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Literature / The Wake

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"there is sum thing cuman i specs i specs but no man lystens"
Buccmaster of Holland

The Wake is a 2014 novel by Paul Kingsnorth set during and after the Norman Invasion of 1066. The novel uses a "shadow tongue" created by its author to mimic the Old English language that would have been used by the characters.

The events are narrated by Buccmaster of Holland, an arrogant and slightly unstable landowner on the Lincolnshire fens, whose village is burned down by Norman invaders. His sons never return from battle and they murder his wife. Now a homeless vagabond, Buccmaster assembles a ragtag band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. As the story progresses, however, he becomes increasingly unhinged, partly due to horrible events from his Dark and Troubled Past, and partly because the very fabric of his world disintegrating around him.

Unrelated to a roleplay about modern humanity contacting merfolk, or an online crossover roleplay of the same name.


The Wake provides examples of:

  • After the End: Word of God describes The Wake as "a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago".
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Because the story is set in the middle ages, it's never made clear what Buccmaster's mental illness is. Even before his delusions become more pronounced, he has a violent temper and a massive ego.
  • Ancestral Weapon: Buccmaster's rune-inscribed sword, which was allegedly forged by the legendary smith Weland.
  • Anglo-Saxon Mythology: Buccmaster is a devout believer in the old gods of England, who are the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of the deities in Norse Mythology (IE, "Wodan" is "Odin," "Thunor" is "Thor," etc). He frequently makes references to beings, places, and events in Anglo-Saxon mythology, but he usually doesn't stop to explain them so they may go unnoticed to the unattuned reader.
    • In real life, the actual beliefs of Anglo-Saxon paganism are't well-documented, with the only real evidence being found in certain place names and historical documents that vaguely allude to pre-Christian beliefs (IE, St. Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which documents England's conversion to Christianity). Interestingly, this lack of firm evidence is reflected in the story. Because Buccmaster is living almost five centuries removed from when Christianity became the dominant faith, his beliefs may not even be that accurate as to what Anglo-Saxon paganism actually was. His cosmology is cobbled together from popular folklore (IE, Weland the smith), the tall-tales surrounding the pagan Danes (IE, his attempt to perform the Blood Eagle on Turold), and the old stories his grandfather related to him, which have probably been embellished from being passed down through the ages. All of this is further distorted by Buccmaster's mental instability and delusions, which seem to run in his family. While Buccmaster does encounter a few other characters who've held on to some pre-Christian beliefs, his peculiar religious views are heavily-informed by his psychosis.
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    • Many of Buccmaster's hallucinations depict things from his pagan beliefs. The sinister voice in Buccmaster's head is identifies itself as the legendary smith Weland. Later on, as Buccmaster's mental health worsens, he witnesses Wodan judging him in the distance as well as the beginning of ragnarok.
  • Band of Brothers: Subverted. While Buccmaster's "werod" would like to think that they are united against a common enemy, they are in fact constantly at odds with one another, mainly due to Buccmaster's incompetence and hubris.
  • Berserk Button: It's generally best to avoid mentioning Buccmaster's father. Or his religion. Or your religion. Or Hereward the Wake. Don't tell him what to do, either. Just be very, very careful around him.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: Buccmaster is much more ruthless and dangerous than his initial eccentricity would lead you to believe.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Sort of - does an approximation of Old English count? Averted later on, when Buccmaster mockingly imitates Turold's French.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Buccmaster his very fond of his absent sister, although there doesn't seem to have been anything physical between them. That all changes when a memory Buccmaster has after his mental breakdown implies that he raped his sister before murdering her.
  • The Chosen One: Buccmaster thinks he's been chosen by the old Gods to save England from the Normans, but it's just a product of his delusions.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: It's implied that Buccmaster has this reputation in Holland, and not just because of his antiquated religious views. When he goes to tell Ecceard about the ominous raven he saw flying overhead, the man humors Buccmaster's concerns with a bemused tone but doesn't take them seriously. It's immediately shown that Buccmaster has a history of saying and doing odd things, to the point where his neighbors are warily accustomed to his strange behavior.
