Paul Kingsnorth - Written in what the author describes as “a shadow tongue”—a version of Old English updated so as to be understandable to the modern reader—The Wake renders the inner life of an Anglo-Saxon man with an accuracy and immediacy rare in historical fiction

The Wake
Paul Kingsnorth, The WakeGraywolf, 2015.
In the aftermath of the Norman Invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror was uncompromising and brutal. English society was broken apart, its systems turned on their head. What is little known is that a fractured network of guerrilla fighters took up arms against the French occupiers.
In The Wake, a postapocalyptic novel set one thousand years in the past, Paul Kingsnorth brings this dire scenario back to us through the eyes of the unforgettable Buccmaster, a proud landowner bearing witness to the end of his world. Accompanied by a band of like-minded men, Buccmaster is determined to seek revenge on the invaders. But as the men travel across the scorched English landscape, Buccmaster becomes increasingly unhinged by the immensity of his loss, and their path forward becomes increasingly unclear.
Written in what the author describes as “a shadow tongue”—a version of Old English updated so as to be understandable to the modern reader—The Wake renders the inner life of an Anglo-Saxon man with an accuracy and immediacy rare in historical fiction. To enter Buccmaster’s world is to feel powerfully the sheer strangeness of the past. A tale of lost gods and haunted visions, The Wake is both a sensational, gripping story and a major literary achievement.

“Kingsnorth does not simply tell history: He invites the reader to inhabit it. . . . At once invigorating and terrifying. History almost a thousand years old feels intense and immediate, as close as the blood in one’s veins and the memories one can’t escape.”Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered. . . . [The Wake] will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.Shelf Awareness

“Earthy, rude, rough-hewn lyricism. . . . A war epic, psychological thriller, and brooding meditation on the past’s foreignness all in one.”The Globe and Mail

“Kingsnorth’s debut novel re-creates the mysterious joy that accompanies first learning how to read. Composed in a seductive Anglo-Saxon dialect, the narrative is disorienting yet familiar and brilliantly unreliable. Buccmaster’s astonishing voice will haunt readers long after they finish this bold book.”Library Journal, starred review
The Wake is an astonishing accomplishment. The events in it are chronicled by Buccmaster, a brutally unreliable narrator, in an adapted version of Old English. At first the prospect seems unreadably off-putting; within twenty pages you get the hang of it; by thirty the suddenly fluent reader is immersed entirely in the mental and geographical contours of the era. But it works the other way too: we are seeing—and feeling and hearing—the living roots of Englishness.”—Geoff Dyer
The Wake is a masterpiece. My top book of the year.”—Eleanor Catton, Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize

"It takes a few moments to learn to parse the language of The Wake; it is written in a simplified version of Old English, after all. The effort is richly repaid, however, by an engrossing and immersive reading experience unlike any other historical novel. Kingsnorth's vividly imagined medieval tale is an ancient story that throbs with life."—David Enyeart, Common Good Books (St. Paul, MN)

“[A] dark and disturbing tale. . . . Readers will be absorbed. . . . Masterfully wrought historical fiction turning epoch-making events into a harrowing nightmare.”Booklist, starred review

"The Wake is one of the most inventive, immersive, and indelible novels I've read all year. A Story of the Norman invasion of England told by the proud, vengeful, and unstable Buccmaster of Holland (a socman of three oxgangs!) that is terribly difficult to put down."—Mark Schultz, Carmichael's Bookstore

“Powerful eloquence, a brusque beauty, that moves and convinces. More than a mere novel, The Wake is really a medieval epic poem to an English way of life that would be erased forever.”The Arts Fuse

“A book unlike any other, brilliant in its rarity and brutal, ugly truth. . . . Kingsnorth has brought forth a remarkable narrator through whom we can see (and smell and taste) the burnt fields and bodies, the skeletal trees and smoldering fires—a world sickly similar to so many lesser visions of destruction, but given fresh and horrifying weight here by a mad experiment in language that has become a raw and powerful masterpiece.”—NPR

“Like Tolkien’s and Martin’s books, The Wake presents the reader with an immersive experience. . . . What sharply distinguishes it is its disorienting use of high literary experiment and its insistence on uncertainty. . . . The Wake reminds us that we can’t find our way out of our crisis as easily as many think.”Bookforum

