In 21st century England, 70% of the land is still owned by less than 1% of the population; the second most unequal rate of land ownership on the planet, after Brazil. It is questionable whether this would be the case had the Normans not concentrated all of it in the hands of the King and his cronies nearly 1000 years ago.
As Paul Kingsnorth makes plain in his note on the history behind The Wake, a post-apocalyptic novel set in England in the months up to and the years after the Norman Conquest, 1066 was a fuccan disaster for England, being the point at which our hierarchical class system and all its evils and injustices (why else did I not get to marry Prince William, despite my obvious charms and potential for being the Next People’s Princess?*) arguably began to take root. Yet historians now tend to dismiss the idea of the Norman ‘Yoke’, and we seem woefully ignorant of the impact of the invasion on the quotidian experience of our ancestors and our nation’s subsequent development (although our petty irrational hatred of all things French, unless they be wine or cheese or a rustic holiday home, may be a subconscious reaction…).
Kingsnorth’s attempt to remedy this ignorance centres on the story of Buccmaster, a Lincolnshire yeoman who rails against the injustice of the invasion that has robbed him of his wife and sons by forming a band of guerilla fighters to wrestle the country back from the French. Kingsnorth successfully conveys the trauma of 1066 – the violence, destruction and cataclysmic change – by allowing Buccmaster to tell his tale in an invented ‘shadow tongue’: a hybrid of Old and current English that is readable after a few pages (and a helpful glossary) but sufficiently like Old English to persuade you that you are eavesdropping on the lamentations and anger of our ancestors of almost 1000 years ago. Take this exchange between Buccmaster and Ecceard, regarding the payment of a levy to their new Norman masters:
[Ecceard]: buccmaster he saes i moste haf the geld [money] i moste haf it i moste tac it to the thegn [thane/earl] if i does not do this there will be blud
[Buccmaster in reply] there will be fuccan blud i saes o yes let them cum these fuccan frenc what we has nefer efen seen let them cum to our ham [village] and spec [speak] to us in our fuccan tunge [tongue] let them cum and tac this geld let them see us let them tell us why we sceolde licc their fuccan arses [should lick their fXXcking arses] but no they sends their lytel anglisc hund [little English dog] to do their biddan
Kingsnorth’s recreation of the threatened Anglo-Saxon world – mystic runes, old gods in underwater tree graves, May day festivities – is powerfully evocative, and it is clear that for Buccmaster it’s not just a battle between English and French, but a battle between the old and new worlds: an ancient and wild religion of the land over a literate and organised one of the book:
there is ways to see this world i saes. there is the way of the boc [book] and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere [water/sea] there is the way of the crist and the eald [old] ways of this land. i is cum from the mere i specs [speak]for the wilde for the eald [old] gods under the blaec waters in the drencced treows [drowned trees]. i is the lands law ofer mens i is eorth not heofon [earth not heaven] leaf of treow not leaf of boc
As Buccmaster’s journey unfolds, however, it becomes clear that he is no classic hero. While there is something revelatory in his simple assertion that ‘men moste be free or all is lost’, Buccmaster’s constant refrain of ‘i is buccmaster of holland a man of these parts i is a socman [free tenant farmer] with three oxgangs [measure of land]‘ betrays his arrogance, his belief in any hierarchy he can reign, and a mammoth inferiority complex. Towards the end you wonder whether his paranoia is born from the trauma of invasion or a complex mental condition coloured by a troubled family history – a difficult father, idealised grandfather, and strange relationship with his sister.
There are some moments of humour – a threat to make Ecceard ‘eat his fuccan beallucs [bollocks] with hunig [honey]’ being especially memorable – but, overall, ‘all is broc’, and Kingsnorth doesn’t shy away from the ‘blaec tales’. The tale of the wandering orphan Tofe, who joins Buccmaster’s band of men, and one of a family booted out of the ‘great hus (they) had macd’ and forced to live in its adjacent and deathly freezing outhouse in winter, hit especially hard. The Wake does justice to this period of our history and the people who endured it, and is worth making sense of a peculiar tongue for.