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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