In the first week of my undergraduate Old English, our German-born lecturer tested our facility with the language. Presenting us – I think – with the text of Ælfric’s Life of St Edmund, she asked us to read it aloud – no preparation, no previous exposure to the words, just read it. “Sum swyðe gelæred munuc com suþan ofer sæ fram sancte Benedictes stowe,” we stumbled, “on Æþelredes cynincges dæge to Dunstane ærcebisceope, þrim gearum ær he forðferde; and se munuc hatte Abbo.”
For reasons unrelated to anything, the phrase “se munuc hatte Abbo” remains my most solid, if not quite my most versatile, bit of Old English. But I recall our lecturer being surprised by how much of the language the class could get its collective tongue around. Perhaps the German in her had a suspicion of our Frenchified tongue – all that Latinate infecting our brains – but we placed the stresses on the right syllables, pronounced many of the words correctly, and even had a sense of rhythm as we read. We understood nary a word, but the sense we could grok. Ælfric’s was – perhaps! – not an entirely lost world.
This was an illusion: the slightest mutual intelligibility aside, much of Anglo-Saxon culture is now alien to us. Thus to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, self-published and now Booker-longlisted, but rather an unusual entry in either of those categories. It is the story of Buccmaster, a freemen of the Lincolnshire fens, who in 1066, like the rest of his countrymen, loses his entire way of life when, on the far-away fields of Hastings, William the Bastard defeats King Harold. The aftermath of what was a – for once no hype here – seismic event (not for nothing is the novel billed as post-apocalyptic) is conveyed in a pseudo-OE, a dialect which draws its grammar from modern English but its personality from Anglo-Saxon: those filthy Latinates are banished, foregrounding the extent to which Buccmaster rejects and resents the French interloper (or, in Kingsnorth’s vocab, the ingenga). Here’s a sample:
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. if thu can thinc on what it is lose efry thing thu is thinc on this and if thu belyfs thu would do sum thing other than what i done if thu thincs thu wolde be milde or glad to those who wolde heaw away thy lif from thu then thus is sum dumb esol who lifs may be in sum great hus with all warm fyrs and rugs and sum cymly wif and has nefer suffered naht
A few remarks about this, aside from the obvious fact that Kingsnorth has fairly successfully recreated the mouthfeel of OE whilst also writing prose that is comprehensible to the modern reader: his choice to eschew capital letters and much other punctuation, as well as his preference for run-on sentences and restricted diction, certainly promote the sense of archaism that he is after, but they also contribute to the reader’s impression of Buccmaster’s own stubborn, even slow, personality. In a first-person narrative the prose must necessarily take on some of the character of the narrator, but here the trick doesn’t quite serve to paint Anglo-Saxon culture in all its richness. This undermines one of Kingsnorth’s main projects, the revivification of a pre-Norman England.
Kingsnorth is an ecological activist, and a central element of The Wake is an enthusiasm for the Anglo-Saxon world, which it imagines as a sort of libertarian pre-feudalism. At one point, Buccmaster boasts that “we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right”: that is, he who works the land earns the land, a sentiment quite at odds both with the Conqueror’s assumption that all of England must literally belong to him, and to our own late capitalist model in which the majority of wealth is located with those furthest from the labour which produces it. On the other hand, Buccmaster is referring to the “weac and uncept” land of the Briton – which the Angles, Jutes, Uncletomcobleighs and other Germanic invaders of the fifth and sixth centuries took for their own and farmed in a more settled, formalised fashion. Buccmaster’s society is not perfect, then, but it is different: his own position as a “socman”, a free tenant farmer, gives him a freedom and a stakeholding unfamiliar both to the Normans and to us; nevertheless, it places him, like Conqueror above Englishman, above many in the village (most especially the women); that this arrangement works for him, and that Kingsnorth leads us to see the value in social relations alternative to our own, does not rob his novel of complexity.