In western England, an isolated hill that makes for a good observation point is a toot, and in East Anglia, shakes refer to cracks in drying wood. These terms—gathered from Landmarks, Robert Macfarlane’s recent collection of regional landscape terminology—may strike one as curiosities, yet their homegrown specificity brings these places to life in all of their particulars and peculiarities. The richness of such dialect is, in a world growing linguistically poorer, a remnant of an abiding sense of locality and identity. That language alters and adjusts our perceptions, expectations, and even our identity has more or less become a given. As such, a strange word become familiar has the ability to deepen our experiences, to limn a hitherto unspeakable feeling, and to more firmly situate us in place.
It is partly to shore these beautiful fragments up against the sort of linguistic streamlining of toots into hills and shakes into cracks in drying wood that Robert Macfarlane assembled his fascinating glossary. And I suspect that it was in the same spirit of preservation that Paul Kingsnorth chose to write The Wake, his debut novel, set in England during the eleventh century Norman Conquest, in what he calls a “ghost language.” If this is his sentiment, he has imposed it on our twenty-first century vernacular to create a language which, against all odds, works. This language, an adapted version of Old English as it was spoken prior to the introduction of French words and influences that arrived on England’s shores along with William the Conqueror, has been made legible to modern readers by the removal of its most foreign elements. Much as the Scots dialect might at first bewilder a lifelong resident of the American South, the ghost English of The Wake will appear opaque to the unversed reader. The novel is initially disorienting, as this early descriptive passage reveals:
…i is a socman of holland a part of the scir of lincylene where the ground was blaec and good and deop. our ham was an eoland in the fenns on all sides the wilde on all sides dabcic the water wuf the lesch and the doerc waters. our folc cnawan this place lic we cnawan our wifmen and our cildren.
Taken on its own, the above may as well be a cipher, and the first twenty pages of the novel left me feeling stymied. As I slogged through the early part of the book (set, appropriately enough, in the fens, the boggy marshlands of eastern England), acquiring vocabulary, deciphering pronunciation, and situating myself in this distant world, I found myself more easily entering into the mental universe of Buccmaster of Holland, a deeply flawed antihero whose consciousness we inhabit throughout The Wake. His vocabulary, because it is sparse and rhythmically halting, becomes at times profoundly striking:
under the boat under the water and not so deop was the stocc of a great blaec treow torn to its roots lic a tooth in the mouth of an eald wif. a great treow it was wid and blaec as the fyrs aesc blaec as the deorcness beyond the hall on a night when the mona sleeps and as i was locan i seen another and another and i colde see that under this mere was a great holt a great eald holt of treows bigger than any i had seen efer in holland and ealdor i was sure ealder efen than my grandfather.
It is a sublime passage, I think, and Kingsnorth delights in the articulation of this haunted language. Delight provides sufficient justification for employing this device, but Kingsnorth offers other reasons as well. In his afterward, he insists that he has difficulty accepting historical novels written in contemporary language: “The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes—all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.” So bird becomes fugol and nebb, we learn, is a face. These hard, abrupt Anglo-Saxon words sound harsher and less forgiving than the pliable French imports that have since supplanted them, and to prove Kingsnorth’s point, the men and woman who speak these words are no gentler, least of all the intractable Buccmaster. Theirs is a brutal world, one subject to drastic and sudden changes in the balance of power, full of warring tribes descending like locusts upon the land. The book opens with an omen—a strange fugol wings across the sky, auguring ill—that establishes a mental universe full of mystery, terror, wonder, and contingency. The forbidding language, alien to us, puts us in a mental state of uncertainty similar to that of Kingsnorth’s characters.
This language, filtered through Buccmaster’s idiosyncratic voice, also summons a deeply troubled mind, one that for its supposed antiquity is recognizably modern. Buccmaster is a conservative man, a braggart and a fool and a zealot who rails against anything he deems not sufficiently English, a category Kingsnorth is keen to dismantle throughout The Wake. This idea is even at Buccmaster’s time a thing of the past: the venerable myth of Old England recedes ever into the distance until, we realize, it never existed in the first place. His is an England preceding Christianity, full of staunch men, obedient women, and indentured peasants who know their place; it is a land of virile Norse gods who, unlike that weak import Christ, are inseparable from the landscape, not grafted onto it. Even now, during their long decline as new traditions take hold, they ghost through the land, whispering to the last true believers. Weland (or Wayland) the Smith figures prominently in the narrative: Buccmaster, as the bearer of a sword he believes forged by the Smith himself, converses mentally with the god through the novel. These passages, rendered with acute tension, reveal man’s inadequacies when faced with a force greater than himself:
            i cnawan he was not triewe
drincan laughan smercan lic a wifman
            the first daeg of litha
thus is no ealdor no cyng not lic the other
            i was ceosan i
always thu is weac
Buccmaster stands fragile before his god, just as he stands fragile before history. This is a frightening fragility, a weakness that is masked by the kind of violent outrage that spurs on mass murderers like Dylan Klebold. As such, Kingsnorth’s decision to use the Norman Conquest is only a pretext, one of any number of possible scenarios capable of shattering a man’s world. As far as pretexts go, this one is particularly momentous. Buccmaster loses his home and his family—due largely to his refusal to pay tax to the new overlords—and takes to the woods, where he joins a small band of bewildered survivors. Despite his claims of being the obvious leader, as a bearer of Weland’s sword, Buccmaster is unable in the months following the devastation of his country to come to any firm resolution or definite action. What he does manage is clumsy and poorly arranged. He is not a profound thinker or a great strategist. He vacillates, yet in his insecurity lashes out at anyone who dares question his increasingly mysterious plans or self-proclaimed destiny. It sounds uncomfortably familiar: a harsh, angry man lamenting the decline of his way of life, not unlike many politicians jousting for the presidency. And yet, in these clumsy and often tragic moments, I find him most sympathetic and terrifying: this is a man so firmly rooted that he is unable to bend without breaking.
As may be obvious from the above, The Wake is, despite its linguistic experimentation, a rather conventional psychological novel that follows fairly well-established and standard conventions—an unreliable narrator whose consciousness foregrounds all action, revelatory flashbacks, and irony—to tell the story of a man and the end of a way of life. To characterize the book as such is not to criticize it. Kingsnorth’s decision to write a traditional novel helps ground the alienness of his language in something relatable and emotionally moving. The situation Buccmaster finds himself in is, after all, something we can identify with, even if, unlike him, we assume we would respond differently.
In Uncivilisation, their recent eco-manifesto, Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine write of the collapse of civilization. Our twenty-first-century civilization specifically, groaning in its death throes under the burden of rampant consumption. “What remains after the fall,” they write, “is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.” Although the authors are referring to our precarious situation, Buccmaster becomes the voice through which Kingsnorth explores what it’s like to live through the end of a world. His tenacious grip on a version of the past that is out of step with the reality of England even before the radical change brought on by the conquest is one of a desperate man. Yet he cannot see this desperation for what it is; instead he sees a world in all parts arrayed against him. Kingsnorth provides the requisite psychological padding for Buccmaster’s paranoia in a slowly unfolding and slowly mounting backstory about his father, whom he despises even in death, and his grandfather, who provided him with his grounding in what he considers his true home.
The story of Buccmaster’s family runs parallel to the main narrative arc and provides clues as to what drives a man to such lengths. It also reminds us that those who live through the destruction of a civilization, whether literal or metaphorical, whether real or imagined, are motivated by forces that long precede the end. Unlike many of the characters who populate the current crop of post-apocalyptic novels, Kingsnorth’s creation lives through the apocalypse, which I find a more compelling and messy—and more relevant to our situation. There is no new world, only an altered one, and the injustice that preoccupies Buccmaster, whether of the invaders against the English or his father’s against him, bears the weight of all that we or a generation soon to follow will bring with them through the violent alteration of civilization.
The Wake is the first of a projected trilogy spanning 3,000 years, with the subsequent volume set in our era and the last a thousand years in the future. How will Kingsnorth, a writer as adept at linguistic innovation as he is with rendering psychological ambiguity, convey language in those novels? How will it reflect the assumptions and attitudes of their respective eras? It remains to be seen, though if Buccmaster of Holland’s fate is any indication, Kingsnorth has little faith in our ability to shake free of the old ways in order to accept what looms on the horizon. To look back on our civilization, teetering on the brink of social and environmental catastrophe, from the vantage of a thousand years will, perhaps, reveal that it may not the end that defines cultures, but how we respond and adapt to it. With The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth has provided us with an alarming and hard to shake sense that unless we are able to break free of the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. - Stephen Sparks

