An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

April 12, 2015

Kingsnorth: The Wake

Image result for kingsnorth the wake first edition
Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake. London: Unbound, 2014 (UK paperback April 2015; U.S. edition: Graywolf Press, September 2015).

Reviewed by Dustin Frazier Wood (

well this fyr has cum now it has cum and it has beorned high and strong and for many years and it has eten all angland in it and now angland is but a tale from a time what is gan.[1]

It is not often that a historical novel set in the middle ages requires a glossary, much less a four-page 'note on language'. But The Wake, written in a 'shadow tongue' created by Paul Kingsnorth to convey the feeling and alterity of Old English, requires both. The prose is made up almost exclusively of words originating in Old English. Capitals are non-existent, punctuation is rare, characters' words elide into the framing first-person narrative voice. Even the alignment of the text shifts on the page, at times conveying an uneasy sense of resistance to the conventions of a twenty-first century machine-printed book. Kingsnorth's 'shadow tongue' can be challenging, even alienating - but it is also surprisingly effective and at times startlingly familiar.

Set in the run-up to and aftermath of the Norman Conquest, The Wake follows a band of Anglo-Saxon guerilla resistance fighters and is narrated by their leader, buccmaster. Despite being one of only two English characters with non-Old English names, buccmaster is a man obsessed with his language and with the words that give meaning and order to his world. i is a socman of holland he insists at every opportunity. (Holland in this case refers to a region of Lincolnshire, where the name survives in the administrative district of South Holland; buccmaster’s village seems from the book’s few place names to have been located somewhere east-southeast of modern Boston). Alone among the inhabitants of his village buccmaster is a socman (or sokeman), a landowner whose only legal obligation is to the king and not, as for those around him, to the thegn. He is a man figuratively and literally apart. His 'three oxgangs' of land are situated on an island in the fens, and he alone of the villagers occupies a seat on the wapentake, a local administrative council in the counties of the Danelaw. a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me[2]

When buccmaster finds himself alone and dispossessed by the French, his only companion the gebur [bondman] grimcell, he faces a new order in which the words that define him teeter on the edge of meaninglessness. Only when the two men are joined by the orphan tofe can buccmaster reassert his social status: he is now the ring gifer [ring-giver; lord] of their two-and-a-half-man werod [war band]. Even so, without a home or larger community, and with little knowledge of events beyond the fens, buccmaster's is a world in which familiar names and the things they signify have become tenuous and endangered. One of the most moving passages in the novel occurs as buccmaster is leaving the place that defines him:

i was locan at an ac treow and i put my hand on its great stocc and i was thincan the ingengas will haf another name for this treow. it had seemed to me that this treow was anglisc as the ground it is grown from anglisc as we who is grown also from that ground. but if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no more. it colde be that to erce this treow will be the same that it will haf the same leafs the same rind but to me it will be sum other thing that is not mine sum thing ingenga of what i can no longer spec
                will they gif angland another name also i saes to this treow what will we call our cildren[3]

buccmaster’s reflection on language and identity contains a certain ironic humor. Nearly a millennium after the Norman conquest an ac remains an oak, a treow a tree. We still call our cildren, children. buccmaster’s anglisc often sounds modern, his descriptions of the world around him familiar.

But this familiarity raises questions. In his note at the end of the book, Kingsnorth writes that ‘Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them’.[4] If this is the case – and I think that it can be – what are we as readers to make of The Wake’s ‘shadow tongue’? Does the tale and its telling allow us to experience a glimmer of the Anglo-Saxon worldview by helping us to step linguistically closer to an imagined Anglo-Saxon past? Or does it only take us closer to Kingsnorth’s imagining, to the boundaries erected by the author as language-crafter cum world-shaper? Can we as readers of what is essentially a foreign language text avoid translating our own linguistic perspectives and biases into the narrative? If the world of buccmaster's England is 'the foundation of our own', as Kingsnorth says, what parts of the novel's medievalism are recognizable, which need to be remembered, and why?[5]

