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'The Wake' continues: A final look at Kingsnorth's novel

November 5, 2015


So I finished Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake. The first time I mentioned the book can be found here. This book is an immersive read. The language becomes the world, even as the world disintegrates. The narrative roots itself in the voice of the book’s protagonist, and that voice roots itself into the land. In the voice of Buccmaster:


these is things folcs saes who does not cnawan naht of what they is specan for the fens is a place of wundor to those who cnawan them. yes there is deop meres and waters so blaec that oxen is lost in them and nefer seen and there is muds what strecces for miles ringed by secg and lesch and if thu does not cnawan the paths through these places and thu gan in thu will not be cuman out again as man, these is blaec fens where the eorth and the waters is all blaec lic the graef. there is also fens of sand what is brun not blaec and where things is not the same and the treows and plants is not the same and efen the heofon has another loc (123)


Buccmaster chooses the old gods over the Christian gods. He chooses the land and the trees over the sky and the heavens. Thus, even while most of his fellow English have turned their backs to Odin in order to face the cross, Buccmaster views William the Conqueror’s (Read: the Bastard King’s) invasion as a conflict of language and assault upon belief. As the story progresses, Buccmaster drifts ever more into the past and into what can only be described as madness. After all, to the present the past is always insane, less practical, lost.

A map of real England.
What’s so fascinating about Kingsnorth’s fictive exploration of real history is how it simultaneously manages to examine both England’s past and future. 1066 AD is a hinge upon which all else swings, and the stories of the Druid isle being conquered and colonized paradoxically look to inform and avoid the nation’s future encounters with foreign lands. The sun never sets on the British Empire because England has already burned.

Buccmaster ponders his country’s ruin:


now in this small holt by bacstune locan at the treows i was thincan that these frenc they wolde gif all these things other names. i was locan at an ac treow and i put my hand on its great stocc and i was thincan the ingengas will haf another name for this treow. it had seemed to me that this treow was anglisc as the ground it is grown from anglisc as we who is grown also from the ground. but if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor. it colde be that to erce this treow will be the same that it will haf the same leafs the same rind but to me it will be sum other thing that is not mine sum thing ingenga of what I can no longer spec (124).


When the world refers to a thing with a new name, does the thing itself become changed? From a materialist perspective, I’m guessing not. From a cultural perspective, possibly.

Buccmaster for all his attempted courage and definite madness is frightened man, worried about becoming a foreigner in his own country. While The Wake comes across as a closed text, it is actually quite open, speaking to several moments in the world’s history. For me, the novel speaks directly to the history of the Americas.

The end in words. The end in pictures.
The Western hemisphere is full of moments when one people pushed another people into the past. In pre-Columbian times, Mesoamerican cultures experienced these apocalyptic crises like clockwork. Yet only when Europeans arrived did the crises truly become world-ending. Then consider the United States’ seizing of territories from Mexico and one can begin to make a case that modern nations still behave like ancient empires. And, if you believe FoxNews, then such events are still occurring, as Spanish voices invade English spaces, which were home to Spanish before they were home to English, and before that, well, no one wants to dig up the past.

But, as Faulkner so famously proved with every sentence he wrote, the past is with us. And so too is Kingsnorth’s The Wake.


Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.

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