The Wake  by  Paul Kingsnorth  (Graywolf, Sept. 2015)  Reviewed by  Stephen Sparks

The Wake
by Paul Kingsnorth
(Graywolf, Sept. 2015)

Reviewed by Stephen Sparks

In western England, an isolated hill that makes for a good observation point is a toot, and in East Anglia, shakes refer to cracks in drying wood. These terms—gathered from Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane’s recent collection of regional landscape terminology—may strike one as curiosities, yet their homegrown specificity brings these places to life in all of their particulars and peculiarities. The richness of such dialect is, in a world growing linguistically poorer, a remnant of an abiding sense of locality and identity. That language alters and adjusts our perceptions, expectations, and even our identity has more or less become a given. As such, a strange word become familiar has the ability to deepen our experiences, to limn a hitherto unspeakable feeling, and to more firmly situate us in place.

It is partly to shore these beautiful fragments up against the sort of linguistic streamlining of toots into hills and shakes into cracks in drying wood that Robert Macfarlane assembled his fascinating glossary. And I suspect that it was in the same spirit of preservation that Paul Kingsnorth chose to write The Wake, his debut novel, set in England during the eleventh century Norman Conquest, in what he calls a “ghost language.” If this is his sentiment, he has imposed it on our twenty-first century vernacular to create a language which, against all odds, works. This language, an adapted version of Old English as it was spoken prior to the introduction of French words and influences that arrived on England’s shores along with William the Conqueror, has been made legible to modern readers by the removal of its most foreign elements. Much as the Scots dialect might at first bewilder a lifelong resident of the American South, the ghost English of The Wake will appear opaque to the unversed reader. The novel is initially disorienting, as this early descriptive passage reveals:

…i is a socman of holland a part of the scir of lincylene where the ground was blaec and good and deop. our ham was an eoland in the fenns on all sides the wilde on all sides dabcic the water wuf the lesch and the doerc waters. our folc cnawan this place lic we cnawan our wifmen and our cildren.

Taken on its own, the above may as well be a cipher, and the first twenty pages of the novel left me feeling stymied. As I slogged through the early part of the book (set, appropriately enough, in the fens, the boggy marshlands of eastern England), acquiring vocabulary, deciphering pronunciation, and situating myself in this distant world, I found myself more easily entering into the mental universe of Buccmaster of Holland, a deeply flawed antihero whose consciousness we inhabit throughout The Wake. His vocabulary, because it is sparse and rhythmically halting, becomes at times profoundly striking:

under the boat under the water and not so deop was the stocc of a great blaec treow torn to its roots lic a tooth in the mouth of an eald wif. a great treow it was wid and blaec as the fyrs aesc blaec as the deorcness beyond the hall on a night when the mona sleeps and as i was locan i seen another and another and i colde see that under this mere was a great holt a great eald holt of treows bigger than any i had seen efer in holland and ealdor i was sure ealder efen than my grandfather.

It is a sublime passage, I think, and Kingsnorth delights in the articulation of this haunted language. Delight provides sufficient justification for employing this device, but Kingsnorth offers other reasons as well. In his afterward, he insists that he has difficulty accepting historical novels written in contemporary language: “The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes—all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.” So bird becomes fugol and nebb, we learn, is a face. These hard, abrupt Anglo-Saxon words sound harsher and less forgiving than the pliable French imports that have since supplanted them, and to prove Kingsnorth’s point, the men and woman who speak these words are no gentler, least of all the intractable Buccmaster. Theirs is a brutal world, one subject to drastic and sudden changes in the balance of power, full of warring tribes descending like locusts upon the land. The book opens with an omen—a strange fugol wings across the sky, auguring ill—that establishes a mental universe full of mystery, terror, wonder, and contingency. The forbidding language, alien to us, puts us in a mental state of uncertainty similar to that of Kingsnorth’s characters.

