‘I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place… To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos; just wrong’. Paul Kingsnorth’s rather dogmatic views on language in historical novels, as expressed in one of the afterwords to The Wake, led him to create what he admits is ‘a tongue which no-one has ever spoken’, a version of Old English accessible to the modern reader, but which he nevertheless claims follows a set of rules; only using words and letters that originated in or existed in Old English being his primary restriction. However, he offered himself a get-out clause: ‘all of the previous rules could be overridden, if necessary, by a meta-rule… do what the novel needs you to do.’ The thicket of caveats that hedge this afterword on language suggested to me – before I’d read a word of the novel – that Kingsnorth’s brave words about modern language being like a Starbucks in the eleventh century might already be falling apart. His decision to rely on his novelist’s instinct was undoubtedly the right one. It is the language he’s created, not his skill as a writer, that lets him down.
As a modern historian, I was in no position to judge the accuracy of The Wake, but a fascinating discussion with medievalist and linguist Kate Wiles on Twitter confirmed much of what I’d suspected about its language. ‘Due to keeping OE words which are recognisable to modern eyes he is restricted to the common set of vocab which doesn’t change’, she commented in her notes on the novel, which she kindly shared with me. ‘This limits his ability to use complex ideas.’ As Kate explained, using constructions such as ‘I seen it’, which Kingsnorth does throughout, implies that eleventh-century people were so ‘simple’ that they couldn’t decline the past tense, which limits a reader’s ability to truly engage with this particular chronological moment. In the case of ‘I seen it’, the Anglo-Saxons ‘had a past tense of “to see” which was the precursor of “saw”‘, so Kingsnorth’s usage is ‘entirely anachronistic.’ Kingsnorth also often breaks even the few rules he’s set for himself. My favourite example from Kate: ‘using “fuccan” when there’s no evidence for “fuck” in OE.’ Reading the second afterword in the novel, on history, indicates that Kingsnorth doesn’t have a huge amount of time for it: ‘Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the “Norman Yoke”. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the Yoke was very real’. These don’t read like the words of an author who – as implied by his earlier statements about language – thinks that historical accuracy is central to the historical novel.
Nor should it have to be. Kingsnorth’s needlessly inflammatory statements in his afterwords mask the fact that he has made some very good creative choices with this novel. As indicated already, the reader should not expect this to be in any way an accurate reflection of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest or of the language of the times. I also think that Kate’s point about the over-simplification of both the medieval language and hence the medieval mindset is very apt, and a strong indication as to why the majority of historical novelists haven’t tried this type of linguistic experiment. Kingsnorth may have a point when he says that ‘our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words’ but this is a truth overshadowed by more pressing concerns for the novelist. Quite simply, it’s more important to portray a properly complex picture of the inner worlds of people who lived in older times. As The Wake’s problems demonstrate, sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do things right.
Why don’t I see The Wake as a complete failure, then? I certainly think that it would be a better novel if Kingsnorth had addressed the points made above. Nevertheless, while reading it, I kept thinking of another quasi-medieval, quasi-fantastical novel that I recently read: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I love Ishiguro’s work and it pains me to say this, but The Buried Giant didn’t work for me. The Wake succeeds much better on similar ground – with the caveat that it would have been better if Kingsnorth had positioned his work more explicitly as a fantasy, rather than rooting it in the history of the Norman Conquest. The language of the novel is limiting. However, it also slows the reader’s pace in a way that can be quite magical at times. When you start a novel that opens
‘the night was clere though I slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still’
you know you’re in for the long haul. As I’ve discussed before, pace and expectations are crucial to how a reader engages with a novel, and my long journey through The Wake certainly made me feel as if I had to adjust my pace to that of a different mindset. Not to the eleventh-century mindset that Kingsnorth fondly believes he has captured, perhaps, but I still felt that this readjustment was valuable. Similarly, the novel is impressive on some of the details of its medieval fantasy; from the incredibly evocative depictions of the fens to the slow spread of the news of the Battle of Hastings. If read as a folktale rather than as history, The Wake is remarkably successful in pulling the reader into an alternative world without leaving them waiting in impatient boredom for something to happen, unable to adjust to these new rules of storytelling (as I’m afraid I felt for much of The Buried Giant). It’s interesting that Ishiguro has said that he initially played with language as well before discarding his early efforts; as I’ve suggested, the language in The Wake is both a drawback and an advantage, depending on what you want the novel to do for you. Sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do (some) things right…
Kingsnorth’s choices, then, can hinder both him and the reader. But this does not mean that this was an experiment not worth trying. It does raise questions about whether historical novels can still be worthwhile if their history is all wrong; big questions, and important ones, but definitely questions for another day.