The debut novel of British writer Paul Kingsnorth and a work of unique linguistic ambition, The Wake (2014) is a story that picks its way through the ashes and wreckage of England after the Norman invasions of 1066. When Buccmaster of Holland, a surly and domineering landowner from the English fens, finds his home and family destroyed by French “ingengas,” he sets out to claim his revenge. In Robin Hood fashion, Buccmaster picks up a small gang of guerilla fighters who adopt the English forests as both home and weapon, committing small acts of resistance wherever they can. But Buccmaster’s dispossession and troubled mind lead his band not to storied victory, but rather to unrest and infighting, and soon even their bravest and most reckless acts are rendered totally insignificant in the medieval post-apocalypse of Norman reign.
The Wake seems at first an impermeable piece of work. Kingsnorth wrote it in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an invented hybrid of Old English and legible Modern English. With barely recognizable spelling and grammar, no capitalization, and hardly any punctuation to speak of, the text looks totally foreign at the outset. The first chapter begins: “the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.” Kingsnorth’s prose requires a rhythmic diligence on the part of the reader, a willingness to slow down and infer – in some cases generate – a coherence to the narrative. But after ten or twenty pages, once you’ve picked up on the rules of the syntax and learned some vocabulary (there’s a semi-helpful glossary in the back), the task becomes doable. In the end, Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” is rewarding: it allows for a more fully immersive historical experience than contemporary English would have, framing the reader’s experience in a near approximation of the sounds and words that would have framed a medieval Briton’s experiences, such that the reader is more acutely aware of just how different Buccmaster’s world was from their own.
Painstakingly researched, the novel is undeniable in its rich and authentic historical texture. The dialect, which uses almost exclusively words in our lexicon that evolved from Old English, is the product of three years of Kingsnorth’s development. The history, geography and demography of the book are wonderfully detailed and true to the history that modern scholarship has been able to establish: The Wake’s bibliography is nearly as long as its glossary. Kingsnorth deftly incorporates not only the events of the Norman conquest, but also elements of traditional English folklore, agricultural practices, festivals and traditions, and even Medieval England’s version of pop culture. A remote but crucial character in the novel, Hereward “the Wake” was a real historical figure, and is something of a fabled celebrity within the text.
Though the reader never meets him, Hereward serves as a foil to the caustic and brooding Buccmaster. Stories of his victories against the French circulate around the holt, and Buccmaster reacts to his success with bitterness and scorn. This is not much of a change as far as Buccmaster’s worldview is concerned: from the beginning of the book, he treats the rest of the world with a hateful impatience, referring to other men constantly as “esols” (donkeys) and “hunds.” A keeper of the old Norse faith, he disdains the “scepe” in his village for blindly following Christianity and pits himself constantly against his community and even his own family. Disagreeable at the outset, loss and violence soon render Buccmaster as psychologically broken as the land he calls home. He communes (or believes he does) with the spirit of Wayland the Smith, a character in Norse folklore who was to the Old English something akin to the patron saint of revenge. Wayland’s guidance is characteristically inseparable from Buccmaster’s own stream of consciousness, serving eventually as a mere projection of his crescendoing paranoid delusions.
But while Buccmaster’s slow unraveling is an intriguing spin on the traditionally less cerebral historical epic, it often proves a gnarly obstacle to the reading process. Kingsnorth already asks a lot of his reader by presenting a new and confusing dialect: adding a main character with whom it is difficult, even impossible, to empathize makes reading his book feel at times more like a chore than a pleasure. Buccmaster finds a way to be at odds with literally every character he meets. “all saes no,” he laments to the imagined Wayland with more than a hint of juvenile fatalism, “all is agan me.” The historical complexity, while rewarding, also serves as a detracting factor to the flow of the narrative. It is difficult to invest in the central conflict (hopeless though Buccmaster’s plight may be) when the various intersectional clashes of daily life also come to play on the main stage. Old gods versus new, father versus son, “green men” versus organized soldiers: all come to a head, and none reach any satisfying level of resolution. In his effort to bring the world of over a thousand years ago to life in vivid color, Kingsnorth favors detail over direction, at the expense of the narrative.
While The Wake is by no means a page turner, there is undeniably nothing like it. It takes hold of you in a way you have never been taken hold of; it offers unexpected and rewarding nuggets of historical trivia; and it is, from time to time, eerily beautiful. Buccmaster’s dreams are the most entrancing, stocked with imagery from English folklore and depicted with a grace and euphony particular to this conglomerate dialect. “on a great dun a hwit stag runs,” begins one vision, “the dun is high higher than all things… all around it the sound of great hwit eas foaman ofer clifs that falls down down into the blaec of the world.” If you succeed in breaking through the language barrier, The Wake offers a haunting, immediate and brutal experience, given over occasionally to moments of poetry whose written words are as strange as wonderful as the world they illustrate.