    • Later in the novel, Annis reveals that he had a much more insidious reputation than just being a little eccentric. After Buccmaster's father and sister mysteriously died in a house fire following his return from exile, rumors abounded that he was very likely responsible for their deaths.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Buccmaster's favourite form of expression.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Ecceard initially agrees to obey the Norman regime. Later, Alf leads the green men into a Norman trap in exchange for gold and even joins in with the combat.
  • Cool Sword: Buccmaster's rune-inscribed sword, which Buccmaster's grandfather's grandfather allegedly received from the legendary smith Weland. For all of his delusions, it is admittedly a pretty cool item and one that he treasures dearly. Incidentally, this attitude has historical precedence: in pre-Norman England, proper, full-length swords required more resources to make and as such were usually owned by nobles as a symbol of wealth and status. The working man's weapons were the axe and the seax (a dagger similar to a Bowie knife), as they were more practical, readily-available, and had mundane applications as tools in everyday life. All free men had seaxes, but only society's elites got swords. Buccmaster's possession of such a fine weapon contrasts nicely with his lack of class and his ignoble, immoral behavior.
  • Corporal Punishment: Ecceard (at the hands of the Normans) and Grimcell (several times, at the hands of Buccmaster).
  • Crapsack World: Through Buccmaster's eyes, anyway. How much of it can be attributed to Buccmaster's skewed worldview is not always clear. It's worth noting that the Norman soldiers are quite ruthless towards any resistance to their rule (perceived or otherwise), as shown when they begin executing villagers as retribution for Buccmaster's murder of a Norman lord. However, at the same time, much of the violence we see from the Normans is being committed in response to the werod's subversive activity. One village that Buccmaster visits lives in peace because they simply kept paying their taxes to the new French overlords instead of foolishly resisting, allowing their lives to continue as normal. Naturally, Buccmaster gets angry at them when the village's counsel men refuse to support his activities, although their tune changes after he slashes one of them to death in front of a horrified crowd of onlookers.
    • It's also worth noting that in real life, the Harrying of the North (IE, William the Bastard's crackdown on insurrection in northern England in 1069-70 AD, where the book is set) was extraordinarily violent. Some historians retroactively label the campaign as a genocide and with good reason. William's soldiers destroyed much of Yorkshire's farmland, which resulted in widespread starvation and death among the civilian populace. Typical estimates for the death toll rise well above 100,000, with this all having happened over the course of one winter. The historical evidence lends credence to Buccmaster's view that the Normans are vicious and tyrannical.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Buccmaster initially refuses to talk about his father for some unspecified reason. He also doesn't explain what happened to his sister and father after he got older, as they're mysteriously absent from his adult life. We discover that Buccmaster attempted to give his pagan grandfather a Viking Funeral against the wishes of his Christian father, who threw young Buccmaster out of the house. Buccmaster eventually returned from a long period of exile in the wilderness and murdered his father and sister (the latter of whom he may have raped).
  • Death of the Old Gods: By 1066, the old pagan ways have been replaced by those of "the crist".
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: It's clear from Buccmaster's interactions with other people in Holland that he isn't well-liked there. The other counsel men are used to his obnoxious behavior and the people of the village regard him as a mentally-unstable weirdo. In an early scene where Buccmaster attends a town meeting, the village priest hosting it grimaces at Buccmaster's presence.
  • Foreshadowing: Tofe and Grimcell lack the nerve to finish off the injured Norman lord, but Buccmaster doesn't hesitate to slash the lord's throat. It's not the first time Buccmaster has killed somebody.
  • Glory Seeker: Tofe is adamant about avenging his slain father by fighting the Normand, though he seizes up when he's tasked with finishing off a downed Norman. His hesitance is justified, as he's barely into his teens and he's only just recently become a guerrilla.
  • Gollum Made Me Do It: Buccmaster's decisions are largely influenced by Weland, the voice in his head.
  • Groin Attack: Alf the Gleoman meets a particularly grisly end this way.
  • Good Is Old-Fashioned: Buccmaster frequently declares his preference for the old pagan ways over Christianity, one of the many reasons the people of Holland don't like him. He's quietly regarded with suspicion and contempt whenever he bitterly complains about "the crist," but no one directly confronts him about it. That is, not until the end when Grimcell gets tired of Buccmaster's nastiness and calls him a delusional idiot for believing in fairytale nonsense.
  • Happy Flashback: To Buccmaster's childhood, when he'd catch eels with his granddad while listening to his stories about "the eald hus." However, the flashback where we discover why Buccmaster was disowned by his father is definitely not happy.
