The Wake
February 1, 2016 8:33 AM - by Paul Kingsnorth - Subscribe

In 1066, the world ended.
"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."

The Wake, written in a "shadow tongue" that combines modern and Old English and uses only Anglo-Saxon words and roots, was crowdfunded before being picked up by notable indie press Graywolf, and became the first crowdfunded novel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize. It traces the story of buccmaster of holland, a socman in Lincolnshire whose entire world is destroyed when the Normans invade in 1066. This is the February book for both the Historical Fiction Book Club and the Apocalypse Fiction Book Club.

New York Times: "Almost all post-apocalyptic stories are set in the future. “The Wake,” Paul Kingsnorth’s atmospheric first novel, reminds us that in various times and places, civilization-ending disaster has also been a historical experience. We live after the Shoah, after Cambodia’s Year Zero and the Native American genocide. Kingsnorth’s narrator is Buccmaster of Holland, who lives through the destruction of his home, family and way of life in the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Bucc​master is a conservative figure who has a seat on the “wapentac,” or local court, and “three oxgangs of good land” in the Lincolnshire fens, worked by peasants who owe him their labor. He exults in his wealth and status, but after he refuses to pay tax to the new Norman overlords, his village is razed to the ground and he becomes an outlaw, roaming the forests and ­marshes, dreaming of using his grandfather’s sword to exact revenge."

The Guardian: "Kingsnorth has a sensitivity that lifts what might have been a clever exercise into a literary triumph. "Loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mynd," runs an early sentence. Lies and truth, self-belief and self-delusion, these are the key themes as the narrator, "buccmaster of holland" – a proudly independent free-tenant farmer in the Lincolnshire fens, given to wife-beating and foul-mouthed fits of rage – turns to guerrilla warfare after the "frenc" occupiers destroy his farm and family."

NPR on the Shadow Language: "[Kingsnorth] began by sprinkling a few Old English words into the text. Then, he went all the way until it was nearly incomprehensible. Finally, he pulled back on the throttle to create what he calls a "shadow tongue," a mashup of old and new. The main character is a rebel — an insurgent who tries to fight back against the invading French. As a reader, I found that the language starts as an obstacle but quickly pulls you deep into the world of the novel. Kingsnorth said this is because the words we use to describe our world shape our perception of it."

Rumpus Interview with Paul Kingsnorth

Glossary (I kept the glossary open on my phone while reading, I recommend this tactic)
posted by Eyebrows McGee (25 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
So this was one of the most strenuous reading exercises I undertook last year, but within about five pages you're moving along with some confidence in the "shadow tongue" and within 20 you're reading at your normal speed and totally sucked into the world. It's so utterly immersive that it was physically painful to STOP reading and have to return to regular life. It's riveting, moving, disturbing and you are so fully inside buccmaster's mind and thought that while part of your mind is shrieking, "This is a terrible idea buccmaster," most of your mind is agreeing, "YEAH, GET 'EM."

The language should have been a gimmick, but it's remarkably successful at creating a full immersion for the reader and recreating a mindset very foreign to our modern one. The slow-gathering sense of dread, the excruciating pain and loss, and the creeping tide of madness make for a harrowing, compelling read.

It seems to be "about" modern global warming and post-colonialism by way of the apocalypse and total societal breakdown of 1066, in the way that historical fiction and SFF are always "about" current concerns. Not directly, but those are clearly among the preoccupations of the writer and things he's hoping to think about by examining the past.

One of the best books I read in 2015 and has really stuck with me and continues to bother me when I wake up at 3 a.m. I wouldn't exactly say I "liked" it as it's hard to like something so harrowing, but I enjoyed the shit out of reading it and I'm really glad I gave it a chance, it is an amazing book.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:46 AM on February 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've been slowly reading and going along looking up words on wiktionary, but I refuse to look up the word 'geburs' because I prefer to think that every time Buccmaster talks about these geburs he is calling them goobers which seems pretty consistent with his attitude.

The word it took me the most time to figure out was 'dabcic' which I eventually figured out was 'dabchick', a kind of swamp bird.

I've been leaning pretty heavily on my linguistics knowledge, so..... man.

Here's the wikipedia article about the Fens which is a super interesting area. I wish I could visit Flag Fen.
posted by bq at 10:02 AM on February 1, 2016

Most of the words he uses you can either guess from cognates or gather from context, but "esol" tripped me up for quite a while. He uses it both to describe an animal -- I assumed a bird, I guess cognating "eagle" and also he talks about a lot of birds -- and to insult people he doesn't like. I had to look it up to figure out it meant "ass."

