The Wake

by Paul Kingsnorth

Rating: ★★★★

The hard thing about this book is not the shadow-tongue that immerses you into Kingsnorth's reconstruction of the rolling oral culture of the time, which quickly becomes easy to read and indeed eventually stops being noticeable (and actually, is done so well that several times I found myself understanding a word in context but afterwards left groping for what the modern English term actually was). The hard thing about this book is that it propels you into an ordinary, paranoid, xenophobic Englishman and forces you to consider that he is a person, that he is not all bad, and that his perspective is worth some respect. I don't like for book reviews to be topical, but relevance of this aspect of the book to current politics does need to be acknowledged.

Other reviewers have pointed out how horrible Buccmaster comes across as, and certainly I agree I would find him horrific to be around, but that's all somewhat missing the point. It is easy to revile Buccmaster for beating his wife when angry -- as literally every other married male character in the setting will do -- and to ignore his nigh-constant praise of her, his evident grief at her death, and the care with which he assembled grave-goods for her when he had precious little left. You can hardly miss his insecurity about his social standing -- and Kingsnorth was crafty in selecting a near-'middle-class' status for his narrator in a time when such a thing was not common -- but it is similarly hard to miss his perspicuity about the people around him. His paranoia is not unfounded, it is just that his position truly is precarious, being one of the smallest freemen of note, his family dead, balancing on an edge that could easily tip him into peasanthood. It is easy to laugh at him blowing hard and dismissing the opinions of others, and not notice his keen insights into the social structures that surround him, particularly regarding the role of the Church in extending the state's control. You might think he is not really the bold hero he tried to be, with his revealed fear and self-doubt and aimlessness and sudden petty impulses, but ask yourself what you would expect to find inside a real and fallible person in this situation, rather than a storybook rebel, and consider that when it came down to it, he was not, in fact, all talk.

This is the second book I've read this year which suggests that there is something in the old Germanic faith which still appeals to some segment of the English population -- here this is seen in Kingsnorth's decision to use it as a symbol for old ways. I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Objectively, I suppose I must acknowledge the centrality of the UK to the pagan revival movements, but it is also very true that our country is by and large a-religious in all but name, with faltering attendance at any organised worship (outside of ethnic minorities). A lot of what Buccmaster says in the book about the differences between the Germanic traditions and pantheon and the sanctimonious sin-worrying of Christianity and its hodgepodge martyr really resounded with me -- I've always found the polytheistic religions so much more lively and lovable than the servility-serving Abrahamic religions or the negation-of-life Buddhist and Tao paths (and of course, that doesn't make them more true -- but it does make them more tolerable). So my issue is I don't know if Kingsnorth's sad depiction of a lone broken man trying to preserve this faith is capturing something of wide appeal, or if he just got lucky with me. Either way, I can acknowledge it moved me a bit.

The history in the book is excellently done, insofar as I can judge. Kingsnorth does play with a few details, but he acknowledges it in his afterword. Being already familiar with the story of the invasion and the resistance, I can't be sure how much of it would come through clearly to a reader for which this was new, but anyone who wants to know more about the basis of the book would do well with Peter Rex's The English Resistance, which was one of Kingsnorth's prime sources.