efusing to use the past as mere picturesque setting, the best historical fiction doesn't so much give us a glimpse into that foreign country as let us look out from it. Language is the key. In my novel Ulverton, set in a village over 300 years, I used strict imitations of period language to find my way into the folds of each century, while Hodd, set in the 13th century, purported to be a translation of a Latin manuscript. For The Wake, a novel set in 11th-century Lincolnshire during and after the Norman invasion, Paul Kingsnorth has adopted another solution: he writes in what he calls "a shadow tongue", a language "intended to convey the feeling" of Old English through borrowed vocabulary and syntax – much as Russell Hoban did with modern English to conjure a devastated future in his post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker.
As The Wake's first-person narrator revisits the trauma of an invasion by "ingenga" (foreigners) that changed our islands for ever (and mostly for the worse), we leave history on the desk and wade through muddy experience by dint of our exercised imaginations. Hastings might have gone the other way, but it didn't, and for three centuries the elite talked another language. Kingsnorth is a green activist, author of an attack on corporate control and blandness called Real England, and his first novel has a fierceness about it that gives it real heft.
Apart from a subdued sense that the novel intends a modern parallel with our own dispossessed times, the narrative keeps us firmly within its very particular universe: we are linguistically belted in for the entire ride. The small effort it demands of the reader triggers a greater engagement, and the effort lessens as the pages turn. More importantly, Kingsnorth has a sensitivity that lifts what might have been a clever exercise into a literary triumph. "Loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mynd," runs an early sentence. Lies and truth, self-belief and self-delusion, these are the key themes as the narrator, "buccmaster of holland" – a proudly independent free-tenant farmer in the Lincolnshire fens, given to wife-beating and foul-mouthed fits of rage – turns to guerrilla warfare after the "frenc" occupiers destroy his farm and family.
Part of the appeal of the story lies in its revelation of a profoundly damaged man. Influenced by his grandfather and an inherited rune-scribbled sword, Buccmaster is a worshipper of the old pagan gods who talks to trees and hates the priests and their hypocrisy – a proto-Robin Hood furious at being treated like "fuccan swine in our own land".
This big-talking leader of men lacks both compassion and tolerance, however, and it proves his undoing. Like the Roman mercenaries in Alan Garner's Red Shift (another linguistically uncompromising historical novel), his resistance movement is no more than courageous bluff and a gaggle of unkempt blokes living wild, one of many scattered pockets of "green men". He has no intention of joining the other bands, however: his jealousy of Hereward the Wake's resistance movement adds an almost comic touch to his character, but also reveals his monomaniac tendencies.
Set pieces full of suspense and a vivid sense of a much emptier landscape prove that, when it comes to description, less is more. With equal economy, particularly in the clipped dialogue, Kingsnorth keeps up the pace: the killing of a shaven-headed Norman thegn – "with my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind" – leads to dreadful reprisals for an innocent hamlet. This troubles the men but not, alarmingly, their leader, an increasingly amoral force of nature whose ancient beliefs are now yesterday's news, and whose grandfather's idea of what is "triewe" – kings "of wodens blud" buried in great ships and so forth – leaves the grandson fatally out of touch. He is less a Christ figure than a man increasingly absurd in his paranoid self-delusion, picking up hints of doubt from his fellow guerrillas yet incapable of adjusting except through violence.
Repeated treacheries, however, suggest his caustic view of people is not so awry. The word "smercan" – "smiling" but also "smirking" – tolls eerily throughout, as does "cwelled" ("killed") and "fuccan", the latter making him sound like a beer-swilling yob, yelling at the world as it talks nothing but the proverbial "scit". His vision of a great black bird with human fingers and his hearing of voices make him either mad or a prophet, and this ambiguity troubles the tale's often lyrical surface until the surprising close. Like a redneck recluse stocking up his arsenal against apocalypse, Buccmaster is both utterly believable and quietly tragic – a man of limited intelligence faced with a monstrous change against which sheer bravado, driven by the earth gods though it is, can only shatter. - Adam Thorpe

