Paul Kingsnorth has created an entirely new language to tell the story of the English uprising against the Norman invasion of 1066, of men displaced from their homes, about old gods battling new. The Wake is written in a shadow tongue, an adapted version of Old English (OE) into a language that never existed, but reads and feels like it did. It is a translation of OE so the characters’ are rendered with authenticity, and the contemporary reading of it doesn’t lose meaning.
Our use and understanding of language shapes how we see and express ourselves, so in writing a historical novel Kingsnorth was loath to put 21st-Century words into 11th-Century mouths. Every word used in this book was in existence in 1066, but the spelling or pronunciation has been re-rendered for these pages. Kingsnorth doesn’t use any letters that weren’t in use at the time, such as ‘k’, or ‘j’; and uses OE spelling, using ‘f’ in the place of ‘v’. But in trying to communicate a more ‘true’ historical reality, Kingsnorth has created an entirely new – not historically real – OE, creating himself an interesting paradox.
The Wake was put out by Unbound, a new kind of publishing house: books are crowd-funded. There are proposals, excerpts, progress bars, different levels of reward depending on your donation to a particular book’s progress. Also, this book is literally unbound: its thick copy and embossed hard cover is held together with thick green thread, spineless.
And all this is mere distracting detail I drank up while I struggled, struggled, struggled with the language of this book. I loved the idea of how it was published, how it was written, the ideas behind its shadow tongue, but it was just so difficult to read. I picked it up and put it down over three months while I kept going to the next book on my list. Then finally, run out of everything else, waiting for yet another Book Depository order to arrive, I picked The Wake up again and just got it; it just made sense. I needed the same frame of mind as when reading Shakespeare or Chaucer: it is simultaneously a familiar and alien language, and I needed to step back to both understand it and feel the flow of it.
And beyond the language, what of the story? Buccmaster of Holland is a soccman of the Lincolnshire fens, an independent farmer with a family and indentured servants. Master of his own land, with a family history in the old gods, his life is destroyed by the Norman invasion, losing his children, wife and land. He seeks solace in the old gods and becomes a leader of the disparate rebellion, a leader of the “grene men” living in and off the lands of England, seeking battle with the French invaders. He becomes more sure about both England belonging to the English, and England belonging to the Old Gods, shunning the “ingenga” (foreign) Christ and the Church as much as the Normans. On the French taking over England:
i seen that the names of the folcs of angland was part of anglisc ground lic the treow and rocc and the fenn and hyll and i seen that when these names was tacan from the place where they had growan and cast down on other ground when their place was tacan by names what has not growan from that ground is not of it and can not spece its tunge then a great wrong has been done.
Buccmaster is a man is bearing witness to the end of his world, but it kind of emerges through (and almost despite of) the language that he may not be the hero of the rebellion. Through following the uprising against the French, and flashes back to his past, we see what has formed Buccmaster is not as strong and true and clear and he presents; but dark times and missing history. His life has been shattered, he speaks with lost gods, is guided by visions, and may be as lost in the world as the men he leads
This is a factually strong historical novel, presented in a totally new way: not the language of Old England, or 21st-Century English, but a shadow tongue created so the character may realistically say it, and the reader may realistically understand it. It’s strange and immense, almost post-apocalyptic in feel. Buccmaster’s inner life is rendered with an seemingly complete authenticity but when you get past the language, he emerges as an unreliable leader of men, an unreliable narrator. The Wake tracks England’s reawakening after the Battle of Hastings, and the challenging language feels like an important development in authentic story-telling.