Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Paul Kingsnorth's novel The Wake is a work that takes seriously the importance of presenting a historical fiction in its world as accurately as possible. The opening is 1066, the year that William the Conqueror defeated the English King Harold at Hastings. To reflect the voice of his narrator, Kingsnorth created a "shadow" tongue -- a somewhat modernized version of Old English, using only words of Anglo-Saxon origin throughout. In the quote above, you can see the adherence to original spellings and there is little punctuation. At first glance, it is very foreign, but it takes surprisingly little time to familiarize yourself with the language and to fall into the rhythm of its cadence. If you've ever read Beowulf, it has the lyrical quality of the great epic.

1066 re-enactment by Guardian photojournalist Felix Clay
Aside from the brilliance of its linguistic choices, Kingsnorth creates a memorable character in Buccmaster of Holland (an area of eastern England known for its watery fenns), a man of status and wealth before the cataclysmic Norman invasion. Buccmaster loses everything, his wife, sons, house and land, and is forced to take to the forest as an outlaw. An adherent of the old ways and the gods who reigned before Christianity came to Britain, Buccmaster is determined to drive the French out  and take his revenge by killing every Frenchman he comes across. He becomes a "grene" man, hiding in the shadows of the forest, gathering his men, and stalking the Norman foe. He is led by the elusive and mythical Weland, whose mocking voice comes to him, guiding his actions, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in visions. Buccmaster feels himself "chosen" by the old gods to fight for England. His animosity for priests and the new Christ is almost equal to his hatred of his Norman overlords.
the bastard he cum north from the place where he had cwelled harald cyng and all the way he cum in blud his men they fucced all anglisc wifmen they cum to and cwelled them when done and all hams and tuns they beorned in ingenga fyr. the bastard cum up  to lundun fuccan and cwellan and beornan and the witan it seen what was cuman and it stepped baec and the last of angland that daeg was gan and we had a new cyng who spac not efen our tunge and ate not our foda and cursed us as hunds and curses us still
I don't want to give too much away about the novel or its narrator. It is profoundly disturbing in a way that historical novels often are not. Usually, we feel the comfortable distance between the past and present as something already finished -- antique, quaint, a lost world, decorated in the trappings of legend. And you would think that Kingsnorth's decision to create a foreign-looking language would serve only to heighten the sense that this historical moment is long past relevancy. Instead, it does the opposite. No matter how archaic the language, the circumstances of Buccmaster's dislocation and suffering, the violence described, the culpability of those bought by French gold, the betrayals, shock, and upheaval of Buccmaster's world are immediate and all too recognizable. It reminds me a lot of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, if that gives you an idea of its effect.

I highly recommend this novel for those who are interested in historical fiction, Anglo-Saxon England, or the unreliable narrator. The pleasure of the language is reason enough to read it, but the story itself is deeply engaging, not to mention, a bit terrifying.