ofer my land the sunne risan to the heofon the fugols callan the treows wacan all is fresh and grene and open no man is to be seen or hierde only the greatness of the fenn and all its lif
These simple, deep associations give the book much of its power. The language used also forces the reader to slow down, meaning that the images become more brightly embedded on your imagination, and much more powerful. One particular section that stayed with me is when Buccmaster and his werod (‘war gang’) arrive at Stamford (‘stan ford’) where they are stunned to witness the beginnings of a Norman castle under construction:
we has hierde of the frenc of what they done and sum of their yfel we has seen with our eages but this is a thing from an other world from a blaec place from hel itself. naht has there efer been in angland lic this naht efer in the world and standan there i feels we is lost all lost now for efer.
we will tac them i saes we will tac them slit them cwell them all these frenc fuccers we will beorn their fuccan torr it will beorn so high that the bastard him self will see the heofon alight with the fyr
none saes naht to this only locs on at the wound what is bledan as we locs
I found the group’s shock at this new construction very eerie, and their fear reminded me how alien and remote this world really is. Kingsnorth’s England is a country where the magical seems just out of reach, where mythical beings and gods are believed to inhabit the deepest forests and depths of the fens. There is a tension between these old ways and the more recently introduced Christian church, represented by Buccmaster himself. Raised by his grandfather to believe in the old, pre-Christian gods, Buccmaster’s beliefs lead to increasing conflict as the book progresses. We learn a great deal about him and his upbringing, even if early on in the book he resists revealing much. As it turns out, Buccmaster’s background and his past are a great deal more complex than they first appear. By the book’s end we are aware that we have witnessed a very old story indeed, perhaps one of the oldest.
The Wake is a singular read, and for that reason alone well worth acquiring. The closest equivalent I can think of is another favourite book written in an invented language, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. That book is about the aftermath of some immense and opaque atomic disaster, and how those who have survived it begin to rebuild their world. The Wake deals with a different man-made apocalypse, but one with similarly far-reaching implications. In his afterword Kingsnorth argues that we are still feeling some of the aftershocks even today, close to one thousand years later. Given the immense power and character that his book has, it’s difficult to disagree with him.
Paul Kingsnorth’s website is at www.paulkingsnorth.net