The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth

Welcome to the last of my book reviews for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. I’m not finished here, though, I’ve still got two short stories and a movie to polish off before I call time! But first… this:


The Wake

by Paul Kingsnorth


It is England, the middle of the eleventh century, and the world is about to change. Among the isolated free folk of the Lincolnshire fens, Buccmaster of Holland — a man who is beholden to none — has a vision of darkness in the future, a vision he scarcely comprehends as such and which his neighbours make little of. He has dreams of a stranger approaching, of terrible loss, so when men of the king come seeking recruits to fight in defence of England’s sovereignty, he refuses: he is free, and if he is to fight it will be to defend his own land, not another man’s rule.

But the king’s men don’t want old Buccmaster: they want his young sons, and his sons want nothing more than to seek glory in battle. They want his able-bodied slaves, and there is nothing he can do to prevent them being taken. But the greater loss is not his — it is the defeat of King Harald by the invading Norman bastard, William, a death on a field in Hastings that will usher out the time of the old gods and usher in a world Buccmaster cannot imagine.

But he can welcome in the stranger still approaching in his dreams. And then…


…and then, I have to confess something: I haven’t finished reading The Wake. I was in the middle of it when, travelling back from a holiday, I left my ebook reader on the train, not realising until far too late that I had absent-mindedly forgotten to pick up hundreds of books and magazines when I turned for home. And this was the very book I had been reading right up until I put my beloved device aside, turned my brain off, and listened to a really disappointing audiobook (of a novel I’d already read and enjoyed, no less) for almost the entire journey instead.

I did that because I desperately needed a break. Reading The Wake was, in a word, gruelling.

In the best review I ever wrote, or ever will (of Georges Perec’s A Void, regarding which I’ll say no more than this), I aped the singular style of the source novel, something which I believe has become a traditional challenge amongst its readers. If I were to do the same for The Wake, the chances are you’d neither reach the end of my review nor have the slightest clue what I thought about it. So I won’t. However, I will briefly quote from very early in the book, since what I have to say about it depends critically on the nature of the writing.

So, read this:

when i woc in the mergen 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. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum. the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend

This should give you a flavour of what the book represents — a major challenge to the reader.

There are words in that which are easily recognised (broc, blaec, deopness); others are not so obvious (mergen, heofon) but can be connected with through context; and there are some — like gleoman — which for all I know may exist nowhere but here, and for which any kind of meaning has to be built up from scratch. I can guess that it means “storyteller”, or something approaching that, but the language of the book makes an outsider of me, forces a thousand years of distance between what the narrator wants to say and what I can understand.

The only option for the determined reader is to forge on past such gaps in their knowledge, hoping for them to be filled later. There were times when just that happened, triggering the snick of interlocking data finally sliding into place and informing what had been said before. Equally, come the point I was forced to stop, there were particular words that held clear significance to the world of the story that remained stubbornly opaque to me, parts of a foreign language not yet fully learned but which I was compelled to put to imperfect use.

As well as the demanding, this is also a story filled with the portentous — though the glib sprite that cavorts in the back of my mind wants to pretend the last word of that quote is weekend, which would rather take the edge off the rest… But then I ask myself, am I being told that the future will be for the weakened, or for the wakened? There could hardly be a greater difference in implication between the two. The possibility that it will prove to be both remains strong.

This is not the first book I’ve read in which the text is rendered in a dialect, real or imagined (though, to my shame, I’ve never read what is probably the world’s most famous example, A Clockwork Orange). My favourite, and one of my all time favourite books, is Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which presents a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story taking place in a world that in many ways feels very much apiece with the one Buccmaster of Holland occupies. Both have rural settings in the south of England, both show societies much more primitive than our own, both feature a protagonist struggling with a new, almost prophetic role, and in a sense this too is a post-apocalyptic tale, with Buccmaster’s culture collapsing around him in the face of radical, traumatic change — but in the wake of The Wake, prose I once found tough in Riddley Walker now feels like an easy memory…

When I first dipped into this, it was that early passage which convinced me I was willing to face nearly four hundred pages more to find out what was coming. Specifically, the lines —

non will loc but the wind will cum.
the wind cares not for the hopes of men

The first line needs only a simple bit of deciphering: None will look but the wind will come. Compare this to some of what follows, though, you’d be forced to agree that it’s really no deciphering at all. There are passages in The Wake that all but deny comprehension, even given the many words and even whole sentences (as in the second, above) which are unchanged from contemporary English.

What struck me in those two lines, then and now, is a beautiful, chanting rhythm to the words — and my experience of this book was that it was not just easier, but also more satisfying read aloud. The reason I chose to stop reading during my own fateful journey was my reluctance to do what I really wanted to: allow the voice of Buccmaster of Holland to flow out through me, to hear his guttural tongue as well as read it. And I’m sad that, for the time being, I still can’t.

In my opinion, there are some books and films that defy comparative criticism, that can’t be reduced to (for example) any star-rating less than the maximum, or at least for which it would be pointless to do so. I think The Wake is one (and okay, since you asked, a film: La Quattro Volte). Incomplete though my reading of it is, I’m reviewing it now because, based on what I have read, I simply can’t imagine that what remains ahead of me can be any less daunting, engrossing and unique. This book is phenomenally hard work, but it’s work I want to return to.

If I hadn’t lost my Kindle (two months ago now) the chances are I’d still be slowly talking my way though The Wake today, and reviewing it unfinished. It is simultaneously the reason why I must buy a replacement device and why I haven’t yet, because the minute I do I’m going to have to finish this book, and that means I won’t be free to read anything else for a long time…

Well, that’s the last book I need to read to complete the “3rd Quest” — just a movie now and it’s done! Next up is another fairytale from the collection RETOLD. See you on Sunday!


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