A history, told in the shadow tongue

J.R.R. Tolkien believed English history ended in 1066. This was the year of the Battle of Hastings, when Anglo-Saxon Britain was invaded and conquered by the French. First they overthrew the Anglo-Saxon king and installed their own, Guillaume, in his place. They proceeded to dismantle the country’s entire infrastructure, displacing the native dukes and earls with their French counterparts. Soon the Anglo-Saxons were mere servants to a foreign ruling class.

The effects of the invasion can be seen to this day, perhaps most acutely in language. Take these two words: “cow” and “boeuf.” Remarkably different words for what is essentially the same thing, give or take a couple steps along the circle of life. Why the discrepancy?

This basic vocabulary lesson is actually the result of a tremendous consolidation of power in 11th century Britain. Following the French occupation, the Anglo-Saxons occupied the lower rungs of their own society, growing crops, building bridges and – you guessed it – tending livestock. The ruling French collected the results of Anglo-Saxon labour, an arrangement familiar to any fan of The Hunger Games. When the Anglo-Saxons worked the fields, they raised “ku,” the Old English word for “cow.” They never ate it, however; by the time it reached the tables of the French masters, it was “boeuf,” the French ancestor of our word “beef.” The next time you order a Big Mac, spare a thought for the Anglo-Saxon culture of an earlier millennium.

Paul Kingsnorth’s new novel, The Wake, tells the story of this decisive hinge in English history, and it does so by paying extremely close attention to the English language. The book is not written in contemporary English, but rather in what Kingsnorth calls a “shadow tongue,” an approximation of Old English that is still comprehensible to the modern ear.

      loc it is well cnawan there is those wolde be tellan lies and those with only them selfs in mind. there is those now who specs of us and what we done but who cnawan triewe no man cnawan treiwe but i and what i tell i will tell as i sceolde and all that will be telt will be all the triewth.

At first glance, it might look like autocorrect gone mad, but after 20 pages or so, it’s second nature.

The Wake is told by Buccmaster, a proud farmer and landowner. Even before the French arrive, Buccmaster feels England is becoming unrecognizable. The Christian Church is already present, with everyone in Buccmaster’s hamlet showing up on Sunday mornings, but he persists in believing in the old pagan gods his grandfather venerated. The gods even appear to reward his devotion, as he is given visions of a great calamity near at hand. Once the French arrive, his sons go off to war while he remains at the farm, believing the current king to be a pale imitation of earlier rulers, undeserving of his service. The war soon comes to his home, and one day he returns from the woods to find his home burned and his family killed.

Buccmaster vows revenge and sets off to recruit an army of “green men” who will rise up against the French and reclaim England for the English. But it soon turns out that the England he wants to bring back exists only his mind, as his men take his talk of old gods to be a sign of madness. Eventually, he is an army of one, declaring men to be untrustworthy and pledging his loyalty only to the land.

History is written by the victors, goes the saying. The Wake is history told by the victim, detailing the shame and rage that result from getting placed in the losers’ bracket of the history books. The political significance is readily apparent, but the religious angle plays an equally important role. In a way, this could be an unpleasant book for a believer to read, as Buccmaster rails against priests English and French both, eventually declaring a war on Christ. It would be easy to dismiss him as a wrathful pagan, but that would miss the surprising relevance of his story.

What Buccmaster fears more than anything, what he wages war against, is change. He winds up putting his faith in the trees, rocks and rivers of his home, so deceitful does he believe humanity to be. Now if your experience is anything like mine, you may have noticed that times of change are when Christians turn on one another, flinging accusations of heresy and false witness. Churches split like this all the time. Let this go on long enough, and you have assorted armies of one, each convinced they are the true bearers of the old ways and vowing vengeance on any and all who say otherwise.

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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