The way of the book and the way of the wild: a review of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake

there is ways to see this world i saes.  there is the way of the boc and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere there is the way of the crist and the eald ways of this land

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake, p. 334

Be you whole, earth, mother of people, may you be opened in God’s embrace, filled with food for humans’ use.

Eleventh-century field remedy,  London, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A. vii

The Old English word for ‘library’ is ‘boc hord’ – book hoard.  And I’m something of a book-hoarder myself: I have a tendency to buy them second-hand and hold onto them for a long time before they rise to the top of my to-read list.  And then, very often I enjoy a book so much that I wonder why I didn’t read it sooner.

One such book was Paul Kingsnorth’s first novel The Wake, which I picked up at a second-hand bookshop at Wemyss Bay railway station/ferryport as I waited for a train to Glasgow, back in May 2015. I knew of Kingsnorth already, having read his anti-corporate-sameness journalistic work Real England: the Battle against the Bland; and I had heard that his novel, set at the time of the Norman conquest of England, had been published via the crowdfunding site Unbound.  Finally, I picked it off the shelf at the start of this summer, and was enthralled by it.  The Wake is told in the voice of Buccmaster, a proud and respected Anglo-Saxon landowner (he’s a member of the local wæpentake and a socman with three oxgangs of land) living in the fenlands of East Anglia, whose sons go to fight the conqueror and never return; his wife is murdered by the Norman armies.  Left adrift from all that he has ever known, Buccmaster retreats into the forests, gathering together a few men whom he chooses to be his army to fight against the invaders (referred to in the novel as ‘grene men’).  Rumours reach them, saying that one man, Hereward the Wake, is leading a bigger resistance movement, but Buccmaster prefers to fight on with his own hand-picked guerillas – whether they like it or not …


A shadow tongue

It’s an absorbing story, but what makes The Wake unique is its language.  Believing that putting ’21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos’ (p. 355), he creates a ‘shadow tongue’, a language based on Old English but to some extent modernised and altered.  Virtually every word in the novel dates back to Old English or Old Norse; the grammar and spelling have been simplified to make them more comprehensible to the reader, but they are recognisably based on Anglo-Saxon.  Punctuation is sparse, reflecting the relative lack of it in medieval manuscripts compared to modern print, and also the oral nature of Buccmaster’s narrative.

well i has been specan micel of my grandfather but this was not my tale it is not of what i meant to be specan … it is hard to thinc here sum times it is hard to spec but i will spec of these times they moste be thought of still though we is gan now.  lysten i has telt thu of the spring of that year now i will tell thu of the sumor for it was in the sumor that efry thing begun to cum wrong for our folc for ever

(much; speaking; gone; thou; every)

The Wake, p. 37

This ‘shadow tongue’ worked for me, mostly.  As someone who reads Old English prose without too much difficulty, I found that the lines simply ran off the page, that reading it was like reading Anglo-Saxon and modern English at once, largely because Kingsnorth alters his spellings to more closely reflect Old English (‘heofon’ for ‘heaven’, and so on).  However, it only really works if you accept that he simplifies and alters the grammar of the original language, in some respects creating something neither ancient nor modern.  Take, for example, ‘what i meant to be specan’.  Modern English is far more dependent on compound present tenses than Anglo-Saxon was; the present participle -ing form ends with -end in Old English, so ‘speaking’ would be ‘sprecende’.  Kingsnorth simplifies this grammar by using -an endings for the present and past participles as well as for the infinitive: ‘specan’ for ‘speaking’, ‘gan’ for ‘gone’.  I found that I could live with this.  However, other simplifications were considerably more jarring, such as ‘i is’ (the Old English for ‘I am’ is simply ‘ic eom’) and the use of ‘thu’ for the second person pronoun even as an object: ‘i will tell thu’ rather than ‘i will tell the(e)’.  This article by Katrin Thier of the University of Oxford goes into these issues in more detail.