This language, filtered through Buccmaster’s idiosyncratic voice, also summons a deeply troubled mind, one that for its supposed antiquity is recognizably modern. Buccmaster is a conservative man, a braggart and a fool and a zealot who rails against anything he deems not sufficiently English, a category Kingsnorth is keen to dismantle throughout The Wake. This idea is even at Buccmaster’s time a thing of the past: the venerable myth of Old England recedes ever into the distance until, we realize, it never existed in the first place. His is an England preceding Christianity, full of staunch men, obedient women, and indentured peasants who know their place; it is a land of virile Norse gods who, unlike that weak import Christ, are inseparable from the landscape, not grafted onto it. Even now, during their long decline as new traditions take hold, they ghost through the land, whispering to the last true believers. Weland (or Wayland) the Smith figures prominently in the narrative: Buccmaster, as the bearer of a sword he believes forged by the Smith himself, converses mentally with the god through the novel. These passages, rendered with acute tension, reveal man’s inadequacies when faced with a force greater than himself:

            i cnawan he was not triewe

drincan laughan smercan lic a wifman

            the first daeg of litha

thus is no ealdor no cyng not lic the other

            i was ceosan i

always thu is weac

Buccmaster stands fragile before his god, just as he stands fragile before history. This is a frightening fragility, a weakness that is masked by the kind of violent outrage that spurs on mass murderers like Dylan Klebold. As such, Kingsnorth’s decision to use the Norman Conquest is only a pretext, one of any number of possible scenarios capable of shattering a man’s world. As far as pretexts go, this one is particularly momentous. Buccmaster loses his home and his family—due largely to his refusal to pay tax to the new overlords—and takes to the woods, where he joins a small band of bewildered survivors. Despite his claims of being the obvious leader, as a bearer of Weland’s sword, Buccmaster is unable in the months following the devastation of his country to come to any firm resolution or definite action. What he does manage is clumsy and poorly arranged. He is not a profound thinker or a great strategist. He vacillates, yet in his insecurity lashes out at anyone who dares question his increasingly mysterious plans or self-proclaimed destiny. It sounds uncomfortably familiar: a harsh, angry man lamenting the decline of his way of life, not unlike many politicians jousting for the presidency. And yet, in these clumsy and often tragic moments, I find him most sympathetic and terrifying: this is a man so firmly rooted that he is unable to bend without breaking.

As may be obvious from the above, The Wake is, despite its linguistic experimentation, a rather conventional psychological novel that follows fairly well-established and standard conventions—an unreliable narrator whose consciousness foregrounds all action, revelatory flashbacks, and irony—to tell the story of a man and the end of a way of life. To characterize the book as such is not to criticize it. Kingsnorth’s decision to write a traditional novel helps ground the alienness of his language in something relatable and emotionally moving. The situation Buccmaster finds himself in is, after all, something we can identify with, even if, unlike him, we assume we would respond differently.

In Uncivilisation, their recent eco-manifesto, Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine write of the collapse of civilization. Our twenty-first-century civilization specifically, groaning in its death throes under the burden of rampant consumption. “What remains after the fall,” they write, “is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.” Although the authors are referring to our precarious situation, Buccmaster becomes the voice through which Kingsnorth explores what it’s like to live through the end of a world. His tenacious grip on a version of the past that is out of step with the reality of England even before the radical change brought on by the conquest is one of a desperate man. Yet he cannot see this desperation for what it is; instead he sees a world in all parts arrayed against him. Kingsnorth provides the requisite psychological padding for Buccmaster’s paranoia in a slowly unfolding and slowly mounting backstory about his father, whom he despises even in death, and his grandfather, who provided him with his grounding in what he considers his true home.

The story of Buccmaster’s family runs parallel to the main narrative arc and provides clues as to what drives a man to such lengths. It also reminds us that those who live through the destruction of a civilization, whether literal or metaphorical, whether real or imagined, are motivated by forces that long precede the end. Unlike many of the characters who populate the current crop of post-apocalyptic novels, Kingsnorth’s creation lives through the apocalypse, which I find a more compelling and messy—and more relevant to our situation. There is no new world, only an altered one, and the injustice that preoccupies Buccmaster, whether of the invaders against the English or his father’s against him, bears the weight of all that we or a generation soon to follow will bring with them through the violent alteration of civilization.

The Wake is the first of a projected trilogy spanning 3,000 years, with the subsequent volume set in our era and the last a thousand years in the future. How will Kingsnorth, a writer as adept at linguistic innovation as he is with rendering psychological ambiguity, convey language in those novels? How will it reflect the assumptions and attitudes of their respective eras? It remains to be seen, though if Buccmaster of Holland’s fate is any indication, Kingsnorth has little faith in our ability to shake free of the old ways in order to accept what looms on the horizon. To look back on our civilization, teetering on the brink of social and environmental catastrophe, from the vantage of a thousand years will, perhaps, reveal that it may not the end that defines cultures, but how we respond and adapt to it. With The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth has provided us with an alarming and hard to shake sense that unless we are able to break free of the past, we’re doomed to repeat it.


Stephen Sparks is a bookseller in San Francisco.