Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: An Interim Reading

Gilman 1I’ve struggled hard to get through Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. I’ve already written about her seventeenth-century historical novellas starring Ben Jonson, which I consider completely brilliant. Cloud & Ashes is different, in that its setting is pre-industrial, magical and timeless, rather than in the English court of James I and VI. Its three constituent stories (one is short, one is middling, and the other is a novel) are not coherent narratives, but tell episodes from within a world that she first published in Moonwise, and assorted standalone short stories. They are fantastical, linguistically dazzling, and bloody hard to read. The cover blurbs compare Gilman to James Joyce, and I can see why: this volume is challenging, ignores the conventions, and forces the reader along a path that doesn’t so much lead to enlightenment as a cloud of unknowing and bewilderment.

Cloud & Ashes was joint winner of the 2009 James L Tiptree Award, which is high praise. I read the first story, ‘Jack Daw’s Pack’ (which was a Nebula finalist in 2001 for the best Novelette), and found myself in a dangerous and cruel landscape. I fought my way to the bitter end of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ (which won the World Fantasy Award for a Novella in 2004) and am very little the wiser. ‘Unleaving’, a new novel set in this world, published here for the first time, had me stumped on page 1. The stories are told in a faux seventeenth-century mode, convincingly handled by Gilman, who is a Shakespearian scholar. The vocabulary is unfamiliar, some of it probably invented, a lot of of it missed out, and the word order and arrangement is deliberately, paralysingly obscure. The mind freezes in confusion because sentence after sentence Does Not Make Sense. The way to read these stories is to skate over that thin ice of non-understanding and hope to fall in, be submerged and finally get it.

At plot level I can just about trace the story of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ – Kit Lightwode the fiddler is taken by a witch’s servant to become part of her household, and runs away into the wilds with the witch’s daughter Thea instead. They are in love and they roam the roads as beggars. But that is nearly all I can work out, since the narrative is almost completely dialogue, with snatches of truncated, shimmying description that shies away from actually saying what is happening. There are many speaking voices, often speaking from different moments in the story, from different perspectives. Untangling these is done by finding buried clues in the words used, a single name, possibly one instance of a verb in the past tense in a page of writing. As I said, it’s challenging.

Names move into and out of the narrative with damn’ all explanation. Whin, who seems to be a framing character with magical abilities and finds out Kit’s story after she rescues him from drowning, is completely unexplained, but has the responsibility of carrying a lot of story. Annis is the witch: good (actually not good at all, she does horrible things). Brock is a shepherd who looks like a badger and has pockets of useful things to hand out at will to the starving, freezing Kit and Thea. Cloud and Lune are countries (or are they states of being?). Ashes is – what? A condition? A transient personality? A life skill? A role of ritual significance? A metaphor for doom? Gilman knows, the readers of Moonwise may have an inkling, but I don’t. Ashes is referred to constantly as something that Whin, or others, used to be, or will become, but that’s something we have to find out, should we still have the patience. Margaret is – who? I think she will be explained in ‘Unleaving’, but, as I say, I haven’t the energy to tackle that one yet, and if I stop now, I will forget everything in the earlier stories and understand ‘Unleaving’ even less. It’s a reader’s bind: to fully appreciate Cloud & Ashes you have to read all of it, but ‘Unleaving’ constitutes more than half of this thick book, and I am exhausted. I want to read something less consciously tricksy, less dense, less wilfully unhelpful and less challenging. Sorry, Greer.

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes (Small Beer Press 2015), ISBN: 978-1-9315-2055-3

The language of the invaded in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

wake cover_illustrationThis 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.

illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian
illustration of Buccmaster borrowed from The Guardian

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.

Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O'Halloran for the New York Times)
Paul Kingsnorth in the holt (credit: Kenneth O’Halloran for the New York Times)

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