The Wake is a thoroughly English book. The English writer and thinker Paul Kingsnorth has written Real England, a book about the impact of globalization on the cultural identity of the English. The Wake is his first novel, and it is set in England during the 11th century Norman invasion, a turning point in English history. Yet this book has something to say about modern Canada and our struggle to reconcile our colonial past and present. Likely, it has something to say about any nation that has colonized or been colonized, but Canada, as a nation that was colonized by the English and the French, should pay particular attention to a story about the English being colonized by the French.
It is controversial to suggest we need yet another account of colonization from the English point of view, but The Wake is an important novel in much the same way as Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. The Orenda is one of Canadian literature’s first balanced accounts of first contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, including French and Indigenous points of view, and importantly, multiple Indigenous points of view (it is quite common that Indigenous peoples and their perspectives are presented as a monolith, despite the plural “peoples.”) The Orenda won the 2014 Canada Reads competition, and has been recommended as required reading for all Canadians.
The Wake should also be required reading for Canadians, not for its balanced perspective, and only partially for the old “those who don’t know, doomed to repeat” reasons, but mostly because learning that the Norman invasion was itself a colonization and that English people are no more a monolith than Indigenous peoples are and that the way we label people “Anglo-Saxon” is almost as misguided as the way we used to label Indigenous peoples “Indians” is very much in the spirit of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate states that “The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.” The Wake addresses the themes of common experience, colonization, violence, and even cultural genocide.
If that doesn’t grab you, The Wake is also a hell of a story, told by the unforgettably unreliable Buccmaster of Holland, in his own words, and in his own language, a “shadow tongue” which the author invented to immerse the reader in Buccmaster’s “angland.”
The main things a reader should know about this “shadow tongue” are that Kingsnorth manipulated Old English to be (mostly) intelligible to modern readers, that The Wake contains few words or letters that aren’t rooted in Old English, that it takes about thirty pages to get the hang of it, and that, yes, there is a glossary.
The breakdown of Anglo-Saxon England is mirrored in Buccmaster’s spectacular personal breakdown, and, while the shadow tongue roots the story in the past, a Canadian reader can’t help but notice the contemporary relevance of Buccmaster’s tale.
But who in Canada even knows about this period in history? Cultural references are few and far between, and most of what we do know is simply the date, 1066.
Thinking across a thousand years of history can be overwhelming. Here in Canada, we’re just starting to wrap our heads around 500 or so years of colonization. In The Wake, we see the Normans (i.e. the French) invade England, effectively ending the Anglo-Saxon way of life, one thousand years ago. But why stop there? Go back another 500 years or so and those Anglo-Saxons are migrating to England and becoming Christians. Five hundred years before that, the Romans occupied England. Each of these events are marked by violence, loss, and oppression.
Reconciliation in Canada is often centred on Indian Residential Schools. Residential schools are specific, unambiguous, and within living memory, which allows them to remind people that reconciliation is a vital thing. But it’s important to recognize how far back the history of colonization goes, too. The Wake shows us that the history is staggering, and still relevant. During some of his rants about the “fuccan frenc,” (which means just what it sounds like,) Buccmaster sounds remarkably like the online comments section of any modern news article about immigration. And like those commenters who won’t budge about “their land” and “their way of life,” Buccmaster is both swaggeringly confident and paralyzingly insecure.
Buccmaster has spent much of his life building up a facade of control and power. Raised by an angry, erratic father, he finds respite in a special bond with his grandfather. Grandfather follows the “eald ways” (old ways,) meaning he doesn’t recognize Christ, but, rather, follows the ways and rituals brought by the Anglo-Saxons when they first arrived in England, hundreds of years earlier. Grandfather teachers Buccmaster of Woden (Odin,) Thunor (Thor,) and Erce, who is mentioned just once, but shows how, to Buccmaster, the old ways and the land (the fenn) go hand in hand:
and ofer all these gods he saes ofer efen great woden was their mothor who is mothor of all who is called erce. erce was this ground itself was angland was the hafoc and the wyrmfleoge and the fenn and the wid sea and the fells of the north and efen the ys lands.
Grandfather is at least 200 years behind the times. Almost everyone in Anglo-Saxon England was Christian by 1066, including Buccmaster’s father, who is not happy about Grandfather’s insistence on teaching little Buccmaster the old ways. Things come to a head when grandfather dies, and Buccmaster fulfils his promise to give grandfather a traditional funeral, which enrages his father. Buccmaster has been stuck between the old ways and the new his whole life, and those old ways are about to be struck a fatal blow, in what amounts to a cultural genocide for Anglo-Saxons.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report came out in 2015, many Canadians heard the words “cultural genocide” for the first time, or at least, for the first time as applied to Canada. From the report:
States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
Though England didn’t have an English-speaking ruler for hundreds of years after the events in The Wake, obviously, the English language wasn’t lost. It was drastically changed—the shadow tongue shows the reader how much. It was never endangered, though, as many Indigenous languages in Canada are. But The Wake does portray a form of cultural genocide. Buccmaster’s land is seized. He loses his family, his position, and his possessions. He witnesses his grandfather being stripped of his spiritual practices. He sees the disruption of cultural values in his own family.
