If I invite you to The Wake I have no funereal intentions. The Wake is a novel by Paul Kingsnorth that is set in 1066 at the time of the Norman invasion of England. Everything was about to change in this post-apocalyptic world a thousand years ago – not least the language, with its new stream of French words. The Wake is written in an extraordinary ‘shadow tongue’ a version of Old English that Paul Kingsnorth has created for the novel.
I came across the book because it’s published by Unbound who also publish Keeping Mum, the Dark Angels collective novel. John Mitchinson (Unbound and Dark Angels) recommended it to me. Then the novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, in itself proving Unbound’s point that the traditional publishing models are broken. Because The Wake had been rejected by mainstream publishers and a great book would not have seen the light of day without Unbound’s support.
After reading ten pages of The Wake I was struggling. After reading twenty pages I was seeing glimmers of light. After fifty pages I was deeply into it. The strangeness of the language remains but your ear and mind attune themselves to it. I had experienced something similar when reading Russell Hoban’s brilliant novel Riddley Walker many years ago.
Here is a randomly selected passage from The Wake:
Well I got her to the hus and sleep she did in the end though it was late before she wolde and when she did it was a broc sleep. I cnawan I wolde not sleep not for the tidans alone but for what I was again hearan for what was bean spok it seemed louder now efen than that first night sum wices ago and now I cnawan why he had cum.
Now if you’re puzzled by that, I understand. There’s less punctuation than we’re used to, and some of the words look unfamiliar because they’re spelt differently from our usage. But this is English, based on the way our ancestors spoke a thousand years ago. From ‘cnawan’ came the various forms of the verb ‘know’; from ‘hus’ we built ‘house’; from ‘tidans’ we take ‘tidings’ – of great joy at Christmas.
It becomes much easier to understand when you read it aloud in an English dialect accent of your choice. Not only easier but beautiful. You hear the lyricism and poetry of our everyday language through its ancient roots.
Read aloud and listen is one of my core tenets of writing, and it works here. It worked for another friend of mine, David May, who has just finished a novel of 82,000 words. He told me this week that he’d read every word of it aloud to himself and this was the best advice he’d ever received on writing. It helped shape the style and bring alive the characters so that he could test their credibility.
All very well for fiction you might say. But as I worked this week on words for a law firm, a theatre company, a leadership coach and a trade association, I had an echo of Paul Kingsnorth’s language in my head. Of course what I write does not come out as Old English. But as writers for business we are translators, from one form of English to another, every time we write and every time we try to write more effectively. We need to train and stretch ourselves to do that.
Apart from anything else The Wake becomes a compelling story told in a memorable voice, and Mark Rylance has now bought the film rights so that he can play Buccmaster the main character. I won’t miss that.