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England Unfree

Ed Simon

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound, 384 pp, £18, ISBN: 978-1783520985

What does it mean that the apocalypse has happened many times before, and that it will most likely happen many times in the future? This is perhaps less the question than the overall mood presented by English poet Paul Kingsnorth’s stylistically dazzling, brilliant, and difficult new book The Wake. In this surprise bestseller in Britain, Kingsnorth provides the internal, first person narrative of “bucmaster” (in keeping with faux-archaism there is no capitalisation in the author’s orthography) who is an English landowner in the eleventh century, living after the invasion of the Norman French. Written in an invented Anglo-Saxon patois, for which a glossary must be supplied as an appendix, Kingsnorth’s prose is an incantatory rush of words repeated in Old English alliteration and parallelism.

Save for the occasional period, his writing is without punctuation, seemingly mimicking in the consciousness of his readers the scripto continua of the era when literature referred to stains strategically placed on stretched animal hide. For the reader the literal meaning of bucmaster’s words exists often beyond the cusp of comprehensibility, and yet giving oneself to the deluge of defamiliarised words, evoking the language spoken by Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes and forcing Kingsnorth’s audience to dwell among the textures and sounds of English itself. “when I woc in the megen 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.”

This language is not a simple conceit, and it is no postmodern trick but rather central to the meaning of the novel. The strangeness yet simultaneous familiarity of the words can often defer literal meaning for the reader; one finds oneself understanding bucmaster’s narration through context, and often passages only make sense latter on as you acclimate yourself to his linguistic world. But what this distance from surface literalism achieves is a poetic othering of our own language. The early twentieth century Russian formalist literary critic Roman Jakobson believed that what made poetry poetic was that it drew attention to its own artifice, sometimes by making our own language foreign to us. If this is a credible definition of poetry – and I think that it is – than Kingsnorth’s book is a novel in verse.

bucmaster’s world is one decimated by William the Conqueror and the Norman French, and true to the name of the Doomsday Book, as that new sovereign would name his census, this is a story of apocalypse. The Wake is both representative of and demonstrates that ancient Spenglerian lesson – that history is forever cyclical. What differentiates Kingsnorth’s achievement is the language itself, because the difficulty and deferred comprehension phenomenologically mimics the very process of apocalypse itself. After all, the Greek word literally means an “uncovering” and as the reader progresses and engages with the The Wake a process of conscious uncovering is precisely what happens as you comprehend more and more of bucmaster’s initially strange language.

Kingsnorth’s previous work as a poet is obvious in The Wake, where lines like “none will loc but the wind will cum. The wind cares not for the hopes of men” demonstrate the literary beauty of an English made new again. Indeed Kingsnorth has the natural ear of a poet, and is attuned to the creative possibilities of Old English, lines like “by spillan anglisc guttas on anglisc ground and claiman anglisc land their own” recalls the natural repetition of medieval epic, and a line like “[it must] be telt and words now is left my only waepens and none wold sae i has efer been afeart to wield what waepens i has” evoke in both metre, caesura, and alliteration Anglo-Saxon rules of prosody while also providing a poignant reminder of literature’s emancipatory possibility in resistance against tyranny. And when bucmaster says “what is this fuccan thing i saes” Kingsnorth also reminds us of the rich reservoir of English obscenity which we must thank the Anglo-Saxons for.

It is in the poetic quality of alliteration that Kingsnorth most often excels, for a book written in mock Old English is testament to one of the natural brilliances of our language, which is that consonant-heavy tendency towards alliteration. Despite the historical privileging of rhyme in our language (in part because of England’s invasion by a Romance culture in the eleventh century) it has never been aurally natural in our tongue, yet, as the alliterative tradition revived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Kingsnorth alerts us to the innate creative potential in English alliteration.

