Friday, April 15, 2016

Reviews from the Greenwood: Melissa Ridley Elmes Reviews Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake

Review: Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

Reviewed by Melissa Ridley Elmes

University of North Carolina at Greensboro


Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-55597-717-7. Pbk, $16.00. 365 pp.

Much has been said already about the use of language in Paul Kingsnorth’s first novel since its initial publication by London’s Unbound Press in 2013, with critics falling broadly into two camps: those who praise his courage and skill in writing an entire novel from the perspective of an English landowner dispossessed by the Norman Invasion and in a shadow-tongue of the English spoken at that time, and those who condemn his use of this constructed language as a stunt at best, and an irresponsible custody of the history of the English language at worst.[1] Medievalists (and in particular Anglo-Saxonists) tend to belong to this second group; social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been home to several rousing debates conducted among scholars of the medieval period about the book’s language. 

Moving beyond this debate over the perceived charms or defects of its language, the reader is engaged with a text that seems at once familiar and unfamiliar, accessible and impenetrable, and it is this carefully crafted tension—of which the language used is only one aspect, albeit perhaps the most visible and immediate—that is this book’s true achievement as a literary work. A historical novel constructed as an artifact, but told with a decidedly modern sensibility; a postapocalyptic story, yet one set in the known past rather than an as-yet-unknown future world; a Joycean stream-of-consciousness, close first-person presentation of the events; a Tolkien-esque implementation of the author’s own historically-inspired imagined language: The Wake weaves together the best of modern and postmodern narrative approaches to craft a story so stark and unforgiving that it can reduce a reader in the right frame of mind to tears over the seemingly insurmountable conflict between the human and the inhumane that categorizes so much of our collective historical record and which this book so grippingly fictionalizes. As a work of literature, then, this is truly a stunning achievement. For scholars and aficionados of medieval outlaws in history and legend, The Wake is essential reading, not only for the fictionalized but compelling insight it provides into the decision to turn outlaw which lies at the heart of the protagonist’s narrative, but also because it is certain to become a gateway into the greenwood for modern readers seeking narratives of outlawry that go beyond Robin Hood.

The book opens with two epigrams drawn from the historical record: William of Normandy’s deathbed confession of the atrocities he committed against the English during the Norman Invasion on the first page, followed on the second by William of Malmesbury’s (1095-1143?) postcolonial lament that “England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers … they prey upon the riches and vitals of England.” These passages serve to situate the reader in the novel’s unrelenting view of the French invaders as devils to be driven from the land. From here, the novel opens into a short prologue given in the voice of its protagonist, Buccmaster, a pagan landowner of Danish descent related to the famed blacksmith Weyland.[2] Like a scop in Old English literature, Buccmaster says he will tell through songs the truth of “a folc harried beatan a world broken apart […] deofuls in the heofon all men with sweord when they sceolde be with plough the ground full not of seed but of my folc” (2). Even in these opening passages of the novel Buccmaster’s tone is not mournful, but indignant. He resents more  so than fears the impending disruptions to his daily life predicted in various omens, and he grows increasingly irascible and contemptuous as the narrative unfolds and he watches his way of life dissembling around him, until ultimately, stripped of everything, he turns to vigilante outlawry against his foes. This characterization of a privileged individual watching his privilege stripped from him seems at once historically viable and a commentary on the current political climate in some arenas. 

Buccmaster, of course, is “privileged” by the standards of eleventh-century Englishmen: he is a freeman and holds “three oxgangs of good land” and “two geburs to worc for [him] on it” and “four oxen of my own for the plough” a bounty he claims is “mor than any other man  in this ham” and has entitled him to be viewed as “a great man” who had “a seat on the wapentac” and who owes no dues to any thegn but “geld wolde [he] gif but only to the cyng” (11). It would be folly, however, to view him as a nobleman, or as being privileged in the sense of being a wealthy upper-class individual. Kingsnorth reinforces the understanding that for all his self-proclaimed importance Buccmaster is still an average man at best by filling his speech with shadow-tongue profanity; his enemies and men he deems stupid are esols and he makes prolific use of the word fuccan. This casual use of profanity in its main character, as much as anything, gives the novel its modern sensibility. Buccmaster might be any self-righteous vigilante figure in a modern television police drama, for instance, spouting profanities to openly demonstrate his street cred and contempt for the recipient or subject of his profanity-laced insults.