In the early stages of the novel, Buccmaster is a fascinating, contradictory character, obviously proud of his status, cynical of priests, certain of his own righteousness;  but occasionally he forgets himself enough to lose himself in the fenland, the land he comes from, his great passion, and these moments are some of the most beautiful parts of the novel:

there was aeppel treows then and a small ea and the heofon smelt of ealu and smoc and treows and folc.  there was eight hus there small for small men but still it macd me loc baec on what i had been and what had been tacan

and what i was felan then well it was felt mor deop when I seen what was in the ham for it seemed that the haerfest mass was happnan … i colde see it was haligmonth the month of the haerfest and it was lic a spere in my heorte.  then i colde feel deop the need for my land the need to worc it and be with it and i colde feel deop what was tacan from me

(river; ale; houses; feeling; home or small village; September or ‘holy month’)

The Wake, p. 192

Aeppel treows

However, as he and his personal army retreat into the woodland, he becomes increasingly self-absorbed.  Still considering himself to be a socman with three oxgangs, Buccmaster not only refuses to listen to his army (they’re only young men and hired hands, after all), but when he hears of the famous Hereward, instead of seeking to join a larger resistance movement, he becomes jealous, affronted by the idea of having to recognise any authority but his own.  The novel’s title, presumably, compares the pathetic Buccmaster with the more famous Hereward, but also to the mourning for a lost land.  I came to the book expecting the story of a great underground battle, but, aside from a few violent flashpoints, not a great deal actually happens.  The real fight in the novel is not the one for England, despite Buccmaster’s grief for his lost culture or for the freedom of the English (well, those that weren’t slaves or hired men, obviously), but for his own personal importance (he’s a socman with three oxgangs).  Oddly enough, his long wanderings in the woodland effectively convey a sense of the vastness of England at the time: word comes via travelling merchants about the battles that are taking place across the country, the movements of the Conqueror and of Hereward’s resistance.  Kingsnorth does not move heofon and eorþan to get his characters to all of the great events of their time, but rather more realistically lets them simply hear news and rumours: going about on foot, they are simply too far away.

Mother of earth

Keen to see what other readers made of the novel, and interested to know how the language came across to non-readers of Old English, I searched the internet for reviews and comments.  The Unbound site itself, Kingsnorth’s springboard to publication, was a valuable source of such comments – one reader perceptively compares it to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, another story of a proud man who sees his culture and beliefs taken away by invading outsiders.  Daniel J. Ransom, reviewing the book for World Literature Today praised the novel but felt that the author could have written a longer glossary; in particular, he was left wondering about the meaning of the word erce, used several times throughout the book.

the eald gods saes wulf i was telt a lytel of them when a cilde by my mothor.  she wolde spec sum times of erce who was the ground and the holt and the heofon

(old; woodland)

The Wake, p. 246

I’d like to answer this one (insofar as anyone can).  London, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A. vii is a tenth-century copy of the Old Saxon poem Heliand, a story of the life of Christ.  In the early eleventh century, a text was added to fols. 176r-178r, the final three leaves of the manuscript: a ritual known as the Æcerbot to be followed in the event that a field is unfruitful, perhaps because bad magic has been performed upon it.  It has been edited and translated into modern-ish English by Oswald Cockayne: you can find the full text here.

The remedy goes as follows:

Cut four pieces of turf out of the corners of the field

Gather certain ingredients: includes milk from each kind of animal kept on the land, part of each tree and plant on the land (with certain exceptions)

Add holy water to them

Drip the water three times into each place where the turf was taken from, saying (in Latin) ‘Grow and multiply and fill the earth’, and the Our Father

Let a mass-priest sing four masses over the turfs in church

Before sunset, return the turfs to their places

Make wooden crosses with the names of the evangelists on them

Lay down the crosses and say ‘Cross Matthew, cross Mark, cross Luke, cross John’

Set the turfs down upon it and repeat the ‘Grow and multiply’ formula and Our Father nine times

Look east and say a prayer to God and the Virgin

Turn around three times and say litanies, the Our Father, etc.

