11th Century

Review: Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake” (2014)

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Manchester: Unbound, 2014) 372pp. PB £8.99 ISBN 978-1-78352-098-5

Although a review of this work has already been posted on the website of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, I am participating in a round table discussion of this book at the forthcoming Medievalism Conference in Bamberg, Germany in July 2016. The following review is therefore taken from the notes I have made while reading Paul Kingsnorth’s novel.

Kingsnorth has authored several works so far – both fiction and non-fiction. But The Wake is perhaps the most ambitious of all of them. The reason for this is because the whole is written in an invented form of Anglo-Saxon English. Here is a sample of the ‘language’ that appears in Kingsnorth’s work:

Aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr brocen in the daegs beginnan brocen by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the age was written in the songs of men (2).

The ‘language’ used serves to alienate the modern reader. Kingsnorth no doubt is striving to give an air of historical ‘authenticity’ to his work. All of this is all very well and good, but one cannot help wondering what the point of it is when a vast majority of his readers cannot understand what Buccmaster – the outlaw protagonist of the novel – is saying or doing. I defer on this matter to Sir Walter Scott’s dedicatory epistle to Ivanhoe (1819) who explained why he avoided doing the same as Kingsnorth and instead opted to write in modern English:

It is true that I neither can nor do pretend to the observation of complete accuracy […] in important points of language and manners. […] the motive which prevents my writing the dialogue of the piece in Anglo-Saxon or Norman French, and which prohibits my sending forth to the public this essay printed with the types of Caxton or Wynken de Worde, prevents my attempting to confine myself within the limits of the period in which my story is laid. It is necessary for exciting interest of any kind that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners, as well as the language, of the age we live in.[1]

To this day Scott is correct: people desire to read something that they can understand. More than this, however, because Kingsnorth is no skilled Anglo-Saxon linguist, his characters come across as simpletons when speaking his invented language, or as another reviewer, Robert DiNapoli,[2] says, a kind of ‘caveman’ speak: ‘buccmaster they all saes buccmaster gretans to you’ (11). As a result of its language, the characters often appear two-dimensional, incapable of complicated thought. The sum total of the sentiments expressed in the novel are: Norman bad, Saxon good.

The novel itself aims to be a ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel depicting what occurred in England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. He begins his narrative by quoting William the Conqueror’s words on his deathbed (oddly quoted in modern English):

I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple I have cruelly oppressed them. Many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes perished through me by famine or by the sword. Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes. I dare not leave it to anyone but God (i).

And William of Malmesbury (oddly, also quoted in modern English):

England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers…they pray upon the riches and vitals of England; nor is there any hope of a termination of this misery (iii).

What Kingsnorth actually does throughout the novel is to recycle an old idea: that of the ‘Norman Yoke’. The idea was current in nineteenth-century scholarship and posited that English society under the Anglo-Saxons was composed of ‘freemen’ and was almost proto-democratic. Then the Normans came and all that apparently changed, and the freedom-loving English folk were oppressed by autocratic Normans. It is an idea to which Kingsnorth still adheres:

Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the Norman Yoke. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the yoke was very real (358).

Thus Kingsnorth has not actually done anything innovative here: the nineteenth century was full of fictional works which express to varying degrees the Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme: Pierce Egan the Younger’s 1840s outlaw novels, and even some of those horrendous late nineteenth-century children’s books all to some degree repeat the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other.

Kingsnorth attempts to portray Buccmaster as some type of Hereward the Wake (died c.1072) or Robin of Locksley from Ivanhoe, gallantly fighting for his country against the Norman oppressors. And he follows the now familiar storyline in medievalist fiction of how people become outlaws: Buccmaster is dispossessed of his lands by the Norman conquerors, and from thence becomes an outlaw/resistance fighter. But he is an outlaw with barely any redeeming qualities. Even before he is outlawed, we are told that he beats his wife (10) which, while domestic abuse may indeed have been prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society, hardly endears the character to a modern reader. Unlike the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe, Buccmaster does not seek to build a better society. Instead he simply wants vengeance, and he comes across as a quite brutal character who it is difficult to sympathise with. In the tales told about them, both Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake do commit violent acts, but they were never cruel. They did not take pleasure in their killing. Buccmaster is essentially unstable, and it appears more that the conquest and his dispossession was simply the perfect excuse for him to indulge his inherent violent tendencies.

At the end of it all, the reader is left pondering what the point of this novel was. Does Kingsnorth have a point to make about modern society? According to Adam Thorpe, who wrote the dire Hodd (2009), Kingsnorth’s novel, which he praises, apparently exhibits ‘a subdued sense that the novel intends a modern parallel with our own dispossessed times’, [3] although Thorpe does not actually say what modern-day relevance it has. Kingsnorth is, admirably, an environmental activist. But apart from a general sense that men could hunt freely before the Norman conquest, any application to modern times is probably lost on the modern reader due to the novel’s pseudo-Saxon tongue.

Although The Wake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, it is difficult to imagine that this novel will have any staying power. If a person wants to read a tale of a gallant Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, then they need to follow the following instructions: head to Waterstones, or any other bookshop. From there head to the classics section and pick up a copy of Ivanhoe by the immortal Walter Scott.

Notes

[1] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 15.
[2] Robert DiNapoli, ‘Lost in Translation: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake’ Arena Magazine No. 133 (December 2014), 52-53.
[3] Adam Thorpe, ‘The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth review – “A literary triumph”’ The Guardian 2 April 2014 [Internet <<http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/02/the-wake-paul-kingsnorth-review-literary-triumph>&gt; Accessed 16 April 2016].

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