No wonder Buccmaster is not surprised that he, and he alone, sees mysterious omens of trouble to come, including Halley’s Comet, which really was visible in 1066. Grandfather taught Buccmaster that “angland” has been slowly slipping away for years. Buccmaster refers to England as having its “sawol eatan” (soul eaten) by “ingenga god and cyng” (foreign god and king):
my father raised me in the circe of the crist as all did in those times for all was blind lic the frenc is now macan us blind. anglisc folcs has had their sawol eatan i saes eatan first by ingenga god and then by ingenga cyng and now what is angland but an ealong in the mist seen when the heafon mofs but nefer reacced again.
Grandfather also gave Buccmaster “Weland’s sword” to remember him, and the old way by. Weland is a legendary blacksmith who is said to have made Beowulf’s sword, among others. After Buccmaster sees omens in the sky, he starts to actually commune with the spirit of Weland. This signals the beginning of Buccmaster’s personal breakdown, but Weland also acts as Buccmaster’s conscience, and as a kind of Greek chorus. In Weland’s first appearance, he introduces himself to Buccmaster as a forger of weapons and a killer of kings:
i is forger of wyrd and waepen
Weland is alternately encouraging and dismissive of Buccmaster’s ability to resist the invaders, and as moody as Buccmaster himself. As Buccmaster starts to amass a small following of resisters, his insecurities, and Weland’s increasingly erratic instructions, lead to several eruptions of violence.
Post-invasion, Buccmaster leads his ragtag group of resisters, or “greenmen” through the woods, where they plot against the French and dream about meeting up with legendary freedom fighter (and actual historical figure) Hereward the Wake, so they can really take a stand. Well, actually, Buccmaster dreads this meeting, because it means he would no longer be in charge. They never find their way to Hereward, and ultimately fail because they are fractured, and because Buccmaster can’t give up control. Anglo-Saxon England as a whole fails in the novel because the people have become disconnected from the land. Because they can’t reconcile the old gods with the new. Because they can’t remember that they came from somewhere else too, that the “frenc ingengas” (French foreigners) are as foreign as they were five or six hundred years earlier, when the Angle and Saxon tribes migrated to England in the first place.
That Buccmaster and his greenmen sound remarkably like the “renegade tribes” that resisted colonization in North America 600 years later, and like parents and children who defied Canadian residential school laws during the twentieth century, is both reason to despair and reason to hope. Despair because resistance to colonization has historically been futile; reason to hope because surely, one of these times, we’re going to learn something.
Speaking of learning: if only The Wake were Canadian, it would certainly end up on Canada Reads, breaking barriers and changing Canada and all that. If Canadians read this book, and learn about colonization in England, it might go a long way to bringing people around to the concept of reconciliation. But wouldn’t the Canada Reads panelists argue that The Wake isn’t accessible enough? Its language is too challenging. No one will read it.
The shadow tongue could make the text impenetrable, or feel gimmicky. It’s a fine line to tread. Kingsnorth believes the shadow tongue was necessary because people in the eleventh century wouldn’t talk like we do now, and that even taking away obvious anachronisms, you can’t just word-for-word translate old into modern English. In “A Note on Language” at the end of the novel, he says, “The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this… Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes - all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.”
Contrast this with many other historical fiction writers, Canadian and otherwise, who use plain (or plainer) modern language to tell old stories. Australian historical fiction writer Geraldine Brooks spoke on just this subject at Book Expo America last year, and her perspective was in sharp contrast with Kingsnorth’s. In her view, people haven’t changed that much over the years in terms of the way we think, or our motivations; the things that have changed are just “window-dressing.” It’s impossible to deny the effect of the shadow tongue in The Wake, though. Reading about a lost culture in a lost language is chilling.
The Wake is more that its experimentation with language, though. It’s a character driven novel, and we are fully in Buccmaster's head. He has to carry the story and a thousand years of history. He is somehow both utterly convincing and deeply unreliable, both compelling and unlikeable, and both prophetic and completely lacking in self-awareness. His delusions of grandeur, persecution complex, jealousy, and defensiveness tempt the reader to diagnose him with any number of psychological problems, none of which would make a bit of sense to him. All Buccmaster knows is that “sumthin is cuman.”
Actually, Buccmaster knows more than he’s letting on, and his demons are more frightening than the Normans that burn down his house, killing his wife and servants, early on in the story. Buccmaster knows all about destruction and betrayal, and he learned it before any Norman walked on his land. Buccmaster shows us violence and degradation on a grand and a personal scale.
At one point, as those around Buccmaster finally begin to realize what’s happening (they’re not going to resist the invaders), someone laments that “a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years.” We’re closing in on a thousand years now, several hundred of which England spent colonizing the rest of the world. When will the weeping stop?
In her review, Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses asks, “How far back does this chain of suffering extend? What does it mean to be English, French, any one people?” These sound much like the questions Canadians ask about reconciliation: how far back does this pain extend? How many generations have suffered, will suffer? What does it mean to be Canadian? Kingsnorth doesn’t have the answers, but he shows us how people have grappled with these questions for millennia, including the English, colonizers of the modern era. Kingsnorth has created a historical fiction experience that goes so far beyond “immersive” that it’s essentially its own genre. Whether you have British ancestry or not, if you live in Canada, The Wake is part of your history. And no matter who you are, it is essential reading.
LAURA FREY is a book blogger at reading-in-bed.com. She lives in Edmonton with her husband and two children. She is on Twitter at @LauraTFrey.
Monthly reviews of poetry and fiction.