Hastings, 1066. For many of us this is where English history begins. Before this, we are taught, a few barbarian warlords wrestled the land away from the equally barbaric Celts in the power-vacuum left by the Romans, then squabbled over it for the next 500 years or so until William the Conqueror and his knights chased away the dark ages, restoring civilization, establishing Chivalry, and setting England on her path to the glorious empire of the 19th Century.
The cliché tells us that history is written by the winners, and this particular propaganda has been persistent. It is pretty much the story I learned in primary school, and seems to have echoes in the ‘Our Island Story’ curriculum Gove was pushing a couple of years ago. This book, though, is concerned with the losers. For Buccmaster of Holland, 1066 marks the death blow for England, but it is not a clean wound. The Wake follows Buccmaster into the forests of Lincolnshire, where he becomes a ‘green man’, fighting a guerrilla war against the French invaders.
One of the challenges of historical fiction, even if it deals with primarily fictional characters, is how to engage readers in a story with a foregone conclusion. Kingsnorth approaches this by focussing on Buccmaster’s personal journey against the backdrop of a hostile foreign occupation. When telling a tale like this, there is a temptation to write about a heroic underdog, leading his noble but ultimately tragic people in a final stand against tyranny, but here the big historical players, William, Harold, and even Hereward the Wake, whose epithet gives the novel its name, exist only as distant rumours[i]. The Norman invaders are inarguably oppressive, but the inequalities in English society are accepted as natural by the characters, and Buccmaster does not see the irony in his adoration of the Anglo-saxon raiders who had crushed the existing Romano-British culture in the same way he fears the Normans will destroy the English way of life.
Buccmaster himself is decidedly unheroic. He is petty, arrogant, probably delusional and ultimately pathetic, but it is through his voice that the story is told. While he is sometimes a difficult character to like, it seems right that we should see these events from the point of view of somebody who is ordinary and flawed; most of us will only ever play bit-parts in the grand narrative of human history, and in Buccmaster, Kingsnorth gives us protagonist who struggles to see this, both as an individual, and as a representative of a culture in terminal decline.
One of the novel’s great successes is the way that it brings Buccmaster’s voice and his world vividly to life. This is achieved through Kingsnorth’s great experiment: in recognition of the fact that ‘our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes’ are reflected in the language we speak, the novel is written in a ‘ghost tongue’ – an approximation of Old English designed to be accessible to modern readers. What could easily have become a gimmick is in fact one of the strongest aspects of the novel, and while the language takes a little perseverance at first (and perhaps more so if you aren’t already involved in word-geekery), it soon becomes natural. Other than a few of the more unusual words (most of which are covered by a glossary), I found that within a few pages, I was able to read and comprehend the language as it is, rather than needing to mentally translate. In fact, Kingsnorth’s ‘ghost tongue’ lives up to its name, as I found its vocabulary sticking with me after I had put the book down. In attempting to write in a language which has not been moulded by a thousand years of loan-words, and political, economic and philosophical change, Kingsnorth gives his narrator a speech which is rooted in agriculture, the natural world, and a pre-feudal view on human society, avoiding the trap of giving his 11th Century characters 21st Century minds. This ghost-tongue also has a lyrical beauty of its own: ‘it is early in the mergen mist is risan from the waters and on top of the waters is mos grene lic the grenest daeg and deop below deop in the blaec water can be seen great leafs what is suncan almost from sight. all is flat all this land is flat naht stands abuf the reods. low we is and we gan slow through the green and naht is to be seen but the water…’
This 11th Century mind-set does not mean that the novel has no relevance today. Kingsnorth has written non-fiction about the loss of English cultural identity, and it is interesting to read the novel in a society where this is increasingly dominated by nationalists. The book offers no answers, but it did make me wonder if the paranoia about immigrants eroding the English way of life might stem from deep cultural memories. Whether you start English history at 1066 or in the 5th Century with the first Germanic settlers, the national origin story is one of conquest and displacement. I do not wish to draw comparisons between the Norman conquest and the migration patterns of the last century – a top-down, military subjugation of the native population is clearly entirely different from a steady influx of families and individuals looking for greater economic or social stability – but I suspect these deep-seated invasion narratives from our early history have coloured some aspects of the debate on migration.
For the English of The Wake, there can be no period of gradual adjustment. When William the Bastard seizes the thrown, it marks a catastrophic end to the Anglo-Saxon way of life. The language may be unfamiliar, the protagonist unsympathetic at times, but this book offers an intimate exploration of the way people might react to such a complete destruction of their way of life while offering some insight to an often overlooked period of English history from the perspective of those who are not destined to be remembered.
[i] It is interesting, as a modern reader, to experience a society where news cannot travel faster than a man can walk. The world seems bigger – more isolated. Important events are one step removed from the characters’ lives.