The OF Blog: Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

the night was clere though i slept i seen it.  though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.  when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.  a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.  none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum.  the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paul Kingsnorth's debut novel, The Wake, perhaps has the least-traditional history of any of the 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted works.  Originally a crowdfunded novel, The Wake is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  This period, until recent decades, had long been dismissed as being a mostly seamless transition from English to Norman rule, from Old English to Old French being the language of court and literature.  Yet evidence, ranging from folk tales to archaeological records, has revealed that there was at least a decade's long simmering rebellion against William the Bastard/William the Conqueror's takeover.  These rebellions, many of which were based in the fens of East Anglia, inspired tales of doomed heroes like Hereward, later given the appellation of "the Wake" in the 14th century.  Certainly in the early 21st century, as we bear witnesses daily via social media and television to struggles of downtrodden peoples to retain at least a shred of dignity in the face of oppressors that seek to wipe out their very languages and cultures, there is something of an echo of these 11th century "last stands" against the rising tide of Norman occupation and dispossession of English landowners.

The Wake is a historical novel that seeks to recreate the mood and feel of these struggles following 1066.  Set mostly in the fen country where the Isle of Ely rebels fought, it is a first-person narrative presented by an ahistorical character named Buccmaster of Holland.  The setting itself has a lot of potential for social commentary about disproportionate land ownership (a regrettable legacy of the Norman Conquest) and freedom fighters, but Kingsnorth makes the bold decision to create a "shadow language," an English that is stripped of French and Latin-derived cognates and which often uses a slightly-modernized form of Old English orthography, to narrate Buccmaster's tale.  This is a tricky endeavor, as much of the narrative depends upon the reader being ready to put in the necessary syntax parsing in order to make this enterprise work.  Use too many archaisms or utilize them incorrectly and the entire affair risks collapsing under the weight of its artifice.

However, Kingsnorth adroitly uses this synthetic language to great affect.  In particular, there are instances of clever double entendres, such as the use of "waecend" in the prologue quoted above.  There is the meaning of "the awakened," but it also bears the sense of "watchful," of someone who is aware of his or her surroundings.  Buccmaster is certainly "aware" of what has transpired in England; he is caught between several social tidal waves.  He observes the "old religion," seeing the old English gods in the trees and fens of his native land.  Many of his discourses are related to this connection he perceives between nature and religion, between home and hearth.  The language he uses brings out these connections more readily than any modern idiom would.  As he and others gather in the margins to ready for a final fight against the Norman trespassers, his reflections on his passing world add a sense of gravitas to the situation.

Buccmaster is more than just a passive observer whose reminiscences about the old ways illustrate a fading society.  He is a fighter, possibly touched with madness, and it is the complexities of his character, interlaced with his tales of what the "frenc" have done and how so many are falling in their fight to preserve their lives, that make The Wake such a fascinating read.  The following passage, from near the end of the story, demonstrates well Kingsnorth's ability to imbue the coming calamity with a sense of urgency without ever abandoning the Anglo-Saxon origins of his synthetic "shadow tongue":

well there is naht else to do then but tac my sweord and use it as great weland had telt me to cwell them what has torn down all that we is in angland.  this time grimcell is not fast enough he is not locan not thincan i wolde tac him on and no other cums betweon him and welands sweord.  it gan cwic into him with a sound lic the cuttan of mete undor his sculdor and he calls out and locs at the blaed what has gan right through and cum out his baec and he wolde sae sum thing but his muth is all blud.  i locs in his eages what is not agan me now not agan me no mor and i pulls out the blaed hard and he calls then lic a cilde and falls hard on to the fyr and for a sceorte moment he writhes lic an ael on the glaif and then he mofs no mor

well then there is all callan and runnan and roaran and annis mofs lic she wolde go to him but i tacs welands great sweord what is all ofer with his blud and i sae thu (p. 383)

There is a powerful economy of description here.  Whereas a "modern" writer might try to convey this warrior having a sword run through him with a metaphor, Kingsnorth's Buccmaster recounts this with poetic redundancies.  The sword goes quick into Weland with a sound akin to the cutting of meat, yes, but it is the "not agan" and "not agan" that reinforces the deadliness of this encounter.  This is followed with "all callan and runnan and roaran," which gives the sense of a burst of immediate, helter-skelter action.  In using this, Kingsnorth hearkens back not so much to Romantic accounts of medieval battle but to descriptions older than Mallory's Le Mort d'Arthur, to a time when such repetition comprised essential parts of heroic ballads.  Kingsnorth recreates these motifs faithfully without ever making his narrative feel like a dull xerox of medieval legends.

The Wake certainly is one of the more original of the longlisted Booker Prize nominees.  Its prose is challenging, yet once the reader becomes accustomed to its quaint rhythms, it becomes a very lyrical story, one which utilizes several narrative tricks not usually explored in novel form.  Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a surprisingly complex character, one whose thoughts and actions resonate with readers well after his final words are spoken.  The themes, especially that of resistance in the face of an inevitable defeat, are presented well and are universal enough to address issues beyond those of late 11th century English society.  Taken as a whole, The Wake is an impressive effort and certainly justifies further consideration from the Booker jury.

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