That revival, a medieval literary period long after the Norman Conquest which mimicked the poetics of the Anglo-Saxons, has sometimes been interpreted as a cultural resistance against the French-speaking aristocracy of England. Indeed the idea that the Anglo-Saxons had an innate sense of freedom which was somehow snuffed out by the Normans is one which has (often conveniently) been a staple of English polemic and an ideological and rhetorical manoeuvre which Kingsnorth is perfectly comfortable with. bucmaster says “i was a free man of angland a man of parts in my land i was born this way i is still a free man i is still a free man” but that despite this freedom “our fathers was freer than us” since his is a world where “efry thing gets smaller.”

For Kingsnorth there is an ideological purpose to all of this; he writes that “Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the ‘Norman Yoke.’ In my view the Yoke was very real, and echoes of it can still be found today.” Indeed the idea of resistance to a supposed “Norman Yoke” has been utilised throughout English history across the ideological spectrum. It was popular in the seventeenth century, when radical religious non-conformists typologically configured it into their own prelapsarian understanding of an England which was once economically egalitarian.

Kingsnorth echoes the Leveller agitator Gerard Winstanley, who said he was overjoyed at “Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse [having] caste out… our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake.” For Winstanley, William the Conqueror’s invasion signalled a fall from the free primitive communism he associated with the Anglo-Saxons, and he advocated the seizure and redistribution of the commons for the benefit of all. Kingsnorth – who in addition to being a poet and now a novelist is also an affecting writer about ecological issues – is in many ways an intellectual descendant of Winstanley. He writes: “In 21st-century England, 70% of the land is still owned by less than 1% of the population; the second most unequal rate of land ownership on the planet … It is questionable whether this would be the case had the Normans not concentrated all of it in the hands of the king and his cronies nearly 1000 years ago.”

It’s an important question and a way of thinking whose time has more than come. And critics and audiences are thankfully amenable to it; The Wake was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and the novel was a surprise success in Britain (all the more impressive considering the difficulty of its language). But the idea of the “Norman yoke” can be a subtle and difficult concept, and for all that it can tells us about economic inequality it must by necessity hedge its bets on issues of colonialism precisely because of the millennia of history which followed the French invasion.

This is in part what makes The Wake fascinating, that we are confronted with what seems to be a paradoxical object, which is a post-colonial English novel. And indeed this is a novel of post-colonialism as well as apocalypticism (for what is invasion and domination but a form of apocalypse?) where bucmaster can pine that “hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the new age was written in the songs of men so it is when a world ends”. For bucmaster the era before the Normans was one where “free men alone in the wilde tacan men in freedom not in thrall”.

Of course the irony of an English post-colonial novel is that at one point a quarter of the world was under British domination, and in reading about the Norman yoke it’s useful to also remember that from the United States, to India, to Israel most of the independence days observed throughout the world commemorate an independence from Great Britain. Kingsnorth writes that “Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences in the mouths of eleventh-century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.” Yet as stylistically brilliant as the language is, The Wake must by necessity be just as much a product of our historical moment as if Kingsnorth had given bucmaster an iPad. To riff on Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go back to the eleventh century again.

That’s the inherent difficulty in a post-colonial English novel; Kingsnorth writes that “The cataclysm of 1066 sparked nearly a decade of risings, rebellions and guerrilla warfare across the country … This resistance finds contemporary parallels in the struggles of the Viet Cong against the US army or the French against the Nazis.” It’s strange that he leaves out a particularly obvious contemporary example in the English presence in that island across the Irish Sea (where the author in fact lives). It highlights the awkwardness of writing in a post-colonial mode for a culture that has acquired a half-millennium of imperial hegemony, for bucmaster’s “angland” is obviously not our England. But there is a more important message that is independent of historical context, one that is true regardless of who is the oppressed and who is doing the oppressing, and that is that “an unfree land breeds an unfree folc”.


Ed Simon is a doctoral candidate in English at Lehigh University in the United States, where he researches seventeenth century Atlantic religion and literature. In addition to his academic publications he has been published on the subjects of religion, literature, and culture at Salon, Quartz, AlterNet, Tikkun, The Revealer, Religion Dispatches, the Public Domain Review and others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.