Buccmaster is an anti-hero. Like his counterparts in the medieval outlaw legendary, including Robin Hood, Gamelyn, and Hereward the Wake—who plays an important role in this book as one of the subjects of Buccmaster’s contempt—he finds himself stripped of his former prestige and social position and, in response, turns to vigilante activity, taking his place in the greenwood with a small group of men to rally against the French and Christian invading powers. However, unlike his medieval counterparts, who each certainly performs brutal and even gruesome acts of violence against their enemies yet who also exhibit loyalty, courtesy, and compassion when it is warranted, there is no redeeming factor in Buccmaster’s character. His outlawry, although undertaken for the same causes that led to the outlawry of Robin Hood and of Hereward—the conquest, slaughter, and enslavement of the English by the French, and the corruption of the officials of the Christian Church—is not so much undertaken for justice as for vengeance, and because of this it succumbs to doubt and treachery, while Buccmaster himself succumbs to paranoia and self-delusion, to which he responds with still further violence. He is stubbornly one-sided and adamantly selfish, so that ultimately he fails in his self-imposed task of reclaiming England from her invaders not so much because his enemies are that much stronger and better equipped, but because he cannot see past his own, limited view of the world and of his place within it to consider other ways of handling the situations in which he finds himself. If he has a fate, it is certainly of his own creating, and therein lays the tragedy of this character. 

The Wake is a challenging, entertaining, at times infuriating and utterly absorbing reimagining of an exceptionally turbulent period in English history. Thematically laced with issues concerning, among others, colonialism, ecocriticism, gender, and political and social systems in flux, the book will pair well instructionally with historical studies and primary source materials from the period it covers for a variety of classroom purposes. Beyond the classroom, The Wake should prove a lasting and influential contribution to the canon of historical novels set in the medieval period, and especially so in terms of its addition to the rapidly-growing cadre of re-imagined outlaw narratives which includes Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles (10 titles, 2009-2015) Stephen McKay’s Forest Lord trilogy (2013-2015), and Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Outlaw Knight (2013).

[1]Among those in the first camp are Adam Thorpe of The Guardian (“The Wake By Paul Kingsnorth Review: A Literary Triumph,” 2 April 2014, and Caleb True for Ploughshares (“Review—The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth,” 12 February 2016, . In the opposing camp, medievalist Robert DiNapoli writes in his review of the book that “On websites, readers and reviewers have reported being beguiled by Kingsnorth’s linguistic re-invention of a distant past, an enchantment that I cannot share, and not out of mere scholarly nicety. It is possible to grow used to the odd spellings and vocabulary, but his attempt to represent anything you could call ‘Anglo-Saxon’ by these means fails wretchedly” (“Lost in Translation,” Arena Magazine (Fitzroy, Vic), No. 133, Dec 2014 - Jan 2015: 52-53,

[2] Also spelled in Old English “Weland” or “Welund,” a historical figure featured on the front panel of the Franks’ casket and in the Old English texts Deor and Beowulf, in the Norse tradition with his own story in the Poetic Edda (“Völundarkviδa”), he is son of the king of the Finns, variously the forger of such legendary swords as Roland’s Durendal and Archbishop Turpin’s Almace (Karlamagnus’s Saga) and Sigmund’s sword Gram, which is destroyed and reforged for his son, Sigurd, who uses it to slay the dragon in Volsunga’s Saga.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

CFP: Making History: Biographical Imperatives in Constructing “Robin Hood,” SEMA 2016 (DEADLINE EXTENDED) & Kzoo 2017

Lorraine K. Stock is soliciting abstracts for SEMA 2016 and Kalamazoo 2017. Please note the deadlines, as the SEMA one is soon. While the Kalamazoo deadline for abstracts is in September, Lorraine would appreciate abstracts sooner than later so that she can better plan for Kalamazoo 2017 as session proposals are due to the Congress in mid-June.

