Englishness in an Apocalypse

By Siân EchardMarch 2, 2016

Englishness in an Apocalypse

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

aels blaec and scinan in the sunne

ONE MORNING in 1067, just before his world falls apart, Buccmaster of Holland, a free farmer of Lincolnshire, sets out in his boat on the fens to catch eels. One of his earliest memories is of eel-fishing with his grandfather, seeing the old man spear “six writhan aels blaec and scinan in the sunne what is risan now ofer the yeolo secg” (six writhing eels, black and shining in the sun that was now rising over the yellow sedge). The image is striking in its contrast between darkness and light, black and yellow, water and land. It is a moment in this novel written in an invented language — characteristic, readers come to realize — when beauty arises from unexpected directions.

The eels on this day are smaller and scarcer than those Buccmaster remembers from his childhood, in part because more people are laying claim to them (Buccmaster, we have already grasped at this early point in the novel, does not really see the need for most other people to exist at all). This nostalgic contrast with the time before 1067, when eels were so plentiful a man could walk across the fen on their backs, is also an ominous sign of a changing England, where the the natural world’s decline into scarcity echoes the destruction brought about by the Norman Conquest of 1066. A farmer who struggles to find eels symbolizes the invaders’ power to create a world in which deprivation will become the new normal.

         all is broc

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s deliriously experimental imagining of the Norman Conquest as both natural and cultural apocalypse, is rather like Buccmaster’s fens. It is deep and sometimes bewildering, a mysterious expanse in which things, like eels, occasionally break the surface and become transcendent. Sometimes these are Buccmaster’s own memories or observations. Sometimes, they are the reader’s sudden apprehension of a moment of beauty or clarity coalescing from the sea of words. The words look a bit like Old English, though they are not. This is language — made of lost and invented words, often inaccessible at first to readers not familiar with Old English — that seems to require a kind of letting go, a willing surrender to its depths. And as in the fens, what rises to the surface may be dangerous or disturbing as well as beautiful. Neither the language nor the history is, in this novel, exactly “accurate” (more about that later), but intended to call up the Anglo-Saxon world whose disappearance it chronicles.

As the novel progresses, dread overtakes the increasingly fleeting moments of lyricism. Kingsnorth makes it clear that he views the Conquest as a catastrophe that changed England forever, arguing in his historical postscript that it set the stage for a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few that persists to this day. He knows his presentation of the Conquest’s effects is not always in line with current scholarship, but he rejects what he sees as academic fashion in favor of an uncompromising picture of conquest as apocalypse. The Norman castles, built on “wounds” in the ground and seen by the uncomprehending English as alien structures from hell, can be read as foreshadowings of industrial blight and agricultural dislocation in later ages. Kingsnorth writes that his goal was to suggest “the sheer alienness of Old England,” and he succeeds brilliantly, not least because of his riveting protagonist. At the same time, this alien past is clearly linked to our burdened present. The backward look is both cautionary and premonitory.

         go baec yes

If readers are to learn from this blasted past, the knowledge is hard-won. The narrative shifts without warning between Buccmaster’s childhood, his pre-Conquest life, and the years immediately after the Conquest. All of these episodes come to us as recollections in an unspecified end time, and all in Buccmaster’s own voice. Despite the sometimes dizzying and disorienting effect as Buccmaster moves between these moments (and despite our growing certainty that Buccmaster is not necessarily a reliable narrator), certain figures take gradual and insistent shape.

There is his grandfather, who told him stories of the old gods, laying the groundwork for Buccmaster’s rejection of Christ as just another “ingenga” (invader), like William the Conqueror. It is the grandfather who tells Buccmaster that the family sword was made by the mythical blacksmith Weland the Smith who also made the hero Beowulf’s chainmail. This detail becomes increasingly important as it dawns on us that Buccmaster believes Weland talks to him. The care with which other characters treat him is another source of information. His wife, Odelyn, has learned that challenging him in any way leads to violence, and the cautiously bemused reaction of the reeve and townsfolk to his vision of a black bird with flaming eyes, in the months before Hastings, suggests that they, too, see him as potentially explosive.

