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

Collection Christophel/Alamy
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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