[Oh, I can say these words and try to tell what it was like there, but nothing can give to you what was in my heart as I saw all of this coming into place. Some folks who are dumb think the world is only what can be seen and smelled and heard but men who know the world know there is a sheet of light that is between this world and others and that sometimes and in some places this sheet is thin, and can be seen through. On this day in this town, the sheet was thin and shivering in the light wind, and through it I could see that all the world truly was beyond this small place of small men and dark and strong and of great beauty, and fear was what I saw.]
Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake is a dystopian novel set not in the distant future but the distant past: England, circa 1066, before, during, and after the Norman conquest. Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a middling landowner in a small village who sees his sons go off to war against William the Conqueror, never to return, and then whose home is destroyed and wife killed when he refuses to pay the gold the new French authorities require. Like The Road, it is about a moment of utter transformation; the world as Buccmaster knows it has disappeared, replaced with something bleak, foreign, and tragic. Here he pauses to consider the ways that the French will rename the very places that he has lived his entire life:
now in this small holt by bacstune locan at the treows i was thincan that these frenc they wolde gif all these things other names. i was locan at an ac treow and i put my hand on its great stocc and i was thincan the ingengas will haf another name for this treow. it had seemed to me that this treow was anglisc as the ground it is grown from anglisc as we who is grown also from that ground. but if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.
[Now in this small wood by Bacustune, looking at the trees, I was thinking that these French, they would give all these things other names. I was looking at an oak tree and I put my hand on its great trunk and I was thinking the foreigners will have another name for this tree. It had seemed to me that this tree was as English as the ground it is grown from, English as we who are grown also from that ground. But if the French come and take this land and give these trees some French name they will not be the same trees anymore.]
All that is true: the life that Buccmaster has known is gone, his wife and family dead, his home burnt to the ground. But in subtle ways The Wake undermines the very idea that such a drastic obliteration, or historical break, is possible. One is in the very language itself. Kingsnorth writes in a kind of pidgin Old English, avoiding any word whose roots weren't present in English before 1066. Like Riddley Walker, the strange language alienates us from the narrator and emphasizes the distance, backward or forward in time, between us and him. But the very fact that the language is comprehensible--it's not Old English, of course, but a kind of highlighting of the Old English that remains with us in our present language--emphasizes what has remained of Buccmaster's civilization, rather than what has been lost. The irony of Buccmaster's elegy for the very trees of his land is that that good old Anglo-Saxon word treow is still what we use for our trees, not the Norman French.
Buccmaster gathers a small band of the dispossessed and flees to the woods, the holt, to fight the French in petty skirmishes. He fights not for the England that is disappearing, but one that has long since disappeared--the England of the pagan gods which is grandfather worshipped. But England has become Christianized, since long before the Normans arrived. For Buccmaster, the two breaks are the same: the conquest of Christ and the conquest of the Normans. It's for these reasons that he and his ragtag crew kidnap and terrorize a bishop en route through the countryside, rather than, say, raiding a French castle.
But most of the time Buccmaster doesn't do anything at all. He stays in the holt, dreaming of his own great role in the reconquest of England, refusing to take any kind of material action at all while his crew chafes at both his idleness and his love for pagan gods. He receives a number of visions, which in some dystopian novels might mark him as a "Chosen One," but here slowly reveals him to be a delusional megalomaniac. As the novel subverts the tropes of invader and invaded--Empire and Rebel Alliance, if you will--it mocks the provincial inability to deal with change. And it does that while never losing sight of the reality of the tragedy that befell the English in 1066, whose lives really were turned upside down with unprecedented suddenness and severity.