CFP: Making History: Biographical Imperatives in Constructing “Robin Hood”

SEMA 2016, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, October 6-8, 2016


51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 11-14, 2017

Robin Hood (hereafter RH), his outlaw comrades, and antagonists sprang ex nihilo from the greenwood and urban centers of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in such late medieval ballads as RH and the Monk, RH and the Potter, The Gest, and RH and Guy of Gisborne. Presuming audience familiarity with RH’s biography and the origins of his outlawry, these early texts narrated RH’s adventures in medias res, without supplying background about or the origins of the outlaw. Langland’s casual reference to the “Rimes of Robyn Hode” in Piers Plowman (1377) attests medieval familiarity with RH’s real or fictional identity. Already by the 15th century, Andrew of Wyntoun, Walter Bower, and John of Fordun chronicled (therefore historicized) RH’s exploits. 16th-century writers further summarized or augmented RH’s growing collective biography. Citing an “auncient pamphlet,” in 1569 Richard Grafton historicized his elevation of RH from yeomanry to an earldom. Anthony Munday’s 1598 plays, The Downfall … and the Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, extended the growing “biography” of RH: situating him in Richard I’s Plantagenet court; endorsing his earldom; and affiancing him to noble Matilda Fitzwater/Maid Marian, absent in the medieval ballads. The creation of anonymous 17th and 18th-century broadside ballads and chapbooks supplied backstory for the outlaw’s “history.” Bishop Percy combined ballads from Samuel Pepys’ 1723 collection with the Percy Folio’s texts (including RH ballads) in his 1765 oft-reissued Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Capping this biographical imperative, antiquarian Joseph Ritson published his 1795 (and oft-reissued) 2-volume Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads…To Which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of His Life. Ritson’s Preface, a 10-page “Life” of RH, is documented by 104 pp. of “Notes and Illustrations” supporting his construction of RH’s personal history. Subsequent iterations of RH’s biography adopted and adapted Ritson’s paradigm.
Rather than solicit documentation attesting the historical existence of an actual outlaw who was (or supplied the model for) the figure now recognized as “RH,” this session about biography/historiography and RH invites 15-20 minute papers investigating various manifestations of this enduring imperative to adapt, augment, or change the “history” or constructed “biography” of RH in any media including (but not limited to): medieval and post-medieval literary texts and chronicles; modern historiography (Rodney Hilton, Maurice Keen, etc.); post-medieval poetry, plays, fiction; opera; films; television; print and film documentaries. Final paper length depends on the number of apt abstracts.

For those interested in submitting an abstract for the 55th Annual Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA) Conference, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, October 6-8, 2016, send 1-page abstracts before May 25 to Lorraine K. Stock, University of Houston:

For those interested in submitting an abstract for the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 11-14, 2017, send 1-page abstracts before September 10 to Lorraine K. Stock, University of Houston:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

CFP: IARHS Sponsored Session, SEMA 2016, "Greenwood Fashion" DEADLINE EXTENDED

Southeastern Medieval Association/SEMA, 6-8 October 2016

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

International Association for Robin Hood Studies/IARHS- Sponsored Session: 

Greenwood Fashion: Clothing, Textiles, Skins, and Furs in the Ongoing Robin Hood Legend