For a start, this is a medieval world in which the Normans are unquestionably the bad guys. The novel’s first page quotes from Orderic Vitalis’ account of William the Conqueror’s deathbed confession of the atrocities he has committed against the English.[6] The second page quotes William of Malmesbury bemoaning the fate of an England seized by foreigners and an English people in a state of perpetual misery.[7] Jump forward 360 pages to Kingsnorth’s second 'note', where the Norman conquest is described as ‘probably the most catastrophic single event in the nation’s history’.[8] The English are enslaved and sneered at by their overlords, led by Duke Guillaume of Normandy, whose name is never anglicized. Parallels are drawn between buccmaster and his historical counterparts on the one hand, and the French Resistance and Viet Cong on the other. This is a story of freedom fighters and evil oppressors. Guillaume is to blame for the fact that in the twenty-first century approximately 70% of English land is owned by approximately 1% of the English population.[9] In the novel, Norman power is overwhelming and brutal. When buccmaster and his followers kill a Norman knight, two more arrive and begin a slaughter of innocents. for efry ingenga we cwells . . . they cwells a ham. we digs our graefs, says grimcell.[10] When buccmaster and his band, by now swelled to nine men, arrive at Stamford they are met with a blighted landscape in which homeless English men and women erect a motte and bailey under the watchful eyes of mounted, armored overseers. The words man and wiht [animal] appear paired with startling frequency, especially where suffering and oppression are in evidence. Whether or not the reader ascribes to the Norman Yoke theory, the first-person narration of the novel admits no other perspective.

Just as Kingsnorth's note encourages comparison of the present and the novel's imagined past, buccmaster himself views his world through a historicizing and medievalizing lens. The oppression the French bring is not only political and military - it is religious as well. The priests and bishops who accompany geeyome, like the pope who blessed his armies, embody literally and figuratively the Christian law that buccmaster views as fundamentally opposed to the laws of England. buccmaster's is a world in which Christians outnumber and mock, but have not yet stamped out, the eald hus of Thor, Odin and Frigg.

As the novel opens buccmaster sees a great bird in the sky, an omen of something coming. When the haerig star (Halley's comet) appears buccmaster warns the locals that it is a second sign - something is coming. What comes to England is clear. What comes to buccmaster, though, sitting alone in the forest on the night he hears of the death of Harold and his own sons, is more unexpected: the great smith weland . . . the deorc ealdor of all anglisc folc.[11] But Weland is closer to buccmaster than a vague ancestral figure. On the crossbeam of buccmaster's house hangs his grandfather's sword, forged as the story goes by Weland in Mirkwood and inscribed with runes of power and magic. buccmaster's story quickly merges with that of the smith. Like Weland, buccmaster loses his wife, and then his place in the world, to an aggressive foreign king. William becomes the Nithad to buccmaster's Weland; and in the first flush of his rage buccmaster imagines himself exacting a vengeance like the smith's:

broc he was but he cum up again and lic the fugol was abuf all men

and a cyng i cwelled and all his cynn folc[12]

Throughout the rest of the novel Weland - or at least a voice buccmaster thinks is Weland, presented as interrupting, right-aligned italic text - urges, cajoles, hectors, goads and harries buccmaster, driving him to fight the French in ways he struggles to understand. When the Christian population of lange toft refuse to aid him he kills the village gerefa [local official; reeve] and extorts food and supplies from the frightened villagers. His mockery of priests turns would-be followers against him. Even so, we are encouraged to sympathize with buccmaster. Priests are universally weak. Bishop Odo commits worse atrocities than William when left in charge of London, and Bishop Turold is more arrogant and bellicose than the knights who try but fail to protect him from buccmaster and his men. buccmaster's happiest moments are those that take place in an unnamed village of free folc led by wulfhere, a welcoming and honest Englishman who follows the ways of the eald hus and encourages men of the village to join buccmaster's band.

