Beyond Good and Medieval

The Wake: A Novel BY Paul Kingsnorth. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 384 pages. $16.

Novels set in a medieval past are often fleeing the realities of the present, whether they take refuge in dragon-battling heroism (The Hobbit) or fantastical sensationalism (George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire). This, of course, doesn’t mean that the authors of such books are stuck in the past. Consider Paul Kingsnorth, whose debut novel, The Wake, takes place in eleventh-century England. Kingsnorth has been known for much of his career as an activist, interviewing Zapatistas in Mexico, participating in the G8 protests in Genoa, and, most recently, protesting the damage we’ve done to the environment (his résumé includes a stint at the radical green magazine The Ecologist).

At first glance, the setting of The Wake places it a long way from Kingsnorth’s activist milieu. Like Tolkien’s and Martin’s books, The Wake presents the reader with an immersive experience, not least because the novel is written in a pseudo-archaic language loosely based on Old English. Sometimes opaque and frustrating, this language nevertheless achieves a strange elegance within its own restrictions (it doesn’t use the letters k, v, j, or q, or any Latinate words), and after twenty or so pages, you become semi-fluent. The words that aren’t immediately decipherable—they are translated in a glossary at the back—tend to flag the more important components of the book’s medieval worldview. The language of violence, for instance, is very well developed. Characters fixate on “wergild” (“blood money”), the “werod” (“band of fighters”), and the ritual sacrifice of enemies, known as the “blud earn,” or “blood eagle.”

As the language becomes more recognizable, so does the novel’s contemporary relevance: The Wake’s world might be different from our own, but Kingsnorth uses it to tell a story about the destruction of habitats and communities in a time of crisis—one of his abiding concerns as an environmentalist. The Wake opens in 1066, the year of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England. The story of the invasion and its catastrophic consequences—famine, slaughter, and widespread confiscation of lands—is told by an English farmer named Buccmaster, who loses everything. One day not long after the decisive Battle of Hastings puts the French in power, Buccmaster goes out in his rowboat to catch eels. He returns to find his house burned to the ground, his wife raped and murdered, and the whole village destroyed. More enraged than grieving, he heads for the woods, where he stumbles on two more survivors.

The Wake has become an outsize success in the UK, perhaps because of the new urgency with which Kingsnorth interprets a foundational moment in English national history. Originally released by the crowdfunding publishing platform Unbound, it was unexpectedly long-listed for the 2014 Booker Prize and optioned for a movie. The novel leads us to expect all the familiar narratives of English self-mythology and then calculatedly circumvents them. For a long way in, it reads like a Robin Hood story, telling of the tribulations of a band of outsiders, who build up strength in preparation for a noble, doomed confrontation with the oppressor. Buccmaster certainly wants to play the part of the folk hero, as he holds forth on the fabled origins of his sword, claiming its maker to have been a vengeful character from Saxon legend. But his heroic posturing is undercut by xenophobia, brutality, and liberal dousings of cowardice. He makes a point of hating foreigners (not just the invaders), and he’s at his most poetic when he talks about his own deplorable history of violence, such as beating his wife. “i strics her again,” he recounts, “and she falls then and she strics her heafod on the stans what is weightan down the warp threads of her loom and she is on the flor hwinan lic a cat in a water pael.”

The novel is fragmentary, narrated by Buccmaster in long, run-on sentences that you might call stream-of-consciousness if Buccmaster had anything close to a developed consciousness. His outpourings often resemble rants. “i always cnawan i was not lic other men,” he insists, “my grandfather wolde sae that lic he i was abuf the esols in the ham and this I colde see and not only my grandfather seen it.” In his isolation, he hears voices that boost his pride and encourage him to distrust others. His narrative is punctuated by flashbacks and visions, some of them quite beautiful images of the natural world—bats flitting through the air at dusk, the stillness of a midsummer morning. In his trauma, he identifies closely with the English countryside and its destruction. Waking from a dream of green hills, he insists “all that i has seen and been is in this grene now and this light is all i is all i is i is i is.”

As a resistance leader, Buccmaster is an abject failure. He’s also a comment on our inability to surmount large-scale disaster. Kingsnorth started out as an activist and chronicler of bottom-up movements, but this novel marks his own growing disillusionment with the possibilities of resistance. He has come to believe ecological disaster is now inevitable and that his fellow environmentalists, who promote “sustainability” rather than radical changes in lifestyle, only serve to prop up global capitalism. In 2009, he cofounded the Dark Mountain Project, an organization that has stated that “we live in a time of social, economic and ecological unraveling.” What we need, its website proclaims, is “new stories . . . for dark times,” art and writing that drive home the reality of the catastrophe.

In many ways, The Wake is an old story, one that partakes of the excitement of genre fiction and the appeal of Braveheart gore. What sharply distinguishes it is its disorienting use of high literary experiment and its insistence on uncertainty. In this sense, Kingsnorth’s fractured prose becomes a form of polemic in itself. The Wake reminds us that we can’t find our way out of our crisis as easily as many think. At the height of his own disaster, the words that come to Buccmaster are “beorn” (“burn”) and “out deoful” (“out devil”). Like him, we have failed to understand or push back against disaster. Kingsnorth wonders, without much optimism, if we’ll ever be prepared for it.

Laura Marsh is a writer in New York.