Paul Kingsnorth is the co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, a collective of artists and intellectuals who believe that mankind has irretrievably poisoned the environment. They are producing writing, art, and thought informed by the idea that we are living in the last days of human dominance; their ideas are alarming, dismaying, frustrating, and intriguing. Kingsnorth is also the author of The Wake, one of the most compelling and interesting novels I have read in years.
Widely celebrated on its publication in the UK, The Wake has recently been released in this country, and its appearance here marks the debut of an electrifying talent who has proven as powerful as a novelist as he was insightful as a journalist. Its evocative historical setting, brilliant use of language, energetic narrative, and extraordinary main character all serve a story that both brings its particular period to vivid life and illuminates evergreen issues that are as relevant today as they were a millennium ago.
The Wake is an apocalyptic novel, but it does not describe the aftermath of some fantastic future catastrophe; it is an apocalypse of the past. Namely, it follows the adventures of a small landholder named Buccmaster, whose life of status and respect in the fens is lost forever when the French forces of William the Conquerer rout the English nobles at the Battle of Hastings. Proud to the point of foolhardiness, Buccmaster refuses to pay tribute to the new masters of England — a decision that costs him his family, his home, and all the sense that formerly guided his existence. He wanders the land, uncertain of what to do but increasingly sure that it has fallen to him to save what he perceives as his way of life.
Buccmaster is unforgettable. He is constantly at the forefront of the story, and it is told entirely from his perspective, which makes The Wake all the more effective; he is so fully formed a creation of his place and time that we are immediately transported to the pre-Norman period of rural English history. But he is more than just a window into a vanished time; he is a completely realized character as memorable as any in recent fiction. Though he suffers genuine grievances and displays cunning and will, he is no hero: a petty tyrant, full of himself, egotistical and vindictive, and, ultimately, very much not what he appears.
As we watch him develop, we come to realize that he is both less and more than he seems: less, because his motivations are impure, and more, because he is instilled with a spirit he cannot truly understand. Buccmaster is self-deluding and full of rage, and even after the unquestionable tragedy that is visited on him, he insists on maintaining his image as a great man worthy of respect and deference at the expense of taking meaningful action. However, he seems genuinely haunted: by eerie and perfectly delineated visions of nature, which show him enigmatic glimpses of the future; by the ghosts of his dead family, who alternately berate and inspire him; and by the long-dead gods of “the eald hus”, the deities of the Norsemen who had themselves settled England centuries earlier, who are his only guides in a world he no longer recognizes. But as we travel with Buccmaster, as he takes his revenge against the French invaders and his countrymen who aid them, we learn that his dreams and visions are as suspect as the man himself.
Regarding that “eald hus”: The Wake is written in what Kingsnorth refers to as a “shadow language”, an invented form of Old English that combines standard language, archaic vocabulary, and a sort of phonetic approximation of a tongue long gone from the face of the Earth. It is the first thing most critics discuss when talking about the book, and it is indeed of great importance. But its difficulty is overstated; the language of The Wake is joy and not a chore. It can be a bit daunting at first, but the more one reads it, the more fascinating it becomes, and the more hypnotic the rhythms of Buccmaster’s speech are to experience. (They particularly benefit from being read aloud.) Kingsnorth does not strive for a precise fidelity or for a fanciful contrivance; rather, he puts into unique words and gives a perfectly appropriate cadence to a character at once immediate and out of time.
Kingsnorth’s views on what was once known as “the Norman yoke” are made clear in an addendum to the book. One of the attractions of The Wake for non-British readers is how spectacularly he conjures an event that literally meant the end of a particular conception of Englishness, and how its eradication echoes through time to the present day. But we do not come to view Hastings and its after-effects strictly through Buccmaster’s chauvinistic lens; there are deeper questions here about the stewardship of the land, the meaning and purpose of civilization, and what it means to define one’s self as belonging to a particular nationality or to think of another as invaders and enemies. There are in the narrative subtle but ever-present critiques of colonialism, identity, religion, language, and many other important matters in the book, but always they are subsumed into a narrative of incredible beauty and violence, and always they are seen through the eyes of a character uniquely striking and stricken.
Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project dedicates itself to the concept of “uncivilization”, to the notion that it is no longer enough to believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing. In Buccmaster, he has created the perfect protagonist for uncivilized times, both deeply sympathetic and unsettlingly wounded, a flawed creature of a dying creation. He embodies the ultimate irony of war: he sees no choice but to fight for what he has lost, but what he has lost — the respect of his peers, the easy life of a successful man, the yearning for home and family — are what makes him so reluctant and unsuited for battle. He long ago stopped believing in the stories his society tells him are true, but seeks refuge in older and darker tales that prove even more damaging. If The Wake, which marks the appearance of an artist of truly great stature, is representative of Dark Mountain’s work, they are a voice that should not be taken lightly.