Unfortunately for siward, godric and osbern, who dream of fighting the French who defeated them at Senlac, buccmaster is no harold cyng. Commanding, headstrong and impressive to those around him, buccmaster is not a leader of men. The foundation of his identity lies in his family mythology and his three oxgangs of land. He is a man of the fens, then a man of Holland, then a man of the Danelaw, then a man of England. Fiercely independent and fiercely parochial, buccmaster's insistence that he answers to no man but the king renders him powerless when Harold dies and his world contracts to the land he himself can effectively rule. His rangings - to creatas tun (modern Creeton), stan ford (Stamford), lange toft (Langtoft) and bacstune (Boston) - never take him more than twenty miles from where he started.

Triangulating the villages of The Wake throws buccmaster into stark contrast with Hereward, whose manor at Bourne stood near the center of the novel's geographic circuit. Hereward is a presence buccmaster cannot escape and a rival for the esteem and affection of the characters he meets. When buccmaster, tofe and grimcell kill the French 'thegn', we is as great as any fuccan hereweard . . . with me leadan and with my sweord on my belt we walcs tall lic we is the fyrd we is goan to be.[13] Despite his pride, however, buccmaster and his fyrd [(national) army] get none of the credit. According to the gleeman ulf, it is Hereward whom the French fear and the English praise for the killing.

The parallels between buccmaster's life and the details of Hereward's are striking. Part of what makes The Wake such an effective tale is its shadowy familiarity, its place in a tradition of English medievalizing of Hereward's narrative that stretches back to the eleventh-century and the Gesta Herewardi itself. Both buccmaster and Hereward are driven into exile by their fathers for having aroused the hostility of their neighbours, Hereward through fighting and buccmaster on account of his beliefs. After a period of exile both return to claim their fathers' houses and authority. When the Normans invade both buccmaster and Hereward seek refuge in brunnesweald, where they become grene men, gather followers and plan raids. With a sprinkling of authorial licence, Kingsnorth transfers Hereward's capture of Bishop Turold in a forest near Peterborough to buccmaster, who stumbles upon the bishop on a fenland road. Indeed, buccmaster captures Turold en route to elge (Ely), where he plans to impress Hereward with tales of his victories and the size of his following. But the capture of such a rich prize is too much for buccmaster. Hereward and Ely are forgotten. buccmaster binds Turold's arms, straps him to a horse and, led by the voice of Weland, returns as always to the isolation of his three oxgangs to celebrate his victory and decide the bishop's fate.

But The Wake is a novel of doomed resistance, a novel in which buccmaster is destined to fail. When the Normans arrive a messy and strange but still admirable old world doesn't quite end; a new and oppressive order overshadows but does not submerge it. Kingsnorth's 'shadow tongue' hints at Old English and modern alike, suggesting that neither the Anglo-Saxon tongue nor the worldview it implies is entirely alien from our own. buccmaster's medievalized storytelling starts eventually to feel like any number of tales about the good old days, his idealized grandfather to assume a shape like many other grandfathers then and now. Questions about the link between identity and place of origin, inequalities of wealth and power, religious frictions and factionalism, and the collapse of traditional social distinctions are sources of anxiety as profound and relevant to a reader living in the globalized twenty-first century as for a socman of the fens. Whatever one's political perspective, part of the reason The Wake works is that the medieval is alluring as a source of insight into - and, some might hope, answers to - these questions. The novel closes as it opens, with discordant and almost indistinguishable voices urging readers to go baec as buccmaster does, to engage with a story that is already their own, to seek understanding by comparing the present with a semi-historical, semi-legendary imagined medieval past that hums with emotional and political charge.

Dustin Frazier Wood
University of Roehampton

[1] The Wake, 49.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] Ibid., 124.
[4] Ibid., 355.
[5] Ibid., 356.
[6] Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, Bk 7, Ch 15. See Marjorie Chibnall, ed and trans, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Volume 4 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973), 94-5.
[7] William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, Bk 2, Ch 13. See J. A. Giles, ed and trans, William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England (London: Bohn, 1847), 253.
[8] The Wake, 357
[9] For a concise if politicized overview of the sources and origins of the recent furore aroused by the publication of these figures, see Kevin Cahill's 'The great property swindle: why do so few people in Britain own so much of our land?', NewStatesman online, 11 March 2011.
[10] The Wake, 154.
[11] Ibid., 90.
[12] Ibid., 93.
[13] Ibid., 183.