  • Historical Domain Character: Hereward the Wake and Bishop Turold were both real people, although Turold would not actually be made Bishop of Peterborough until several years after the events of the novel.
  • Human Sacrifice: Buccmaster wishes to perform the 'blood eagle' on Turold, a gruesome viking ritual that involved cutting out a captive's lungs through their ribs. Grimcell angrily asserts that the ritual is just a made-up folk legend, which was likely the case.
  • I Have No Son!: Once, between Buccmaster and his sons. A second time when we discover that Buccmaster's father disowned him as well.
  • Impossibly Cool Clothes: Subverted - the ancient helmet Buccmaster retrieves near the end makes everyone think he has completely lost it.
  • Irony: As much as Buccmaster fantasizes about using his ancestral sword to cut down the Normans, at no point in the book does he actually use it for that purpose. While styling himself as a noble hero on a quest to save the country, he exclusively uses the sword to murder his fellow Anglo-Saxons or for other, even less heroic purposes. He first swings the sword in order to kill a pig that he and the werod want to eat, something that Weland viciously mocks him for. While Buccmaster does kill several Normans over the course of the book, he's only seen doing so with his seax, a more practical tool and weapon than the unwieldy broadsword. Buccmaster's misuse of the sword reaches a nadir when he uses it to slay Grimcell, who's a much more noble and upstanding Anglo-Saxon man than Buccmaster could ever hope to be.
  • Misplaced Retribution: After the green men kill a French lord, Norman soldiers storm his village and execute an innocent old man.
  • The Mourning After: Buccmaster's descent into madness is fuelled by the death of his wife Odelyn, among other things.
  • Never Found the Body: Buccmaster's sons go off to fight in the king's army and never return. He presumes they were killed at Hastings and Weland repeatedly taunts him saying that they're judging him from the afterlife. However, considering they'd had a falling-out with their father and were interested in seeing the world outside Holland, it could be inferred that they simply chose to go off on their own instead of coming home. If we're to assume that Buccmaster is the ancestor of Edward Buckmaster (the similarly-deranged protagonist of Kingsnorth's novel Beast), it's likely that at least one of the boys survived.
  • New Meat: Tofe of Bacstune, a teenager who naively looks up to Buccmaster and wants to avenge his slain father.
  • Nominal Hero: The violent, maniacal Buccmaster is a prime example of this trope. He beats his wife and sons and is perfectly happy to kill anyone he disagrees with. And is he even on the side of good?
  • No Woman's Land: Although he mourns his murdered wife, Buccmaster is an abusive husband.
  • Only Sane Man: Buccmaster naturally assumes that he is the only sane man, in England, in his village, and within the werod, where he declares himself the leader and "ring bearer". In reality, Grimcell is probably the voice of reason. This obviously means Buccmaster hates him and eventually kills him for talking sense.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Sympathizing with Buccmaster is somewhat difficult if you consider events from outside of his point of view.
  • Start of Darkness: Buccmaster's descent into madness seems to have truly began while he was living in the wilderness after his father disowned him.
  • Team Killer: Alf the Gleoman attempts to kill Buccmaster. However, Buccmaster repeatedly attacks Grimcell throughout the story and eventually kills him.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Buccmaster's dubious mental health makes him a touch unreliable as a narrator, especially when he has visions of Wodan judging him in the distance and the Gods riding across the sky to fight in Ragnarok. This gets worse at the end when Buccmaster has a dramatic mental breakdown that amplifies his preexisting delusions and hallucinations.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: There is widespread rebellion against the Norman invaders during the course of the novel. The werod also turns against Buccmaster at the end.
  • Unknown Rival: Hereward's rebel army is never aware of Buccmaster's much smaller group.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Buccmaster frequently distorts events to make himself look good; the novel also features frequent interjections from his alter ego, Weland. This initially makes the Old English language of the novel and its already strange format even more confusing.
  • "Well Done, Dad!" Guy: Buccmaster comes to see Tofe as a surrogate son and seeks his admiration.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Tofe is clearly traumatized by his father's death at the hands of the Normans and starts to view Buccmaster as a replacement. He wises up in the ending after hearing Annis' story about Buccmaster's misdeeds, as well as seeing his growing instability.
  • Where I Was Born and Razed: Buccmaster returned from his exile to burn down his father's homestead, killing both his father and his sister in the process.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Averted. While not entirely accurate, because that would be absolutely unreadable, the language of the novel is far more realistic than most other historical novels, using a very basic form of English with Anglo-Saxon spelling and terminology.


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