This is the strangest and most powerful novel I’ve read in a long time. The strangeness and power come from its eerie, invented, ghost of early English, positioned some way between the impenetrableness of Anglo-Saxon and the Englishes more familiar to the eye from the medieval period. Even though this is completely inauthentic, because Paul Kingsnorth made it up, the language creates authenticity in telling the story because it is completely separate from modern usage, modern thinking, modern culture and ideas. It uses the only letters that existed in 1066, and only those words that could have existed at that time as well. He doesn’t get it quite right all the time. Occasionally he uses a very modern syntax, something like ‘I don’t need this right now’, that jumps into the eleventh century with a clumsy splash, but most of the time this language experiment works perfectly.
It also slows you down. I’m a speedy reader; I hop and slide over lines catching the gist and drift without paying proper attention to every word. I found reading The Wake hard work at first, because I was forced to look at every word if I was to understand. The vocabulary is small, but my goodness it’s important because each word can alter meaning drastically if you don’t pay it proper attention.
The whole point of inventing a language that might have existed in 1066 is that the invasion of England by the Normans and their takeover of the country was a catastrophe for English culture. The Wake tells how the Norman Yoke arrived in the voices of those who were crushed under their new foreign overlords, who were demanding gold and building freakishly tall castles to keep an eye on the population who resisted the crushing.
Buccmaster of Holland is a Fenland farmer whose sons have disappeared fighting for Harold at Sanlac (Hastings to you and me), and his wife and farm have been burned because he would not pay gold to the ‘frenc’. He turns outlaw, collecting some men (and a boy) on the way, and manages to kill (‘cwell’) a few Normans over several years of hand-to mouth banditry. His crisis comes when he encounters Bishop Turold on his way to negotiate with Hereweard, the ‘grene man’ in the Fens who is leading the guerrilla resistance. Buccmaster is a wayward, lying, dark, merciless creation, and has a terrifying connection with Weland Smith and the old gods, who come to him in visions to drive him further along his way as the ‘ceosan one’.
Reading Kingsnorth’s early English is a little like reading a language you once knew and have almost forgotten. It becomes familiar, and obvious, quite quickly, and thinking of ‘heofen’ as the word for ‘sky’ soon seems perfectly natural. The echoes in the words Kingsnorth chooses make the subliminal links across the borderline between the English we know and this English that might once have been. ‘Cilde’ can mean a child, or a youth, or a man (think ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’), and this matters, since young Tofe, the half-Danish boy who travels with Buccmaster and Grimcell the former cottar, is the cilde with the swine, and he grows into a man during the novel’s course.
‘frogs saes this cilde tofe then and he is laughan frogs he saes locan up at me. He is walcan along with us as we is goan through the holt we is talcan he is lystnan and callan and ciccan his swine to mof them before him.’
The boy laughs and listens as they walk through the wood and talk about the French, and he kicks his pigs to get them moving: it’s perfectly obvious, really.
It’s also hypnotic and grim. This is a simple and unprotected society now being brutalised by murder, rape and horse-riding ‘cnights’ who have faces of ‘style’ and shaved heads: they are abominations compared to the joyful celebratory native English life we see on ‘litha’s day’, a very much needed part of the novel that gives relief for characters and readers. Buccmaster’s secret hidden past fuels his murderous and desperate flight from the frenc, but this aspect of the novel is another modern intrusion. Kingsnorth gives Buccmaster modern sensibilities about something he’s done that simply seem improbable for a man of his era and beliefs. I’m dodging spoilers here, so all I can safely say is that weighting his actions with anachronistic moral judgements doesn’t work for me.
But in this large and solid novel, lumbering to a gallop and a crashing, explosive ending, none of that pettifogging detail matters. This is an important novel in the very specialist niche of stories written in invented languages. Riddley Walker (1980) by Russell Hoban is the classic example, and The Wake shares its power. It’s a dark romance without romanticism, where the knights on horseback are a brutal, colonising enemy of traditional peasant life. They make a statement about might and right in war and peace that we haven’t seen since T H White’s The Once and Future King.
UPDATE! The Wake won the inaugural Book of the Year award from the British bookselling trade magazine, The Bookseller, on 11 May 2015.
Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (2014, Unbound) ISBN 9781908717863, £16.99