Take an unknown seed from beggars

Take the plough and put seeds into it

Say two sets of words, addressed to God and ‘Erce, mother of earth’, asking for fruitfulness, and start to plough

Make a loaf of many grains, with milk and holy water, and bury it under that first furrow, saying more words

Finish with ‘Grow and multiply’ and the Our Father again

It’s a long, complex ritual, that requires many steps to be followed and words to be said.  Completing it must have felt like something of an achievement!  But the next thing I notice is the close connection between the natural world, the concerns of the people who work on it, and the space, prayers, sacraments, and priest of the local church.  John D. Niles has written an excellent article on this (see bibliography below), a great example of a brief, easy-to-follow academic work which opens up and illuminates a medieval text.  He notes, amongst other things, that this would most likely have been a rite performed for the good of the community, probably by a priest employed by a secular lord.  It is in the final two sets of words that we find the word erce and the references to the earth: I have given my own translation.

Erce CaligAvii177v.JPG
London, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A. vii, fol. 177v

Erce, erce, erce, mother of earth, may the all-ruler, the almighty Lord, grant you growing fields

Hal wes thu CaligAvii178r.JPG
London, British Library Cotton MS Caligula A. vii, fol. 178r

Be you whole, earth, mother of people, may you be opened in God’s embrace

You can hear a musical interpretation of these words sung by Victoria Squid via Soundcloud here (she begins with “hal” on line 2 above, and ends with “nytte” on line 4, before repeating):

But who or what is this erce?  Given the reference to the ‘mother of earth’ (a better translation of eorþan modor than Cockayne’s ‘Mother Earth’) , it has been interpreted as a passing reference to an otherwise-forgotten pagan earth goddess.  This doesn’t strike me as an unreasonable supposition whatsoever – indeed, there are references to the rather better-known god Woden in the Lacnunga medical collection, to which I will return.

So we quite possibly have evidence for a pagan earth goddess in an eleventh-century English text.  Information about Anglo-Saxon paganism would be of great interest to me and probably to many other people too.  But what we have far more evidence of here is a Christianity which was in touch with agrarian culture and did not need to be swept clean of every speck of the old religion.  The practitioner of this rite needs to have expert knowledge of every kind of tree which grows on the land, and to winnow out the hardwoods, and likewise of every kind of plant, and to reject one of them.  He also needs to know his Benedicite and Magnificat, and to call upon all the saints in the litany.  Niles concludes that, since Erce may very well have been a ‘half-forgotten tellurian deity’, the remedy ‘provides evidence for a remarkable syncretism in late Anglo-Saxon England’ (Niles, ‘Æcerbot Ritual’, p. 55).

The way of the book and the way of the wild

Kingsnorth has chosen to make his main character a kind of recusant pagan in a culture in which the Christian church had been well-developed for centuries.  I’m not going to assert that absolutely no-one in eleventh-century England still followed the old gods – it is incredibly difficult to know anything about the inner lives of ordinary people at this time.  But it is an authorial decision which I felt needed some justification.  (Katrin Thier, too, questions the validity of this choice.)  Buccmaster is made to fight against two different sets of invaders, not just the Normans, but also the Christians, who he sees as being foreign to English culture.

there is ways to see this world i saes.  there is the way of the boc and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere there is the way of the crist and the eald ways of this land

The Wake, p. 334

But is Buccmaster creating unnecessary black-and-white divisions between pagan and Christian, and between folk culture and the lifestyle of the ingengas (invaders, a word he uses to describe Christians as well as Normans)?  One of the other characters, Wulf, tells Buccmaster about his mother and her medical knowledge:

my mothor cnawan all things what grow in the holt she colde spec to the wihts she was a wifman of the wicce craft. but she wolde gif it only to them who cum to her ascan for she cnawan that the preost and the thegn wolde not haf it spoc out … men wolde laugh at my mothor saes wulf or mocc her in the ham but then they wolde cum to her in stillness at night to asc for her help. she wolde bind senep seeds and rue to their heafods to stop their pain or if they had hrifteung she wolde coc pic in milc and they wolde drinc it and all wolde be well.