("Gebur" -- and "socman" and "huscarl" and all the other quasi-legal words relating to governance or citizenship -- I already know from reading too many historical fiction novels set in the Danelaw.)

I think "heafodpanne" was my favorite, that just delighted me. I also liked "wyrmfleage."

I liked how "ingenga" -- foreigner -- and "nightgenga" -- demon -- shared a root. ("Genga" for "traveler.") And I can't remember what it was now (maybe parsley or purslane), but there is one flowering herb we have in our garden that my husband calls by some ridiculously archaic name, that his Cornish coal-mining grandparents called it, that does not appear in plant catalogs and nobody ever knows what he's talking about, but that's what buccmaster called it too!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:19 AM on February 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

Imma need you to get that for me.
posted by bq at 10:25 AM on February 1, 2016

Inganger is fun because it's also very close to the word for "entrance" in Danish and Dutch

Autocorrect is a bitch for this conversation.
posted by bq at 10:30 AM on February 1, 2016

I think 'esol' is actually 'asshole'. At least that's how I read it.

I had to give up because it was due back to the library, and I never quite got fluent at the language, but it was a really interesting experience. I enjoyed how mad Buccmaster gets at the fucking (was it fokken?) world.
posted by graventy at 2:26 PM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm working my way through it right now and finding Wiktionary very helpful.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:27 PM on February 1, 2016

So the book takes place in an alternate universe where the novel Riddley Walker doesn't already exist?
posted by Ian A.T. at 5:53 PM on February 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'd never heard of this and now I'm going to read it, so thanks for this post.
posted by immlass at 6:24 PM on February 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also had never heard of this and now am going to obsess I know. Thank you!
posted by corb at 11:42 AM on February 2, 2016

Mark Rylance reads from The Wake, the passage in the FPP.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:59 PM on February 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

So the book takes place in an alternate universe where the novel Riddley Walker doesn't already exist?

I like to think of it as a prequel?
posted by pullayup at 7:39 PM on February 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

So the book takes place in an alternate universe where the novel Riddley Walker doesn't already exist?

You can tell that Kingsnorth has read Riddley Walker, and they share a lot of structural features, but it is by no means a copy. There's truth in calling it a prequel -- Riddley Walker starts with the present and unravels it forward, teasing out remnants of pre-Norman culture along the way, while The Wake works backward instead to describe a version of the foundations of modern Britian in terms of culture, language, and landscape.

Over and above the language and cultural aspects, which are indeed well done, it is one of the better books I have read in terms of a character whose actions and self-conception are so at odds. There are some sections that are a bit too heavy handed about it, but overall there is a delightful tension between how Buccmaster thinks about and describes himself, and the things he actually does.

Riddley Walker is the obvious comparison, but I was also repeatedly reminded of Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall in the tight focus on a main character who is both native and foreign, and who creates such intense cultural conflict. They are all three books that expect the reader to do some work and reward it with an immersive experience, and they are all books set in other times with a lot to say about the modern world.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:19 AM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I take back everything I've said about not wanting book posts on Fanfare.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:55 AM on February 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

So I got the ebook from the local library, and I've been reading buccmaster in Mr. Webley's voice.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:49 AM on February 3, 2016

24 of Britain’s Best Castles
frenc micel byldan
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:22 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

fuccan frenc
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:19 PM on February 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I read The Wake right after Julian Rathbone's super-snarky The Last English King (near-identical chronological setting, but with all the famous people), so this was certainly a stylistic shock to the system. Like Eyebrows McGee, I found the postcolonialism jumping out at me--in many ways, the novel's take on Buccmaster, whose resistance is inspired by nostalgia for a way of life and thought that cannot be recovered, reminded me of an entirely different novel, Caryl Ferey's noir Utu, which has the same underlying theme.

Buccmaster's skill at passing himself off as a leader, while carefully avoiding situations that would be immediately dangerous to life and limb, is quite impressive. Meanwhile, there's Hereward the Wake, crashing about, just out of reach...
posted by thomas j wise at 3:50 PM on February 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

So I'm about halfway thru, and I must thanc yu fer byldan this.