Some characters we learn about despite Buccmaster’s unwillingness to speak about them. While he says at the beginning that he must tell his truth, much of his personal story is endlessly deferred, as he refuses to speak of his father or of his sister Aelfgifu. Revelations are doled out sparingly, with some coming only in the very last pages. The beginning of the novel tells Buccmaster he must “go baec.” A reader who can stand to go back, after it is all over, would, I think, read a very different book as a result.

         angland is but a tale from a time what is gan

That tendency for time to fold back on itself is one of the most exhilarating (if bewildering) aspects of this “historical” novel. By the time we meet him in some indeterminate post-Conquest period, Buccmaster has become a green man, a guerilla fighter living in the woods and (less often than we might expect, given his frequent references to his sword) venturing out to harry the French. Yet despite his present reality, Buccmaster defines himself persistently in terms of his past position as a socman with three oxgangs of land, a great house, and a wife all men desire. It is Buccmaster who tells us that England is a tale from a time that has gone, a mirage-like island in the mist, even as he frames his present reality in terms of that tale. When even he can no longer hold onto the dignity of his position as landowner, he imagines himself as a ring-giver, leading a warband of heroes, like Beowulf and the kings of old. Hereward the Wake, the historical English hero who opposed the Normans from a base in the fens, is, for Buccmaster, competition. Buccmaster’s irritation at Hereward’s reputation is an amusing motif threaded through an increasingly bleak and paranoid narrative.

         the grasses is wet with dew lic hwit silc ofer my land

Though Buccmaster speaks often of England, it is the fens, and even more microscopically, his own land, that prompt his rare moments of lyrical description. These are welcome moments of relief, for just as he is not in fact much of a hero, Buccmaster is not, normally, much of a poet. His language often seems incapable of expressing anything beyond simple emotions and thoughts. He does feel love — for his wife, his sons, his sister, and his grandfather — and as for despair, it is the first thing we know about him, as he tells us that “all is broc now.”

He asserts the need to speak and tell the truth, but also struggles with speech, and Kingsnorth gives him a vocabulary in which violence and delusion dominate, with the grandeur Buccmaster himself longs for resolutely undercut by his own limited, profanity-laden bitterness. The rare moments of blunt lyricism that arise from Buccmaster’s relationship with the land are relentlessly paired with the repetitive refrains punctuating his human encounters, in which all people are, as he might put it, fuccan esols (donkeys) cunts scuccas (demons) who specan scit.

         words now is left my only waepens

I did not count how many times Buccmaster used his very English profanities, but there were, I think, many more references to shit than, say, to “dew like white silk.” Kingsnorth’s “shadow tongue,” as he calls it, is key to the experience of the novel, and here I cannot help but feel that knowing Old English was a hindrance rather than a help. Kingsnorth never claims to be writing an authentic form of the language, but rather, to be drawing on it to create a sense of an alien time that has passed. He confines himself to words of Old English origin, but, he freely admits, he hammers and mutates them as seems required.

Sometimes the results are sublime and oddly authentic. When Buccmaster and his band of green men stumble upon an isolated forest village celebrating the arrival of summer, they are greeted by maidens who offer them branches and garlands: “grene withigs for grene men they saes for sumor is in angland and angland will be again in sumor.” Old English verse, structured around alliterative half-lines, often makes strategic use of repetition, and in this example, the crossed figure (summer / England / England / summer) achieves a force whose poignancy is all the greater for being an isolated moment of stillness and hope in the midst of darkness.

Familiarity with the literary form of Old English did allow me to fall into the rhythm of the novel’s language quite quickly, but often the experience was rather like watching a subtitled film in a language one knows just well enough to be constantly checking on the accuracy of the translations. The incorporation of bits and pieces of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature might, similarly, work differently for readers for whom the material is new. At one point, I recognized the Exeter Book riddles told by the travelling gleoman, one of the novel’s minor characters, and so much of the fun of being fished by the apparently ribald content was undercut — like the sour Buccmaster himself, I had heard these before. On the other hand, finding myself unexpectedly aligned with Buccmaster was amusing and chastening in equal measure.

         their place was tacan by names what has not growan from that ground

The words that are Buccmaster’s weapons are, as I’ve noted above, exclusively English words, part of Kingsnorth’s imagining of an Englishness rooted in the ground of England. Buccmaster repeatedly worries about the loss of place names that seem to him to be natural growths from the ground itself. He laments that the French will rename the trees, which will then become “sum thing ingenga of what i can no longer spec” (some foreign thing of which I can no longer speak).