(knew; (supernatural) beings; cook; pitch)

The Wake, p. 246

Buccmaster (or Kingsnorth, or both of them) has a tendency to identify rural lore as specifically pagan; realistically, I would guess that if you are immersed in the life of the countryside, you will ‘cnawan all things what grow in the holt’ whether you are pagan, Christian or anything else.  I felt that Kingsnorth was trying to write two novels – one about the Christian conquest of the pagans, and another about the Norman conquest of the English.  He seems to identify ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with ‘pagan’ and ‘Norman’ with ‘Christian’, when in reality it must have been somewhat more complicated than that.

In this blog, I have written a number of posts about Anglo-Saxon medicine, mostly about the Leechbook and Lacnunga collections.  The remedies in these are striking for a number of reasons.  They assume immense knowledge of plant and animal life, whether of the English countryside or that of the Mediterranean countries from which some of the remedies are derived.  They also happily blend this nature knowledge together with Christian prayers, ‘charms’ in a language loosely based on Irish, and with the occasional reference to gods like Woden, as I discussed in an earlier post.  Also, while the medical practitioner (whoever he or she might be) is mostly in sole charge of performing the remedies, the priest was sometimes expected to get involved, saying a blessing over the herbs; sometimes his passive involvement is required, such as when the herbs are supposed to be set under the altar for a certain number of masses.  Although we do not know about the extent to which these remedies were performed, or who by, there is nothing in these manuscripts to suggest that they were considered witchcraft, or that ‘the preost and the thegn wolde not haf it spoc out’ – quite the reverse: even if the practitioner of the rite was not a priest, the masses involved were certainly said by one.

Church of earth, church of stone

the circe in bacstune was of wud and eorth and thaecc and was small and deorc smellan of folcs and of straw and of the stencan candels of the preosts.  here the circe was macd of wud and of stan and had a lytel torr

(thatch; tower)

The Wake, p. 255

In this article on the genesis of the novel (I’m really not sure where he gets his green man theory from), Kingsnorth points out that Norman churches must originally have been seen as ‘symbols of oppression’ – that’s the Romanesque architecture seen in, amongst others, Durham Cathedral.

Durham Cathedral close-up
The Norman cathedral of Durham, north-east England

It’s not a bad point, but it does assume that the original meaning of a cultural product is the only meaning, that the experiences of the people who have used the churches over the last nine hundred years are not also of value.  Whoever Erce originally was, the eleventh-century manuscript gives a snapshot of a different moment in time, one in which the mother of earth could be called upon alongside the mother of Christ, and the trees of the earth and the cross of Christ were one and the same.


Works used:

Oswald Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, Rolls Series 35:1-3 (New York: Kraus Reprint, 1965).

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (London: Unbound, 2014).

John D. Niles, ‘The Æcerbot Ritual in Context’, in J. D. Niles, ed., Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays (Cambridge: Brewer, 1980).

Katrin Thier, ‘Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake‘, Perspicuitas: Internet-Periodicum für mediävistische Sprach-, Kultur- und Literaturwissenschaft, 13/06/2016.

[Edited 01/04/2018, to add audio of the Æcerbot charm]


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on Gabriella L. Garlock, HistoReWriter and commented:
    I loved The Wake–neither modern English nor Anglo-Saxon, but a recognizably adapted “Shadow language” with a vocabulary purely Old English and Old Norse. A fascinating look at language and how we find ourselves comprehending beneath the conscious level-with the heart, you might say.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.