How the Invented Old English of The Wake Draws You In, Even as Its Hero Pushes You Away

Early in The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s widely and rightly praised novel of the Norman conquest, the narrator laments his losses. Once a privileged English landowner, Buccmaster has seen the French invaders destroy all that he owns and all that he loves. “Words are the only weapons I have left now, and no one would say I have ever been afraid to wield the weapons I have,” he declares.

Except that’s not what he says, not quite. Instead, Kingsnorth writes:

  words now is left my only waepens and non wolde sae i has efer been afeart to wield what waepens i has.

Every word in the book—dialogue and narration alike—is written in this style, an internally consistent invented language that approximates Old English. Learning to make sense of it—to read as Buccmaster speaks—becomes a complex dance of empathy. On the one hand, the more comfortable we get with it, the better we get to know Buccmaster. On the other, its persistent strangeness is an ongoing reminder of his distance from us, and of the alienness of his world.

Read more: Slate

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