Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake’s inclusion in the Booker longlist should come as no surprise, given Hilary Mantel’s successes with English historical fiction and recent popular interest in the Anglo-Saxon period. JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf was published earlier this summer. Yet, The Wake is neither a translation of Old English nor a conventional historical novel.
The novel begins in England before the invasion of the Normans in 1066. The narrator is a farmer of a middling sort, Buccmaster of Holland, living in the fens of Lincolnshire; his world begins to change when portents appear to the people of the Holland, signalling the coming annexation by the Normans. It is against this backdrop that Buccmaster’s story is played out, as he leads a band against the foreign conquest.
The unique element of this novel is its language. Kingsnorth has developed what he refers to as a “shadow tongue”, a back-engineered form of Old English suitable for readers in the twenty-first century; this somewhat alien and antique voice is given to the Anglo-Saxons of the narrative. There is no capitalisation and punctuation is scant. The result is captivating, once the eye and ear are tuned into the ‘shadow tongue’, adding to the text what Seamus Heaney has described as the ‘heft’ of Anglo-Saxon when undertaking his own translation of Beowulf.
However, although Kingsnorth’s language is inspired by Old English, readers with an interest in the literature of the period will notice differences which might represent something of a missed opportunity. The lack of word compounds, which give Anglo-Saxon literature much of its imaginative and expressive energy, is notable and neglects the poetic possibilities that Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue” might have presented. However, this is a prose work and such linguistic omissions do not detract from the novel’s mood; indeed, the narrator displays some contempt for the poetic riddles and bawdy verse of the travelling scop near the beginning of the novel.
Beyond Kingsnorth’s synthetic language in the feat of The Wake’s “shadow-tongue”, the novel is interesting other ways. In Buccmaster, the novel depicts a protagonist who is intriguing in his characterisation. The hero, however, is not a likeable guide in this journey through the eleventh-century; his treatment of his wife, his foul-mouth, his snobbishness towards those below him in society, all indicate something of an anti-hero. The revelation that Buccmaster is suspicious of the new faith, Christianity, and continues to worship the old pagan gods of his grandfather show that he is something of a loner, at odds even with his fellow Anglo-Saxons. These attitudes and practices hint that Buccmaster’s distrust of foreign creeds lies behind his resistance to the invaders, suggesting a darker xenophobic and monomaniacal impulse in the man, which could ultimately be the cause of his and his rebellion’s undoing.
Indeed, the novel’s story of a sort of post-apocalyptic resistance to the Normans is secondary to the hero’s responses to his changing world, exposing Buccmaster’s cold-heartedness and egoism, thus giving the novel sophistication beyond a folk-tale of guerrilla woodsmen battling against Norman subjugation. It is this aspect of The Wake, along with Kingsnorth’s captivating use of his “shadow-tongue” that make it a rewarding experience. In the novel’s closing note Kingsnorth states that 70% of the land of England belongs to less than 1% of its people, and that it is difficult to imagine this being the case, along with other examples of centralised power and elitism in England, without the Norman Conquest. Despite such assertions, The Wake’s strength lies not in its politics but rather in its compelling linguistic inventiveness and in the fascinating and complex personal story of its hero.