waking old english

a historical novel in an invented tongue

Cnaw thu hwat I eom secgan? I eom secgan lysnan, lysnan. This is a talu for thee, a talu of Angland, a talu of 1066.*

If you are reading this article you are familiar with the English language, but what of Old English, our modern tongue’s mother? Old English casts a long shadow over the language we speak today, as you can see when you try to untangle the example I left for you at the start of this article. You know these words. Their meanings sleep in your subconscious. But trying to capture them is like trying to remember a dream. The harder you clutch at sense the faster it slithers from your fingers. Read it aloud. Can you hear it now? All around you, the old tongue struggles to wake up, struggles to be heard in echoes of today’s English.

I have been chasing this dream-language since my first seminar in Old English last fall. But reading real Old English epics requires a dictionary and feels more like deskwork than bedtime reading. For those of us who want to experience Old English as a living language, Paul Kingsnorth has written The Wake, which was released in the US this month. The novel, set in 1066, tells the tale of a band of English guerrillas making a doomed last stand against the French in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Kingsnorth writes in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an artificial language that has the soul of Old English but is enough akin to your own English that after a few chapters you’ll feel settled into the sense of it. (A few days into reading I found myself misspelling modern English words; I had been struck by historical dyslexia.)

Kingsnorth isn’t just writing this way to mess with your mind and ruin your spelling. He wanted to write a historical novel that honored the soul of the historical language as much as it honored historical facts. In a note at the end of the book he points out: “To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.”

When an infant learns her first language, she isn’t just learning words—she is learning a worldview and way of life. So it is for Kingsnorth’s reader. As you learn his shadow tongue, you become submerged in this Anglo-Saxon way of speaking the world: language and experience are not discrete entities, rather, the way we speak shapes the world we live in. Kingsnorth explains in his note: “The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this. They spoke their truth, as we speak ours. I wanted to be able to convey, not only in my descriptions of events and places but through the words of the characters, the sheer alien-ness of Old England.” As you fall into the world of The Wake, you will discover that April was once called thrimilci, for the cows were milked three times a day, and November was blotmonth, when livestock were killed for winter. Only by listening to old words can we hear how man was once ruled by the land, and not the other way round, as it is now.

Kingsnorth’s Old England is indeed alien. His tale takes place mostly in the fens, a marshy place of darkness, with whispers of aelfs and wihts (elves and spirits). At the end of the novel he provides a partial glossary to guide you through this alien landscape, but many words in the book are not to be found in glossary. They have no modern translations; they do not belong to our world. You must learn their meanings as you experience them in the world the story builds, just as a child learns language by living in a speaking world.

Certain words will be more familiar. Every few pages the misanthropic narrator, Buccmaster, spews phrases like “scut thy fuccan mouth.” After William the Conqueror took control of England in 1066 and his French minions became the country’s elite ruling powers, the French language began to insinuate itself into English. As Old English became Frenchified, evolving into Middle English, it was the upper classes and the upper spheres of language that changed to reflect this new, refined culture. Vulgarities belong to the language of the commoners, and survived virtually untouched.

Buccmaster’s angry tongue introduces you to a bitter, betrayed man. This is a man who wants to cut open a French bishop’s back and pull out his lungs like the wings of an eagle. The conquering French destroyed his home, his family, and his way of life. He wants vengeance, whether his small troop of guerilla rebels stands behind him or not. You will cringe. You will hate him. You will pity him. But when you are certain he is just a loudmouth coward, he turns into an irresistibly incendiary leader. And even when you are certain he is crazy, you can’t quite brush off the suspicion that he really is hearing whispers from the old, neglected Anglo-Saxon gods. It is for these Old Gods that Buccmaster is really fighting. He will kill French soldiers, but he will also kill his own Christianized countrymen, because he believes in an older England in which they do not belong. He is fighting a war that was won centuries before his birth by the missionaries who converted his country. His struggle is doomed before it began, and he knows it; that only makes him all the more ruthless.

Buccmaster’s narrative is told using only words with Old English or Germanic ancestors, so his words are simple, his lexicon small. Yet the feasts and battles bloomed huge in my room as I read, the Anglo-Saxon world coming to life in language. As Buccmaster and his werod, his war band, troop through villages, he showed me lovers blushing as they crowned one another in blossoms at the spring festival, showed me maidens weaving a bride of barley sheathes for the harvest procession. He showed me the old way of life; he showed me what he was fighting for.

In an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered” a couple weeks ago, Kingsnorth said that as he was writing The Wake he thought to himself: “There’s no way anybody’s going to publish this. I’m writing a book about a period in history no one knows about, in a language no one can understand, with a central character who’s horrible. There’s absolutely no way anyone’s going to touch this with a bargepole, but I don’t care!”

Instead, The Wake won the Gordon Burn Prize and the Bookseller Book of the Year Award. Kingsnorth’s shadow tongue speaks to us, speaks to that ancient knowledge sleeping deep within our modern ears, makes us whole before we knew we what we were missing. Wake up. Listen.

*Do you know what I am saying? I am saying listen, listen, this is a tale for you, a tale of England, a tale of 1066.