Monday, 8 September 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 17 - "The Wake," by Paul Kingsnorth

When I first started this series, I was determined to avoid an undue bias on specifically British history, and some of the works that I might otherwise have included (Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example) were therefore left out. There are some events, however, which have such a profound impact on world history that it would be perverse to ignore them; and the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 is surely one of these, shaping the future of Europe rather than simply that of Britain, and with an influence that endures down to our own times.

The history of the invasion itself is well known. The Norman Duke, Guillaume le Batard, landed at Pevensey, fortified Hastings, and defeated the English army at Battle. What remained of the English force fell back on London, where Edgar the Atheling was proclaimed king, but he and his earls surrendered at Berkhamsted, and the Saxon Archbishop of York, Ealdred, who had previously crowned Edgar, was forced to crown Guillaume in his place. That, however, is very much a satellite view of history.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the construction of a castle (image is in the Public Domain).

England at the time was sparsely populated. Between London and the South Downs, for example, there was scarcely a farmstead that merited a mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. Most people lived in scattered rural communities, where some owned land, and others worked the land owned by others.

A reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stow, Norfolk. Photo: Ron Strutt (licensed under CCA).

In 1066, they would have been surprised by the arrival of a Saxon thegn arriving to muster men of fighting age, many of whom would never return. Some months later, they might have caught their first sight of the invaders themselves, as they burned, pillaged and raped their way across England. By 1086, almost all the land was in foreign hands, divided up between 200 of the new king's Norman followers, the landscape itself permanently marked by the physical symbols of the new reality: the Norman castles and churches, abbeys and cathedrals.

Hallaton Castle, near Leicester, its earth mound and surrounding enclosure typical of the first generation of Norman castles in England. Photo: Tim Heaton (licensed under CCA).

Ely Cathedral. Photo: Bob Jones (licensed under CCA).

Page from the Domesday Book, covering land ownership in Rutland (image is in the Public Domain).

Paul Kingsnorth's Booker long-listed novel, The Wake, looks at these events through the eyes of one man in one such community in Lincolnshire. Buccmaster of Holland is a socman (a free landowner), whose two sons join Harold's army, whilst he himself remains on the land, determined to wield his grandfather's sword in defence of his own land.

Like Cerdic Elesing in Alfred Duggan's Conscience of the King, Buccmaster is a morally ambiguous character. Violence is often his first rather than his last resort (and not only in his dealings with his mortal enemies); he is typically na├»ve; frequently paranoid; sometimes deluded; and there may be several dark secrets in his past. Difficult as he may be to admire, we can certainly understand his determination to maintain some measure of control over his own destiny in the context of a changing world which he struggles to understand, let alone influence.

Ormesbury Little Broad, Norfolk, a fenland setting similar to that on the novel (the Lincolnshire Fens that Buccmaster might have known have been almost entirely drained). Photo: Craig Tuck (licensed under CCA).

The novel is narrated from Buccmaster's own viewpoint, and here Kingsnorth rises to one of the greatest challenges that any author can take on, in successfully inhabiting the mind of someone very much less educated and sophisticated than himself. The "shadow tongue" which he has developed "to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today" is, to my mind, the least challenging aspect (from the reader's point of view) of the book:

"songs yes here is songs from a land forheawan folded under by a great slege a folc harried beatan a world brocan apart. all is open lic a wound unhealan and grene all men apart from the heorte. deofuls in the heofon all men with sweord when they sceolde be with plough the ground full not of seed but of my folc

aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr broken in the daegs beginnan broken by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of age was writen in the songs of men

so it is when a world ends

who is thu i cannot cnaw but i will tell thu this thing

be waery of the storm

be most waery when there is no storm in sight

feoht tell them feoht"

The true challenges to the reader are on the moral and emotional planes. With almost every twist and turn of the story, I found that I would have taken a different decision to that taken by Buccmaster (disturbingly, some of the killings are exceptions); and in almost every case, I would have been less likely to survive. This is fiction doing one of the things that fiction does best: leading us through situations in which most of us have never been placed, and which none of us would ever wish to face in the real world.

Just as Buccmaster predicts the catastrophe to come (even if he does not know the form it will take), so Kingsnorth, in the manifesto of his Dark Mountain Project, predicts the collapse of our own civilisation (without suggesting either the timescale or the precise mechanism, although climate change is clearly a part of it, as is a loss of public confidence in the institutions of government, and in "the stories we have told ourselves" about our own past). I have not lost confidence in the stories I have told over a lifetime of teaching, writing and political engagement, but here is a new story, told in a very different way. Its cadences will go on reverberating in my mind for many years to come, but so will the challenges that it poses.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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