This is, then, no The Quickening Maze, that wonderful Adam Foulds novel in which enclosure is roundly and unambiguously demonised; it is, rather, an unreliable narrative in which we can nevertheless perceive how power is exchanged. When the Normans dismantle Buccmaster’s world, an indentured peasant “specs lic he too is a socman”; other villagers argue that “thy harald cyng he did not cepe us safe yet this frenc cyng does not what does thu … say to this”; Buccmaster’s scepticism about Christianity, meanwhile, is powered by his belief that “the biscop of the crist … tacs his orders from his cyng not from his heofon”. Regime change, we see, is primarily about who gives the orders, and how those orders parcel out the goodies: how, the novel asks with its authentically Anglo-Saxon focus on things, might we better divvy up the geld, so that “the fuccan preosts” don’t have the right to lecture every Sunday on the basis of salaries paid by tithe? “it is bocs that does yfel,” complains Buccmaster in one of his characteristically ignorant moments, “all bocs the boc of the crist the boc of the cyng all laws from abuf mor efry year”. This is the cry of the Tea Party, but Buccmaster’s refusal to give fealty to an overlord is the cry of Occupy.
If all this analogy, however pleasingly textured and complicated, doesn’t quite fit the Anglo-Saxon world as well as Kingsnorth believes (his novel is predicated on an acceptance of an older historiography of the Norman yoke), it is beautifully conveyed in the novel’s preternatural control both of its diction and its viewpoint character. The language never stumbles, and in this it contrasts wonderfully with Buccmaster, who begins his story as the central hero figure, a Beowulf or Byrtnoth; but who in the course of his ramblings reveals himself to be much less than that. He rails against the French and the slowness of his fellow villagers in understanding something is afoot, but insists his sons not go to war so they can bring in the harvest; he clings to his grandfather’s frowned-upon belief in the power of the “eald gods”, and in the magical power of the sword he holds to be forged by Welland, despite all evidence to the contrary; and at times Kingsnorth, with a wonderful facility for timing in his pseudo-OE, allows us even to laugh at him (“in triewth the ealu has slowed my tunge a lytel though of course i is still cwic”). As the novel proceeds, the gap between Buccmaster’s self-perception and his actions grows so wide as to be comparable to the chasm that separates Anglo-Saxon from Norman England.
The generic slippage that accompanies this rupture adds a pleasingly disorienting aspect to proceedings. There is in the aerial portents observed by the Anglo-Saxons an element of the alien invasion story (“this is no thing of the grene world”), and the Normans are akin in their alien and implacable nature to Wells’s tripods. Likewise, the “eald gods and eald wihts and free folcs” of Buccmaster’s imagined pantheon hang over events like fantasy creatures, the petrified forests under the waters of the fens gazing up like Tolkein’s Dead Marshes. Finally, of course, the post-apocalyptic echoes of Riddley Walker are obvious and pimped in the back cover copy. All this emphasises the destruction of Buccmaster’s world, but also the otherliness of this society which the Conqueror is replacing, and indeed the one he is in turn imposing. Systems, and those with their hands on its levers, change: if Buccmaster’s increasing cult of personality in the novel, with which charisma he attracts a band of murderous “grene men” to his banner in the style of one of Kingsnorths many wakes, Hereward, turns sour, there is in this vivid otherness still a sense of optimism about The Wake: leaders should not be trusted, but everything can still change.
A lot of this would be in no way as entertaining or as noteworthy without the language (which, in Kingsnorth’s defense, and as he emphasises in one of several author’s notes, was his primary focus). There are longeurs in the plot, during which Buccmaster doesn’t do much but wander around; there’s not a lot new to this particular iteration of the unreliable narrator; and we are not currently at a loss for novels which croon that it’s been a long time comin’ but change is gonna come. On the other hand, The Wake succeeds so triumphantly on its own terms that it seems miserly to poke holes. If it doesn’t end up on the final Booker shortlist, Buccmaster might have a word or two to say about the fuccan esols.