be waery of the storm.
be most waery when there is no storm in sight
Friends, it’s time to talk about The Wake*.
I’ve had my eye on this book for months, ever since I read Kay’s review, and when it arrived and I started reading, it was incredibly hard to pry myself away from it for food, sleep, parenting, and other adult-type endeavors.
Let’s chat history for a second. What do you know about the Norman conquest? Here’s my list as of ten days ago:
- It involved the Normans.
- There was a conquest.
- It happened in 1066.
- It involved the Battle of Hastings.
- William the Conqueror was the big winner.
- Normans are the bad guys in Robin Hood.
And there you have it. I’m willing to bet that for most of us, that’s pretty much the extent of our knowledge. After all, when’s the last time you saw a movie or read a novel about the Norman conquest? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but art brings history to life, and keeps it living in the minds of readers (and viewers) for hundreds of years, or thousands. And when there isn’t much, or any, art about a culture or a period or a people, it or they will tend to fade in our collective memory. (Cue Galadriel’s Lord of the Rings preamble here.)
Read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and the Norman conquest will be seared in your mind. You won’t forget it. This is an amazing book, terrifying and beautiful all at once. Its pacing is exquisite, its language revelatory, its protagonist a marvel of extended characterization.
When 1066 begins, The Wake‘s narrator, Buccmaster, is a socman of Angland, a landowner who owes allegiance to no thegn (if that word sounds familiar, think Macbeth), only the king. He has a wife and two teenage sons, as well as three servants (two laborers and one servingwoman for his wife). Proud and stubborn, he comes to feel that signs in the natural world are speaking to him of something momentous that is coming.
That something is the Norman army. Soon Buccmaster has lost everything of value in his world—his wife, children, land, servants—with the exception of his grandfather’s sword, which his grandfather claimed was given him by a mythical figure named Weland the Smith.
Taking his sword, Buccmaster retreats into the forest and over the next two years recruits a small band of green men to conduct what is essentially guerrilla warfare against the French invaders, with increasingly disastrous results.
“now Angland is but a tale from a time what is gan,” says Buccmaster early in the novel. His account, flawed and madness-filled, is the tale of a lost England, but it is of course his tale too, one that he controls with varying degrees of dexterity. He includes tales of the old gods, like the set pieces in the Iliad or the Odyssey, tales of his own history, tales of the recent past (his own and others’) that he reframes without shame to suit his present audience. But in the end, it is a tale told by a woman—and women in this book are almost always marginalized, oppressed, almost always objects of violence (Buccmaster is an unapologetic wife-beater)—that undoes the story he’s told about himself.
It becomes increasingly apparent that he’s becoming unhinged, like a slow-burning Lear; for him, the invasion is not the first unwelcome advance of a foreign power. Though he is economically privileged, Buccmaster is also an outsider because like his grandfather, he despises “the crist” (Christ), viewing Angland’s weakened state as a result of its people turning away from the old gods (Norse, as we would think of them). Thus his quest to rout “the frenc” and return Angland to what he thinks are its roots is doubly doomed.
There’s so much in the novel to think about: madness, pride, grief, colonization, memory, religion, storytelling, vengeance. Buccmaster’s unreliability is mirrored in the reader’s realization that what we know, what we’ve been taught, is inevitably incomplete. We are accustomed to recognizing that the English, the French, the Dutch colonized parts of the world that have yet to recover from imperialism’s yoke (and hopefully we realize that the descendants of those colonized peoples are often still treated terribly unjustly; for a literary example, see The Round House). It’s harder to grasp that England itself was colonized, violently and more than once, in this case by an enemy with superior technology (steel, horses, chainmail), an enemy that re-shaped the land itself (through the building of castles, which Buccmaster and his men regard as devilish).
How far back does this chain of suffering extend? What does it mean to be English, French, any one people?
There is no single answer to that question, but one possible answer has to do with language, the stuff from which we build our stories. Buccmaster wonders how his language will survive and the answer is before us, since so much of it did; The Wake is almost an experiment in how language itself—sounds, really—can re-create a lost world.
Citing his dissatisfaction with historical novels written in modern language**, Mr. Kingsnorth wrote the book in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” Old English updated with enough modern grammar and sentence structure to be readable by people (like me) who’ve never studied it. Mr. Kingsnorth writes almost exclusively with Anglo-Saxon, not Latinate words, and provides a brief glossary to catch those that might not be understandable phonetically and in context. It takes a few pages of getting used to, but after about ten pages I was hooked, just awash in this not-English English. (Sci-fi readers: the experience is a bit like reading Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden.)
The difference of the language, the requirement of focusing on each and every word, and the unusual orthography (there are no commas, colons, semicolons, or question marks that I noticed; proper names are rarely capitalized; paragraphs end without periods) ensure that the reader is locked into the world of the novel. For the first fifty pages or so, I felt almost overwhelmed by dread. By the end of the book, my hair was quite literally standing on end***. It’s just harrowing, completely harrowing. Read the first two pages and you’ll see****.
a storm saes the gleoman cums from heofen it cannot be feoht only lifd through
[a storm says the storyteller comes from heaven it cannot be fought only lived through]
A week or two ago, I pointed readers toward “The Whales,” a poem by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie. I’ve had the chance to read the rest of the collection in which it appears, called The Overhaul*, which is stellar. I highly recommend it.
In some ways, Ms. Jamie’s voice reminds me of a sparer Mary Oliver; the two poets share a keen sense of the detail in nature and spin that detail into larger observations, but Ms. Jamie’s poems are less conversational. I loved her striking images, like the stags who “hold” the speaker and her companion in “civil regard” as their antlers rise “like masts in a harbour, or city spires.”
In an odd way, The Overhaul resembles The Wake in its evocation of the landscape and in its occasional dip into Scots (as in the poem “Tae the Fates,” in which the speaker begs the powers that be for just “ane summer mair” to make “ane perfect poem”) to conjure up a sense of a different time. While these poems develop a sense of sadness for the things of this world that are passing away, like the young eagle in “The Halfling” leaving its youth behind or the seasons that fade, there is also a sense of hope in them, which I found refreshing and necessary after the marathon of The Wake; I’ve gone back to these poems more than once after reading them.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.
**One wonders, though, if he’s read Hilary Mantel.
***(I took a picture to prove it, but the whole disembodied-arm thing didn’t really seem like the best choice here).
****Or get in touch with me (e-mail, Twitter, instagram) and I’ll send you an audio file of me reading them. This book is built to be read aloud.