I consider myself more of a storyteller than a craftsman of fine language. I shy away from books that rely on the poetry of their prose as opposed to the compelling nature of their plot and character. I guess that’s why I write TV as well as books — I like plot. I like when stuff happens. I’m simple that way.
But every once in a while I read something where the language is so extraordinary that I am reminded of how amazing it can be to have a masterful writer at the keyboard. I am reminded that powerful language transports the reader to another world. The Wake, a novel by Paul Kingsworth, is one of those books. And it’s not extraordinary in the way you’d expect — it is a wholly original piece of writing.
Some caveats. The book is an historical novel, but it is also clearly an art novel. Kingsworth is a critic and poet. The Wake is set in 1066, the year of the Norman invasion of England. And here is the most amazing thing: the book is written in Old English.
Okay, not real Old English. That would be entirely unreadable by a 2015 audience. The language that Kingsworth uses is a sly modernization of OE. The spelling and the usage is made up, but the feel of it is 100% from the period. Here is a sample paragraph, chosen at random: still i will not spec of my father this is an oeath his name is gan from my tunge he is naht to me i will not loc at his graef as i pass for what he done.
Or another passage: cilde he saes this sweord thu sees but sceal not grip till thu is man this is welands sweord.
You might be put off by the odd spelling, and it certainly takes a while to get the hang of it, but Kingsworth puts a small, helpful glossary in the back of the book, and truth be told, after about twenty minutes of slow going, the language becomes easier. And after an hour of reading, you become expert at it, and it becomes — at least in your mind — modern English. And yet, it is not modern English. It is something other. And that otherness is magical.
You read the book and are truly in the head of a man living in the woods at the time of a devastating Apocalypse for the English people. Foreign invaders have routed your king, killed your family, stolen your land. Rumor and myth and fear are everywhere, and you know only what you can see, in the daylight, in front of you. Everything else in the world — France, the sea, nobles, even towns just a few miles away — all these things are strange and exotic. And the language that is used — simple, brutal, crude — makes this so. The OE words make the forest encroach on you. They give you a sense of the power of omens and the fear you might have of gods and monsters. There is so much the main character doesn’t know about the world, and the language of the book gives the reader that ignorance, front and center. He says in the opening of the book: see i had cnawan yfel was cuman when i seen this fugol (bird) glidan ofer.
In that sentence, I can feel the evil myself. I fear the fugol glidan ofer. I do.
Anyway, this post is not a book review. I meant it as a rumination on the power of language, and maybe also a small bit of self recrimination. I am sometimes too settled in my own prosaic ways. I tell myself that plot and character are everything. But they aren’t. The magic of great language is something as well.