It is as if the English names were the true names, while the French names are impositions. But the novel also recognizes — though perhaps not Buccmaster — that Britain was mixed, linguistically and ethnically, before the Conquest. In the beginning of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731), Bede remarked that Britain had five languages: English, Welsh, Irish, Pictish, and Latin. Buccmaster’s sense of Englishness is not necessarily reflective of even his immediate reality.

         we is all anglisc now

I have already noted that Kingsnorth draws an explicit connection between the Conquest and the current ownership of resources in Britain. The novel’s plot also intersects with modern concerns about migration and multiculturalism. What appears at first to be a story about the genocide of one people by another is rapidly complicated by Buccmaster’s response to that genocide.

Early in his life in the wood, Buccmaster falls in with a boy called Tofe. Tofe is of Danish extraction — not surprising, given that the novel is set near the Danelaw, that area of the north invaded and then settled by Vikings from the ninth century onwards. Buccmaster’s rage at the French invaders frequently generalizes to a condemnation of any who might be classed as a foreigner, and Tofe more than once expresses his anxious belief that the Danish settlers of the north count as “us” rather than “them” — we are all English now, he says. The historical backdrop to Buccmaster’s experience of the Conquest includes the campaigns in 1069 and 1070 in which Sweyn II of Denmark, the Saxon Edgar the Atheling, and Malcolm of Scotland attempted to wrest back control of the north. But Buccmaster’s view is resolutely local, so local that almost no one is truly English enough. He asserts that he is like a tree, grown from the ground of his land; the old gods he worships are gods, he has learned from his grandfather, of English wind and water.

And yet Buccmaster’s grandfather has also taught him that the Saxons are the descendants of folk who came from across the sea to find a land that was wild with “wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf” (Welsh people, elves, and the wolf). The Saxons, he says, tamed this wild land so that it became theirs by right. The view of the native Welsh as creatures of the wild, waiting to be subdued, surely displays the logic of the conqueror, and it is ironic that Buccmaster cannot imagine how the English might appear to the Welsh. Medieval Welsh prophetic poetry is often devoted to imagining the days when the hated English would be cast out: in Yr Afallennau (The Apple Trees), for example, the speaker anticipates “slaughter of Saxons on ashen spears / and playing ball with their heads.” The Welsh presence in the novel, then, haunts Buccmaster’s imagining of Englishness.

Other forms of English imperialism may also be evoked in how the novel stages the clash between Briton and Saxon. Buccmaster’s grandfather’s account of the Saxon conquest is eerily like Tennyson’s imperial King Arthur, who at the outset of his reign similarly set England in order:

[…] drave
The heathen; after, slew the beast, and felled
The forest, letting in the sun, and made
Broad pathways for the hunter and the knight
And so returned.  

Buccmaster’s grandfather’s stories remind us that the lines between native and foreigner are not clear-cut, however they may seem to Buccmaster. 

         it is bocs that does yfel

Buccmaster has little time for books. Books bring the laws that the libertarian Buccmaster sees as encroaching on his freedom, and books bring Christianity, to displace the old gods. He says that leaves (of trees) are better than leaves (of books). But the very last pages of the novel evoke its bookness explicitly, and positively, with a note about the chosen typeface, Jenson. This is a gorgeous 15th-century Roman font designed by the French printer Nicolas Jenson in Venice in 1470, first used in an edition of the works of Eusebius. The note adds that the blackletter font used for the titles is based on handwriting from Jenson’s era. This is a handsomely designed book, clearly conceived with much attention to the appeal of the page.

Like the novel itself, the design is complex, but the clashes it produces are potentially productive. The choices made throw together manuscript conventions (the blackletter titles but also sparing use of punctuation and the absence of uppercase letters), the resolute orality of Buccmaster’s first-person voice, and Jenson’s association with Humanism and its crucial companion, the printing press. The book materializes as a reminder that history comes to us only in highly mediated ways, through flawed witnesses like Buccmaster, imaginative writers like Kingsnorth, and makers like Jenson and his modern-day descendants at Graywolf.


Siân Echard is professor of English at the University of British Columbia.

LARB Contributor

Siân Echard is professor of English at the University of British Columbia. She is a medievalist whose interests are in Arthurian literature, Anglo-Latin literature, Old and Middle English literature, and manuscript studies and book history.


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