            The Robin Hood ballads and other Robin Hood tellings, from the past through the present, often emphasize clothing and accessories, as well as related textiles, skins, and furs.  For example, in the medieval Gest of Robyn Hode, Little John becomes the “draper” for the impoverished knight, even giving him well over the “thre yerdes” of “scarlet and grene” which Robin suggests (ll. 277-296) – which also raises the question of what, exactly, the terms “scarlet” and “green” mean in the context of the Gest and the ballads.  Clothing continues to figure in the tale of the poor knight, and also in the Third Fytte when Little John tricks the Sheriff into being captured by Robin Hood (ll. 769-784).   In the Seventh Fytte, the king and his party disguise themselves as monks in an attempt to trap Robin Hood (ll.1465-1500), a disguise beloved later by filmmakers and other storytellers, just as Marian’s disguising herself as a page in the ballad of “Robin Hood and Maid Marian,” circa 1600, continues in some form in various novels, plays, and films.  Then there is the “capull-hyde,/Topp, and tayle, and mayne” in which the bloodthirsty Guy of Gisborne is clothed in the ballad “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne” (ll.29-30).  Clothing continues to be a matter of some importance in the Robin Hood legends, sometimes even serving as psychological markers as, for instance, the bright jeweled flowers on shining black which Olivia de Haviland’s Lady Marian wears when we – and Robin – first see her in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, when Marian is sure of herself and her place in society, and confident in that society, as opposed to the somber dark burgundy she wears at Robin’s trial for treason.    

            For this session, we welcome 20-minute papers from any discipline, including interdisciplinary papers, which examine some aspect(s) of clothing, textiles, skins, and furs in the ongoing Robin Hood legend. 

            Please send a 300 word abstract and brief bio to Sherron Lux at AND Melissa Ridley Elmes at BY 25 May 2016 so we can meet the final submission deadline of 1 June. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Reviews from the Greenwood: James Howard Reviews Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood (2015)

Review: Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth

Reviewed by James Howard

The Georgia Institute of Technology


Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015). 296 pp. Hardback. ISBN: 978-0-7190-9526-9. £70.00; $100.00

In Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Stephen Knight provides both an accessible introduction to studying Robin Hood and also a comprehensive vision of how Robin Hood studies continues to develop as a field.
In form, the book is organized into clusters of chapters on broad trends in the outlaw myth, with the entire book attempting to describe what the Robin Hood corpus is. There is no one answer. Knight notes in both the first and the last chapter the inadequacy of conventional notions of canon, source text, or literary influence in describing connections between Robin Hood texts. Robin Hood studies has no First Folio or no Le Morte Darthur, texts that have centered criticism in Shakespearean or Malorian. Instead, Knight uses the concept of the rhizome from the French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. A rhizomatic form of organization is not a genealogy or family tree. Rather than operating hierarchically from a series of source texts, a rhizome proceeds linearly between dense clusters of roots. 
From these rhizomatic nodes Knight is able to specify strands that form the middle chapters of his book, which focus on the relationship between orality and literacy, strands of Scottish nationalism, the broadside ballad, the Romantic period and the longer nineteenth century, and Maid Marian. This rather eclectic-sounding list comes together because, despite their distinct focuses, each chapter is comprehensive enough to give a compelling slice of the Robin Hood corpus. Reading through them gives even a reader unexperienced in Robin Hood texts footholds in the material. For the remainder of the review, I will describe some of these chapters in detail, discuss an example of larger strands that emerge from Knight’s individual rhizomes, and lastly attend to the framework Knight uses to successfully merge these pieces together. 
Chapter One, “Interfacing Oralcy and Literacy: The Case of Robin Hood,” begins with a description of the assumptions that cluster around orality and literacy, including the persistent notion (that is grounded within the scholarship of Walter Ong and others) that orality precedes any written tradition. With Robin Hood, Knight acknowledges that the evidence is not there to establish whether Robin Hood originated from an ur-text or an ur-spoken-word. Instead, he establishes a dialectical approach that assumes both oral and written modes as possible origins (16).  As evidence, Knight brings forth early references to singing and reading Robin Hood, and then introduces and dismisses the idea that ballads always represent survivals from a fifteenth- or fourteenth-century oral tradition. Instead, a symbiotic relationship appears in early modern Robin Hood ballads: printing and writing provided resources for performance in ballads like “Robin Hood and the Butcher,” and at the same time these post-medieval poems retain in writing the sharp rhymes of a possible oral tradition, as seen in “Robin Hood and the Bride” (26-7). The chapter ends with Knight applying the symbiotic dynamic of literacy and orality closer to the present and considering the intersection of music and Robin Hood films. 
This approachintersecting different threads of criticism and texts from different periods to show how various influences may work together on the traditionis pursued in later chapters, for instance when Knight approaches the content and form of the Scottish Robin Hood. Chapter Two, “Rabbie Hood: The Development of the English Outlaw Myth in Scotland,” studies the early and curious history of the Scottish Robin Hood, including its disappearance behind the English Locksley of the Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott.
“Robin Fitz Warren: The Formation of The Gest of Robin Hood,” Chapter Three, takes as its center a source study of key components of the fifteenth-century poem’s narrative, specifying them and connecting them either to late medieval sub-chivalric romances, such as Gamelyn, or to the outlaw romance Fouke le Fitz Waryn, which is preserved in an Anglo-Norman prose account. Here and in the next chapter on broadside ballads (“Revisiting the Broadside Ballads”), Knight does the most research into prior sources for late medieval and early modern material. Something in his approach is also reminiscent of Helen Cooper’s approach in The English Romance in Time (2004), especially in Knight’s tabulation of features found in early Robin Hood materials, including the Gest (62). Like Cooper, Knight is particularly interested in tracing threads in the Gest and in the ballads as they transgress conventional notions of form and historical time. His ballad chapter could be good reading in any undergraduate course that addresses the ballad, for it breaks down key literary concepts and social modes of existence (outlawry, gentry) across time periods.
“Romantic Robin Hood” and “Robin Hood and Nineteenth-Century Fiction” (Chapters Five and Six), each approach the nineteenth-century medievalist revival of Robin Hood. “Romantic Robin Hood” describes the wide-ranging politics, natural masculinity, and nationalism of Robin Hood as he proceeds from Joseph Ritson’s 1795 collection of Robin Hood ballads; through Lord Byron’s placement near Sherwood forest; onward through John Keats’, John Hamilton Reynolds’, and Leigh Hunt’s poetry; and then back again through similar-themed prose treatments beginning with Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Knight argues that Peacock’s novel, which was published after Ivanhoe but whose composition was begun before it, further demonstrates the interests in politics and nature that emerge in the poetry of the period: “Maid Marian can be seen as the first coherent and extended statement of the Romantic Robin Hood, recognizing both the natural and sensual aspects of that interpretation and also political elements that only recent research has fully understood” (126-127). The companion chapter then takes on the persistence of these and related images of Robin Hood as they percolate through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth-century treatments of writer-illustrators like Howard Pyle. 
“The Making and Re-making of Maid Marian,” Chapter Seven, represents a shift in the study as Knight considers the gender politics of the Maid Marian figure throughout the entire history of the Robin Hood myth. She appears in the early pastourelle tradition only to disappear from almost all of the ballads and to reappear as a figure with some agency in Peacock’s novel and thereafter. Knight’s take is bleak: even to the present, adaptations of Maid Marian preserve her as a figure sometimes possessing agency while also never resisting the ultimate enclosure of her authority under Robin Hood. 
When Knight returns to discussing the rhizomatic tendencies of the Robin Hood tradition in the last chapter, he creates a compelling reflection on not only the status of these texts, but also on his teaching career and Robin Hood studies itself, a field that owes its success to his efforts. As a scholar who has hitherto primarily encountered Stephen Knight’s scholarship on Arthurian texts, his description of trying to form a course on Robin Hood may sound familiar to anyone who has pitched a “Special Topics” class on material they think should receive special attention. He makes the interdisciplinary, wide-ranging secondary work on Robin Hood sound like an exhilarating and viable alternative to the more conventional avenues of traditional scholarly work. In an academic market that necessitates scholars legitimizing themselves by any means necessary, Knight provides a compelling if optimistic model for how Robin Hood studies has legitimized itself and may continue to do so. 
Photograph by James Howard
One final aside: when I finished this book on my flight, I found in the on-flight magazine for Delta this headline: “Robin Hood on a Surfboard.” (See left.) The comparison is superficial, but I was happy to see that Robin Hood’s rhizomes continue to fly widely.