The Wake is an extraordinary literary undertaking, rooting its narrative in early medieval England by writing in what its author, Paul Kingsnorth, calls a “shadow tongue”: a pastiche of Old English based on its grammar and syntax but comprehensible to modern English speakers.
It draws on recognisable tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction to tell a story of Saxons in 1067, the immediate aftermath of the Norman conquest, a suddenly scattered people scrabbling around in the ashes of a world that has been razed to the ground. The book is skillfully written. Although he has clearly done vast quantities of research, Kingsnorth’s writing speaks less as the minutely-detailed portrayal of a historical milieu, and more as a ghostly evocation of a ghostly world, through which dreams and memory weave like mist.
Buccmaster of Holland, the Lincolnshire farmer who narrates the tale and is its central figure, is a richly repugnant character. He is a violent misogynistic bigot, addled by ethno-nationalist superstition. The book tells the story of his delusional attempts to raise a band of Saxon nationalist guerillas to overthrow the new Norman rulers (and, in his mind, to restore England to its “own” culture, which is in fact the culture of the northeastern-European Saxons, itself a pastiche of different cultural influences, including Norse).
The qualities I suspect Kingsnorth intends to be his redeeming features — his fiercely individualist independence, his deep connection to the land — make him, for me, even less likeable: he is essentially a volkisch eco-fascist. I’m not sure we’re supposed to “like” Buccmaster, as such. But does Kingsnorth ultimately want us to, on some level, side with him? I think he does.
The complexity of a largely (in my view, almost entirely) unsympathetic and morally ambiguous protagonist is somewhat undermined by a historical note which makes Kingsnorth’s allegiances crystal clear. He says: “The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history […] The effects of Guillaume’s invasion are still with us. In 21st-century England, 70% of the land is still owned by less than 1% of the population […] 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 1,000 years ago.”
He goes further: Kingsnorth compares the indigenous Saxon resistance to the Normans to both the Viet Cong and the French resistance to the Nazis. He refers to William The Conqueror as “Guillaume”, insisting on him as other, foreign, French (yuk!). Rather a lot is skated over, not least the Saxons’ own history as invaders and colonisers who subjugated the existing Celtic society.
What exactly the Norman conquest represented has been the topic of substantial historiographical debate. In a compelling critique of Kingsnorth on the Left Futures blog, Phil Burton-Carteledge argues: “It is a nonsense, even if only as a rhetorical device, to suggest — as Paul does — that the English were the first victims of the British Empire. The invasion of what would become England in 1066 by the Normans was not the occupation of one nation by the armed forces of another. It was the dispossession of one feudal elite by another.” (1)
Kingsnorth tries to cast things differently: “fucc the cyng”, says Buccmaster. He’s not fighting for the Saxon feudal elite, whom he hates anyway, he’s fighting for his own rights and freedom. But what rights and freedom? The right to work his land, beat his wife, bully his children, and mistreat his slaves, without being subject to the authority of “cyng”, “thegn”, or “preost”.
Kingsnorth may be known to readers of Solidarity as a fairly prominent figure in the anti-globalisation and climate movements. He has become a voice in mainstream media discourse for what it is only slightly unfair to refer to as a kind of toy-town primitivism, a Guardianista deep ecology, all underpinned by English nationalism. When one knows that Kingsnorth noted, in a Guardian article of 13 March 2015, that “in four English cities, including the capital, English people [have] become an ethnic minority”, and then reads Buccmaster’s disdainful remarks about “the great abbodrice in lundun what they sae is lic sum ingenga hus for lundun is no longer an anglisc tun”, it is hard not to hear Kingsnorth’s own voice (2).
Read against Kingsnorth’s own comments, Buccmaster’s remarks are no longer merely the stream-of-consciousness of a morally ambiguous and unreliable narrator, but something uglier. I think the Scottish nationalist blog Bella Caledonia went rather over the top in describing Kingsnorth as espousing a “Green Powellism”, but it’s not impossible to see where they were coming from.
The convulsions of recent history, particularly since the economic crisis of 2007-8, have tended to strengthen various forms of identitarian politics, including nationalism. The dramatic rise of Scottish nationalism in particular has refuelled an old debate about whether Englishness and English patriotism can be given leftist forms, as some claim that Scottish nationalism has through the successes of the “civic nationalist”, allegedly-social-democratic Scottish National Party. We must have our own version of patriotism, even nationalism, say “progressive patriots” like Billy Bragg, or we will leave the racist, right-wing versions uncontested.
But nationalism and patriotism are not neutral values that can be equally instrumentalised by right or left. The idea of a national interest, indeed the very idea of a unitary nation itself, crossing class divisions and erasing class conflict, necessarily undermines socialist politics. Our job is not to promote “our” patriotism, “our” nationalism, but to confront such concepts, and promote a class-based internationalism as an alternative to them.
Nationalism is necessarily a project of auto-mythologisation. You can see Buccmaster at it in The Wake. But it seems that, instead of having his character’s experience serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of such a project, Kingsnorth wants us to try again.
That all said, The Wake is a marvellous book, which distaste for Kingsnorth’s politics shouldn’t prevent us from reading and enjoying. If the music of Wagner and the Wu-Tang Clan can still be acclaimed, as they should be, despite the reactionary politics of their creators (which can hardly be said not to intrude into the content of their art), then The Wake can be read as a brilliant novel even while the worldview that underpins it is odious.
(1) Phil Burton-Carteledge, “There Is Nothing Radical About Little Englandism”, Left Futures, 21 March 2015
(2) Paul Kingsnorth, “England’s Uncertain Future”, The Guardian, 13 March 2015