Paul Kingsnorth's new novel, The Wake — a grim tale of medieval conquest and revenge — became a hit against all odds in the U.K. last year, and it's about to be released in the U.S.
I met Kingsnorth at his home in the countryside of far western Ireland. He and his wife grow their own food and home-school their two young kids. "I think we'll get bees and chickens, we hope, maybe something else," he told me, calling out to his daughter. "Lela, you want an alpaca, don't you? Lela wants an alpaca or a donkey or anything fluffy, really."
Kingsnorth's novel is definitely not soft and fluffy. The Wake is set during the Norman conquest, when armies from France swept across England, crushing Anglo-Saxon civilization. It's sort of a post-apocalyptic tale, set in the 11th century. And it's also written in a slightly made-up language (more about that in a bit).
Before the book came out in Britain last year, Kingsnorth assumed it would be a flop.
"I suppose I was probably halfway through it when I thought: There's no way anybody's going to publish this," he said. "I'm writing a book about a period in history no one knows about, in a language no one can understand, with a central character who's horrible. There's absolutely no way anyone's going to touch this with a bargepole, but I don't care!"
Kingsnorth used a crowdfunding platform called Unbound to fund the book because he couldn't get any mainstream publishers to bite. Then something strange happened: "The first inkling I got that it might be successful was when the first review came out, which was in The Guardian, which said it was a literary triumph. Which, I thought, 'Blimey, no one's ever said that about my writing before!' "
Then one day he was working in the garden when he got a phone call with some news: "It's just been long-listed for the Booker Prize. And I thought, bloody hell, what? This is ridiculous!"
To top it all off, the great Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance bought the film rights. Rylance was recorded for The Telegraph newspaper reading passages from the book, like this one:
"when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness."
If that doesn't sound like modern English, well, it's not. The Wake is not written in modern English. At first, Kingsnorth tried writing the book in the language you and I speak today.
"I didn't get too far, and I just thought this isn't working," he said. "It seemed strange. It made me realize why some historical novels I've read didn't work for me. I thought, I just can't have this guy doing 300 pages of contemporary English idiom, and what's the alternative to that?"
So he began by sprinkling a few Old English words into the text. Then, he went all the way until it was nearly incomprehensible. Finally, he pulled back on the throttle to create what he calls a "shadow tongue," a mashup of old and new.
The main character is a rebel — an insurgent who tries to fight back against the invading French. As a reader, I found that the language starts as an obstacle but quickly pulls you deep into the world of the novel. Kingsnorth said this is because the words we use to describe our world shape our perception of it.
"So, there might be 10 different names in 10 different languages for that willow tree over there. And they may give the people who use those names a subtly different way of understanding the tree, a subtly different relationship to it," he said.

