Killing fields: the Battle of Stamford Bridge pitted the English against Hardrada’s Vikings.
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1066 and all that: Eimear McBride on “The Wake” by Paul Kingsnorth

In The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth delicately loops the multifarious layers of English history together.

The Wake 
Paul Kingsnorth
Unbound, 384pp, £16.99

As seminal national catastrophes go, the Norman conquest of 1066 eclipses most of the rest. The forcible expropriation of land and the wholesale removal of native representation from every power structure led to such devastating cycles of revolt and repression that it was another 300 years before a king for whom English was the mother tongue sat on the throne again. On his deathbed in 1087, William the Conqueror reportedly confessed, “I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason . . . Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes, I dare not leave it to anyone but God.” It is with this quotation that Paul Kingsnorth’s Man Booker Prize-longlisted The Wake begins.

Set in the Lincolnshire Fens in the months preceding the invasion, Kingsnorth’s novel takes as its narrator a local “socman”, or free tenant farmer, referred to throughout as the Buccmaster of Holland. From the outset, the Buccmaster makes it plain that he is a breed apart from the rest of his village. He lives in a great oak house erected by his grandfather, owns three “oxgangs” (approximately 60 acres) of land, has four oxen to plough it, two indentured peasants to work it and plenty more besides. He extols his virtues as a husband and father (“Many was called to beat their wifs more than I, many there was whose children ran wilder”) and treats those whom he considers inferior with disdain (“Dumb lic hunds was these men”).

With the Vikings now failing to make more than occasional coastal incursions, England is reasonably settled and has grown unaccustomed to the depredations of war. However, the Buccmaster’s sighting of an ominous bird with fiery eyes, followed a month later by the appearance of a comet, sets this complacency on its end.

“There is sum thing cuman,” he warns, and indeed there is. Word soon arrives of the attack on the north by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, which the villagers are called upon to repel, as is their obligation under Anglo-Saxon law. The Buccmaster refuses but his sons go off to fight. Hardrada is defeated but the call to rejoin the “fyrd” (militia) quickly follows. This time, both his sons and the English king, Harold, are killed, leaving the invaders to sweep through the country in an orgy of rape and murder.

The Buccmaster, devoted to pre-Christian “auld hus” ways and convinced that his is a protected fate as a result, is deeply unprepared to find his village sacked, his house ablaze and his wife dead within. Taking refuge in the forest, he forges a motley group of survivors into a war band, ostensibly dedicated to resistance and revenge. Unbeknownst to them, they are also fulfilling the Buccmaster’s destiny as foretold in visions by the mythical Welland the Smith, whose sword he believes he bears.

To prove himself to Welland, he sets out to vanquish the French and the usurper “crist”, thereby restoring the old gods to their proper place and England to its rightful inheritors.

The necessary homogeneity of these rightful inheritors is extolled throughout the book. The use at the outset of a somewhat provocative quotation from the great 12th-century historian William of Malmesbury – “England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers . . . They prey upon the riches and vitals of England” – suggests that we may be in store for some cheap Little England-isms. This is a pity, because that doesn’t appear to be the author’s point at all. Rather, Kingsnorth is reaching into the less dramatic, often overlooked times after a national calamity when, in the reconstruction, more than buildings are made anew.

With a notable absence of didacticism and subverting his main character’s conviction in cultural and ethnic singularity, Kingsnorth delicately loops the multifarious layers of English history together: the Scandinavian ancestry of the Buccmaster’s most ardent follower, the subsuming of pre-Christian beliefs and archetypes into Christian myth, the great English hero Welland whose roots are in Beowulf, even a march down the Roman-built Ermine Street.

For the bone of The Wake is connection and disconnection, making it in some ways reminiscent of Jim Crace’s masterful Harvest, with its deep sense of the land, along with the inability of its inhabitants to accept outside influence except under extreme duress. There are overtones of Hamlet, too, with the Buccmaster haunted by ghosts urging him to perform the sacred duty that he has accepted but has become increasingly incapable of committing to.

It also covers ground most recently explored by Philip Terry in his novel Tapestry – which was about the making of the Bayeux tapestry – and is similarly presented in a version of Old English accessible to the non-academic reader. Kingsnorth, however, makes an even deeper commitment to what his author’s note calls “a shadow tongue – a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today”.

While confronting a text that is filled with the almost familiar is initially unner­ving, the eye quickly accustoms itself. The publishers invite comparisons to the teemingly degraded language of Russell Hoban’s magnificent science-fiction novel Riddley Walker in terms of its “ability to render the inner life of its main character with complete authenticity”. This it certainly does, the difference being that the English of The Wake is, out of necessity, still very much orphaned and in the process of learning how to define things.

By including a glossary to aid the reader with the most indecipherable terms, Kings­north renders a language that soon becomes both a pleasure, inextricable from the story, and a mode of vicarious alliance between our linguistic ancestors and our modern selves – the frequent use of “fuccan” being merely one small example. But, not content with this, Kingsnorth seems concurrently to be keen to point out how far we have travelled from them, too, and how different from us they were. This is wonderfully evident in his painstakingly reconstructed words and syntax, which showcase just how little our forebears needed, or expected, their language to express.

In bringing together these disparate and even occasionally opposing elements – with an excellent denouement to boot – Kings­north has created a work that is as disturbing as it is empathetic, as beautiful as it is riveting and, ultimately, sophisticated enough not to sentimentalise the lost over the found. 

Eimear McBride’s debut novel “A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing” (Faber & Faber, £8.99) won the Goldsmiths Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

She will be in conversation with Tom Gatti at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 30 November

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses