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.

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