Torrential rain and blazing sun marked Saturday and Sunday in Edinburgh, marking one of the strongest weekends I can recall at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. As well as headlining appearances by Jesse Jackson (of which I only caught a few minutes on iPlayer, mainly featuring a weird analogy about sport and politics) and the triumphant bold Limmy, the highlight of the festival so far this year has to be …
Paul Kingsnorth, Mark Rylance and Martin Shaw
This event just shone. A polished performance was given by all three, each taking turns to do their thing. After a reading by Rylance that gave an immediate flavour of the sort-of-Old-English in which Kingsnorth wrote The Wake — interpreting it with an accent that shifted around from Yorkshire to Lincoln via Barbados — Kingsnorth stepped forward to explain that he sees it as “a post-apocalyptic novel set 1,000 years in the past” before joking about the language: “The whole book’s like that, by the way, so be put off at this stage.”
Despite his worries about being upstaged by his companions, Kingsnorth was an assured an entertaining host, and had a way with bathetic one-liners (many, I note as I’m about to publish, funnier than most of the “Top 10 Fringe gags”). He explained that Shaw had uncovered a story from around the time The Wake is set, covering the same geographical area. “There are so many parallels and crossovers with what happens in The Wake, I felt it was something we had to try and entwine.”
The event and his book was about, he said: “Lost gods, lost myths, old ways of seeing and telling, which have gone, back under the fens, back into the woods, back in time because we don’t need m any more.” But, he said, we do need them, despite what we tell ourselves.
“We’re all a mystery, and if an individual is a mystery, how much more of a mystery is a collection of individuals, a tribe or a nation? Nations tell stories about themselves to understand who they are or who they think they are.”
He then outlined what those of us who paid attention in history lessons (well, those of us educated in England, anyway) think of as “a foundation myth of England” in the 5th century: the legions withdrawing back to Rome, warring tribes, Vortigern inviting the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to invade, and the rise of the Anglo-Saxons. One of the most fascinating side-effects of this was that because the Romans never penetrated into the German lands, they had no idea who had built these great old roads, villas and sewage systems they found. It couldn’t be the backward peasants, so they made up myths that before humans arrived the land belonged to giants, neatly tying in to their own religions.
So, for 600 years or so, despite repeated waves of Vikings successfully repelled, came 1066, where the descendants of Viking King Rollo (no, not that one) had set up a dukedom in northern France, becoming known as North Men. Later, Normans. And this is where his story begins.
It’s not hard to see the theatrical hand of Rylance in creating the structure and pacing of the event here, as he then stepped forward again to read of signs and portents of the coming apocalypse, before Kingsnorth returned to ask some pointed questions about the story we are taught about the Norman invasion.
“Why, for 300 years after 1066, did no king of England speak English as his first language.
“Why is the first law of this king taking every acre of land in England into his own hands. Everyone owns land only on sufferance of the king. A situation that still exists. If you own any land or a house in England, technically you don’t, the Queen does. Check the contract.
“Why for a decade was there a guerilla war raging across England. And why don’t they teach you that story in school?”
He asked why, 600 years later, illiterate soldiers of the Parliamentary army during the Civil War were talking about the mythical and metaphorical “Norman Yoke” (a term some questionable characters are still using, incidentally).
He then went on to describe the underground resistance to occupation and the long campaign that eventually led to the brutal “Harrying of the North“, which left starving people having to resort to digging up and eating corpses to survive.
“What was it like to be a man or woman in the middle of this great cataclysm. What is it like if you’re a particular sort of man: a farmer from Lincolnshire, the fenlands, a proud man, who has a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of justice and a lot of rage. Buccmaster of Holland, the narrator. How do you live through this?”
Another reading by Rylance (it’s going to be hard not to hear his voice when reading the book, now), Kingsnorth moved on to describing the fens as they were before they were drained, tamed, and turned into the flat arable land we now know. The fens were the “strangest, wildest place in England … a strange, liminal place, a place between worlds”. Lethal swamps and marshes and rivers surrounded islands of civilisation, a place where only locals know the safe routes. So they were protected from invasion, but also from news of the outside world. This is where the Gleoman came in, an itinerant storyteller who “brings news, tells riddles, and told stories of the old gods”.
Cue storyteller Martin Shaw, an amiable, jocular presence who told the long story he had discovered about how a king who had failed to break the fens, sent out scouts there and brought back what locals called the “wudawasa“. It was a story with echoes of other fables, fairytales and myths (almost Oedipal at one point) and all delivered with help from Rylance, often as a cruel king. Truly spellbinding, and occasionally very rude.
The hero of the story, a young boy, is given great knowledge and sent back up from the underworld to, of all places, Ely, which is where Hereward the Outlaw (later “the Wake” of the title) held off the Normans. Kingsnorth described in detail the siege and the frustration of William’s plans: “I like to take a little pause to imagine how cross he was.” The suggestion is that the boy of Shaw’s story might have been Hereward, a man of whom history knows little, and who has become an Arthurian figure in the area.
But back to Buccmaster, The Wake‘s narrator. “He doesn’t fight for England, doesn’t fight for a king, nor an idea, he fights for the place he’s in because that’s all he’s had.” As a follower of old Teutonic, pre-Christian gods. He is in dialogue with the lost gods, and sees Woden, and the wild hunt, and talks throughout with Wayland the smith.
“What’s he really seeing? I don’t know.”
Rylance then read Buccmaster’s telling of the Wayland myth, which is pretty nasty, as most good myths are. Wayland is wronged and takes revenge but he’s far from a good guy. He’s a god, and gods are seldom good news for humans.
Kingsnorth signed off with a reminder: “All these old stories, all of these old gods these lost things, they’re still there. Under the waters inside all of us. We can call them if we want to. Our mind somehow still needs them.”
Shaw closed proceedings by finishing the story of the prince who emerged from the fens, hiding as a gardener, wooing the third princess and impressing her father through trials and battles but, sadly, the event’s timing went awry and he began to overrun badly, and many people started leaving, making it hard to focus. One highlight I do remember, though, was Rylance, having to play a second king, turning his hat round to indicate a change of character and affecting a silly voice.
However, it was a lesson that it doesn’t matter who you are, or how good you are, you must not overrun your slot in Edinburgh in August. People have tight timetables, and they will leave.
This was also a session that, excellent as it was, did later raise some uncomfortable questions for me, especially in light of an event last night with Marina Warner and Kirsty Logan on fairytales. Namely that as norse myths are often invoked by racists, Europhobes and other unsavoury characters to justify the purity of England, could such a text be used as a totem for paranoid male white opposition to what they see as invasion, control by elites and immigration? The sort of people who patronisingly use “Wake Up!” in political discussions. Especially as it was delivered by three middle-class white English men with no room for discussion afterwards.
However, Kingsnorth himself did leave us with a sign he has considered this possibility: “All Buccmaster has left is his stories, and if you’re not careful with stories they can drive you mad.” So, yes, he gets the benefit of the doubt, I think. If this is ever repeated anywhere near you, please do go.
Oh, and give Paul Kingsnorth a TV history series. Now.
Coming soon: bursts of poetry from both Luke Wright and chums, and Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod, short stories by James Robertson and fairytales from Marina Warner and Kirsty Logan.