I asked Kingsnorth whether he began to see the land around him differently because of the language he was using to describe it.
"Yes, I think I probably did," he told me. "I think what you find when you start to look at Old English and you start to look at the kind of Anglo-Saxon relationship with the land is that it's a starker thing. Because it's possible to just pass over landscapes in the world today, you don't have to really have any relationship with the land at all; you can drive through them. And if you're living the kind of life that these people lived in the Fens 1,000 years ago, you have to have a relationship with every single thing that's there."
There are clear parallels between Kingsnorth's writing and his lifestyle: the closeness to the land; the sense that civilization as we know it may not last; the longing for a simpler time, a longing that permeates The Wake, even though it's set 1,000 years in the past.
"This is one of the other things I was exploring in the book, actually, is the idea of nostalgia, that there's always a time before your time when things were better," Kingsnorth said. "Because I can be prone to that myself, so I wanted to explore what that was like. And I don't doubt that 1,000 years ago there were men in England saying, oh, it was better when our fathers came, it was better when their fathers came. Of course there would've been. And maybe it would've been. But there's always a temptation to see this time before a fall when everything came apart."

Those echoes between the 11th century and the present day resonated with English readers; the U.K. booksellers' industry crowned The Wake "Book of the Year." The novel will be released in the U.S. next week. - Ari Shapiro


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