More seriously, I really enjoy the language. I've been playing around with it, feeling the words and meanings, the things that can only be or can't be said by the buccmaster.

He doesn't even get it - he lauds his grandfather and his ancestors for coming to this land and making it their home, looking down on the wealsc and the thralls, knowing the land was his by right of conquest. Will he acknowledge the frenc, the ingengas, doing the same to him? [NO.]

And I was reading of the deopness and the deorcness and the preosts and then I read about the gleoman and I realized what the glee clubs were from.

I hear buccmaster in different voices - sometimes it's the Scots of the parish priest of my youth, sometimes it's the Swedish Chef, sometimes it's Geordie, or the singsong of the Norwegian bachelor farmers in Minnesota.

but there is one flowering herb we have in our garden that my husband calls by some ridiculously archaic name, that his Cornish coal-mining grandparents called it, that does not appear in plant catalogs and nobody ever knows what he's talking about, but that's what buccmaster called it too!

posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:15 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm so late to this book club (vicissitudes of interlibrary loan), but just wanted to thank everyone in this discussion for introducing me to this book and making it sound so appealing.

I'm about a third of the way through and really enjoying the linguistic challenge and discovering what remnants of my college Middle English and History of English classes still linger in my heafodpanne.

mac angland great agean
posted by teditrix at 3:50 PM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Almost all post-apocalyptic stories are set in the future. “The Wake,” Paul Kingsnorth’s atmospheric first novel, reminds us that in various times and places, civilization-ending disaster has also been a historical experience.

When we went to see "The Third Man" at Union Station last week, they referred to the film's 1949 Vienna setting as "post-apocalyptic," giving me the same frisson as this.

posted by Celsius1414 at 11:53 AM on March 2, 2016

This book is quite unusual because of the level of repetition that occurs. It's necessary, because through repetition you learn to understand the speech patterns, but it also reflects the repetition of legend. The effect of hearing the same tales over again, or seeing the same characters reoccur across legend, perform the same or almost the same acts over and over again.

Like mythology, this repetition makes the book itself very... rememberable. I can regal my friends with scenes from the book almost exactly as they occur, and choose almost the exact same words that Buccmaster uses when I do so. Or, I can rant against something at work with exactly the same vocabulary Buccmaster would use; his voice is so unique and his opinions so predictable that he's extremely easy to imitate. (Two of us in my office are reading this book so it comes up a lot in conversation and almost the whole office knows what we mean now if we suddenly go off on a rant about the fuccen frenc and their hors.)
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:15 AM on March 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

What are we to make of Buccmaster of Holland, a socman with three oxgangs?
Is his madness understandable, a consequence of the catastrophe that has befallen his village, or simply his own failure to adapt to the upheaval of the order of his way of life?
He has always rejected authority and anything foreign, because he deeply believes his is the one trieuw way and the only way. He is a man of the land, and his unique social position causes him to view both those above him and those below him as unworthy (this is a trait that certainly mirrors the attitudes of modern folk).
He is not likable, nor honorable, nor did I find any sympathy with his plight, and yet his descent made for a compelling read.

I found this book via this very thread, as i was searching for something else, and I enjoyed the challenge of the language as much, if not more than the actual story, which, I must admit, had a bit too much repetition for my taste.

Good find Eyebrows McGee, thanks for the thread!
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:32 PM on April 23, 2016

Two Linguists Explain Pseudo Old English in The Wake
And this is super weird as he went to such pains to stress he’d only used vocabulary which existed in Old English and has survived to today. But I suppose ‘fuck’ really works to confirm our stereotypes of this period as nasty, brutish and short and its people as crude and bodily. Why bother trying to conjure up a nuanced and balanced world and take the reader ‘back to what it was like without anachronism’ when you can use the language as a tool to bludgeon the reader with the stereotype they’re expecting.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:40 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Coming in WELL after the fact because I was pointed here from the blue.

We read this in my book club (one that focuses on post-apocalyptic fiction - okay, we have a loose definition of the genre), and one thing that struck me upon reading was right the very end; he repeats the word "beorn" (sp?) several times, and that is actually the last word of the book. (not a spoiler, that)

It wasn't until after the fact that I looked up what that meant in the glossary and discovered it meant "burn". But before that, I had been reading it as "born". Which seemed hauntingly perfect - because ultimately, out of this chaos that was happening at the time of The Wake, the new nation of England was....well, born.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:17 PM on October 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

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