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 keep me still.
when i woc in the morgen all was blaec though the night had gan and wolde be blaec after and for all time.
So begins this remarkable book. Written in ‘a shadow tongue’ that bears a passing resemblance to Old English, it’s the story of Buccmaster of Holland, a ‘socman of three oxgangs’ i.e. a freeholder of sixty acres, in the eastern part of Lincolnshire. The date is 1066 and Buccmaster has premonitions of impending doom. Soon England will be overrun by Norman horsemen and professional soldiers fighting against English peasants armed with farm tools. We all know the outcome and the fact that it would be three-hundred years before England would be ruled again by a monarch who spoke English.
The first thing you will notice about this book is the language and, at first, it can be confusing. There is, you’ll note, almost no punctuation other than the period and that seems to be a concession to ease of interpretation. There’s no capitalization. All is written as it might have been in the time that the action takes place and before the advent of printing when punctuation was added as an aid to reading aloud. There are no words (with few exceptions) that that did not originate in Old English and no letters that did not exist in the Old English alphabet — k, v, j and q are all absent. (The swearing, while quintessentially Anglo-Saxon, reads as quite modern, however.)
But this use of language is not a gimmick. As the author, Paul Kingsnorth writes: “ … I simply didn’t get along with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words and what we do with them.”
And it all works remarkably well. The intonation is rural England — sometimes reminiscent of the West Country, sometimes of East Anglia or even Yorkshire; but the ‘voice’ is Buccmaster. Arrogant, visionary, blind and self-pitying, the character is complex and rich. Unfortunately, perhaps, he’s not very likable, which in a book that takes a while to find its stride, might put readers off. But the language becomes second-nature after a little while and there’s a short glossary and a guide to pronunciation that are both very helpful. Then the book becomes riveting and the character of Buccmaster comes vividly and fiercely to life.
The sense of place and time are hugely powerful here. Buccmaster is suddenly and brutally wrenched from his world and angrily rejects the new order imposed on England by the shaven-faced foreigners. He longs for an even older pre-Christian England of ancient gods and old ways and, as the book progresses, his identity with this lost past starts to become unhinged as scenes from an anguished youth reveal themselves.
This not so much a ‘ripping yarn’ as an immersion in an alien world made doubly strange by dislocation and mental derangement.
‘Buccmaster’ is not an Old English name. It is, the author explains, a name that came to hime and wouldn’t let go. The ‘Holland’ mentioned is not the Netherlands but rather a low-lying, fictitious place near the fens of Lincoln.
There is a powerful story here and strongly drawn characters. It’s a book rife with startlingly poetic language — some of the descriptions of the fen country are hugely moving — and it’s a book that still haunts me.
I discovered it while doing a search for a monograph dealing with Finnegans Wake — popularly referred to as ‘The Wake’ and probably the Grandaddy of all books written in a ‘shadow language’. It’s the kind of book I love, as alien and absorbing as another favorite, Riddley Walker, and I recommend it with the caveat that you may not find an initial easy trail through the language. If you persist, it’s worth it.